A fairer future for freelance journalists

The findings of new research, commissioned by ALCS and conducted by CREATe, were announced at the AGM of the All Party Writers Group at Westminster.

The research surveyed almost 500 freelance journalists in the UK to learn more about pay, contracts, working conditions and copyright issues.

The findings were presented by ALCS Deputy Chief Executive Richard Combes at the event ‘How do we create a fairer future for freelancers?’ following the All Party Writers Group’s AGM.

He said: “In a year featuring multiple general elections across the globe, the need for professional, reliable and independent journalism has never been greater. Yet this report reveals the unsustainable working conditions faced by many UK freelance journalists. We look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the forward-looking recommendations set out in the report are implemented without delay.”

Freelance journalist Anna Codrea-Rado told Parliamentarians about her experiences. She said: “The ALCS report hammers home a harsh reality: freelance journalism pay cannot sustain a livelihood. It doesn’t for me, nor scores of my freelance colleagues.”

Chair of NUJ Freelance Industrial Council, Angus Batey offered an overview of the problems within the industry. He said: “Low fees are only a part of the challenge we face. Contracts and a lack of rights, diversity and opportunities are all linked. We need help, in whatever form that takes, to get the money that is available and increase the sources of funding we do have access to. We need rates that don’t stay static for decades and we need help enforcing those rights that we’ve managed to hold on to.”

Report findings


The survey found that pay for freelance journalists is unacceptably low. Median income for primary-occupation freelance journalists sits at just £17,500, a figure below the minimum wage, assuming a typical 35-hour work week.

There was also anecdotal evidence that pay is stagnating: “In staff jobs people get pay rises and promotions – or they change jobs and get an increased salary. As freelancers we just get paid the same rate. I think most freelancers are afraid to ask for more in case they aren’t commissioned anymore.”

The ‘Wild West’ of freelance journalism

A surprising number of respondents invoked the metaphor of the ‘Wild West’ to illustrate the profession’s lack of regulatory oversight and systemic approach to remunerating journalists. This means that most journalists are missing out on desperately needed sources of licensing revenue. The survey found that:

  • 40% of journalists took on work without contracts.
  • 47% of journalists allowed their copyright to be assigned to news publishers.
  • 47% of journalists have signed an exclusivity clause, locking them out of benefiting from wider opportunities, often in perpetuity.
  • 93% of journalists have never received a payment from established international licensing agreements between publishers and online platforms.

The report revealed a profession characterised by informal contract practices, where agreements are routinely made orally or over WhatsApp. Copyright allows journalists to be compensated for the exploitation of their work. However, where contracts exist, they typically compel journalists to forfeit these rights and potential associated revenue streams.

While there are some licensing agreements in place between publishers and platforms in the UK for so called news scraping, the survey also found the vast majority (93%) of freelance journalists have never received a payment from this source. This is despite the increasing significance of secondary uses for online content.

Artificial intelligence

The research highlighted widespread concern among freelance journalists that technology companies are using their content to train artificial intelligence systems, without consent or compensation. Given the nature of freelance journalism, they are also concerned that these artificial intelligence systems will have the effect of devaluing, or even outright replacing, their labour.


The research found significant inequalities based on class, ethnicity and disability:

  • Most freelance journalists came from professional family backgrounds (63%), whereas only 19% came from “lower” socio-economic backgrounds. Journalists from lower socio-economic backgrounds were found to earn nearly half that of journalists from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Freelance journalism was found to be an “overwhelmingly white profession”. Black freelance journalists were found to earn seven times less than their white counterparts, although we should be cautious due to the very small sample size.
  • Disabled journalists earned significantly less (£11,500) than their non-disabled colleagues (£17,500).
  • There were however no observed inequalities among women and LGBTQIA+ journalists, in terms of both representation and pay.

Next steps

CREATe recommend the following steps to improve the conditions, rights and livelihoods of freelance journalists:

Compulsory negotiation requirements between digital platforms and rightsowners. Similar ‘bargaining codes’ have already been employed in both Australia and Canada. It is crucial that any such mechanism should apply equally to all rightsowners, including journalists as well as publishers.

Establishment of a freelance commissioner. ALCS is actively campaigning for a dedicated commissioner to facilitate discussions between freelancers and the UK government. Freelancers are too often overlooked by policymakers; the creation of such a role would greatly improve engagement and plug gaps in knowledge.

Changes to copyright legislation. The establishment of clearer rights for the use of journalistic content for emerging secondary use markets (such as news scraping) should be considered, which may, in turn, also bring about more comprehensive collective bargaining and licensing (resulting in more payments).

Reducing barriers to access for marginalised demographic groups. The report demonstrates that the profession risks becoming the exclusive remit of the ‘privileged’, excluding workers from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Active, supportive advocacy may be needed at the early stages in a prospective journalists’ career.

Rights and contracts education. This report confirms that many journalists are uncertain about their rights, particularly in regard to rights assignment and waivers of moral rights, both of which may have important implications for routes to earnings. More effective signposting to existing resources would greatly assist freelance journalists.

You can read the report in full here.

You can learn more about our campaign work here.