In their zeal to outlaw the gig economy, supporters of the legislation known as Assembly Bill 5 will do serious damage to journalism in California. It could cripple low-budget news operations, and reduce the diversity of content even at well-funded dailies.
AB5, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has vowed to sign into law, will transform many independent contractors into employees. The workers most people are talking about are drivers for Uber, Lyft, and the like. The bill's language seems certain to turn such drivers into employees, although Uber says its primary business is not driving, but market-making. Since Uber's legacy of semantic bullshit is a big reason why AB5 passed, I won't shed tears for Travis Kalanick's stock portfolio. But I do feel sorry for the many drivers about to lose their jobs.
Uber relies on contractors to avoid paying even full-time workers Social Security, unemployment, and other benefits. Lawmakers are right to oppose that business model. Newspapers — including this one — also rely on contractors. But the East Bay Express does not rely upon freelancers to deny benefits to people who do the bulk of their work for us. Papers that do so are a legitimate target for legislative action.
Freelance journalists enable publishers to maintain a diversity of voices. Some of our freelancers write primarily about Richmond. Others cover visual art. Others focus on hip-hop, movies, homelessness, or police abuse. AB5 threatens this diversity. Similarly, a small-town weekly might employ a single person to cover cops, courts, and city hall, but rely upon freelancers to write features, preview events, review restaurants, profile residents, attend school board meetings, cover high school sports, and write columns about society, religion, pets, or whatever.
If the Express devoted its too-small news budget to a single employee, then we might cover politics, cops, and Oakland, but not housing, education, immigration, cannabis, or the environment — to say nothing of Berkeley, Alameda, Richmond, or San Leandro. Similarly, if we devoted our entire culture budget to a single employee, then all our arts and music coverage would be filtered through the tastes of just one person. That would not be good for readers.
Instead, we rely upon a stable of contributors, and our coverage is more diverse as a result. Many typically write no more for us than a single 125-word item per week. But because AB5 does not allow freelancers to write for the same publication on a weekly basis, it will force us to reduce the number of voices in our paper. Hiring people as employees to write one 125-word event preview per week would cost-prohibitive — and ridiculous.
None of our freelance contributors will go hungry from not being able to write for this newspaper on a weekly basis after Jan. 1. But when every California publisher is forced to cut back the number of articles that they assign freelance writers, some journalists will find the loss of revenue substantial, and will have to look for work in other areas. That will lead to even less local news coverage and more communities becoming news deserts.
The economics of journalism are challenging enough, and anything that adds to those challenges will lead to readership losses, cutbacks, and even closures. By endangering reporting, California Democrats have inadvertantly advanced the Trump agenda.
Newsgathering will be the collateral damage of AB5.
Stephen Buel is editor of the East Bay Express.