Still Waiting For A Slice of the Cake
Young journalists are uniting to protest their precarious working conditions, but long-standing writers are struggling to make ends meet too
They are talented, well educated, fluent in several languages, and highly dedicated. Newspapers, television and radio stations depend on them. And yet, freelance journalists are struggling to make a living from their work, while their prospects of ever gaining full employment in the media seem increasingly illusory.
Now, freelancers are banding together to demand a better deal.
“We had to do something,” says Hanna Silbermayr, who writes for the Austrian daily Der Standard and the website of FM4, a public radio station with cult status among young listeners. The work is regular, but the income nowhere near enough. “It’s incredibly hard to live on €500 a month,” she says. “I can say that because I’ve done it.”
Around half of the journalists working for Austrian print media are freelancers; for television and radio, the figure stands at roughly 17%, and at 40% for online media, according to the Austrian journalists’ union (GPA-djp). And yet, freelancers say they are undervalued. While a 2008 study by the Wiener Medienhaus, a research institute, puts freelancers’ monthly average earnings at €1,590 after tax, the figure is misleading. The statistics excluded salaries below €1,000 assuming they could not possibly be full-time jobs. But often they are, even for established writers like Mark Hammer. Hammer works more than 40 hours a week at the Department for Science, Education and Society at the renowned public radio station Ö1 and still earns no more than about €1,000 a month.
“Everyday I ask myself whether or not I should keep going,” says Hammer. “I love my work, but under these conditions, I don’t see a way out.”
All work, no benefits
And while he values the independence that comes with freelance work, Hammer also wants the same rights that employed people take for granted. Like all freelancers, he has to pay for his own social insurance and gets no paid vacations or sick leaves.
This harsh reality struck home with fellow Ö1 contributor Sabine Nikolay, who has been with the station since the 1990s. Struck by a car on her way to work, she sustained a complicated leg injury and was bedridden for six weeks.
“If I were employed, I would have taken time out for rehab,” she says. Since she isn’t, she went straight back to work. As a mother of two, she needed the money.
The problem is a systemic one. In recent years, the number of journalism graduates has been rising at the same time that media companies have been cutting jobs, often by not replacing employees when they retire.
However critics point out that Austrian newspapers are still profitable, and that the public broadcaster is paying its managers hefty salaries. The director general of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF, has an annual salary of €400,000, according to Der Standard. The freelancers are calling for a re-distribution that reflects their role in keeping media companies going.
Deeply frustrated, freelance journalist Sahel Zarinfard and four friends decided to take action. They launched the online magazine Paroli in March with an open letter to publishers and editors, asking for a voluntary industry review and an open discussion about freelancers’ working conditions. The journalists’ union also came under fire for not representing the interests of freelancers, who pay their union fees just like employed journalists.
“The union can only take action when we know of concrete problems,” said union head Franz Bauer, defending his organisation’s record. The difficulty is that many freelancers are afraid to speak out against their exploitative contracts for fear of never being asked back.
“You get a reputation pretty quickly,” Zarinfard concurs. “You don’t want to be known as the rebellious one.”
However, there is strength in numbers. Within 24 hours of its launch, more than 300 people signed Paroli’s open letter online. When The Vienna Review went to press, there were 661 signatories, among them well-known names such as Anneliese Rohrer, columnist at Die Presse, and Michael Nikbakhsh, economics editor at the investigative weekly Profil.
The freelancers at ORF, which includes Ö1 and FM4, have also united. Their spokesperson, Sonja Bettel, has been negotiating with the management since last August. But progress is slow.
“We aren’t even talking about salaries yet,” she told The Vienna Review. Instead, the negotiations have been held up by nitpicking over contract wordings and freelancers’ varying importance in an unstable business environment. To show their frustration, a delegation of ORF freelancers presented the station’s governing board (Stiftungsrat) with a symbolic gift: a cake tray containing a pile of crumbs. The card read, “What is left for us?”