‘It definitely limits our options’: Under AB 5, publishers and freelancers see costs rise

Assembly Bill 5 has been in effect only for a few weeks in California, but any hopes that media managers had that they could sidestep its effects have already been dashed.

Publishers spent months bracing themselves for when the new law would go into effect; it caps the number of articles that contract workers can produce each year at 35, and several publishers and writers alike have not managed to avoid incurring additional costs. While Vox Media still hasn’t filled all of the 20 new staff jobs it created at SB Nation after cutting ties with “hundreds” of freelance writers and editors last month in response to the law’s enactment, a source at Vox Media said the 20 hires will represent a “net investment.”

An executive at another publisher that operates multiple sites in California said the new law’s arrival had raised its costs by forcing managers to reconfigure the editorial team to be a mix of part-time employees as well as freelancers based out of state. The exact amount of the increase is unknown at this point since editors were given the discretion to decide whether to replenish their team by hiring full- or part-time staffers, recruiting freelancers from outside California or finding other ways to fill the gap.

“Most of them weren’t replaced by other workers,” the executive said about the Californian freelancers who were let go. “It’s been more about putting more work into hourly employees.”

For their part, writers at some of these publications told Digiday that they now must spend more time soliciting editors from a greater number of publications in order to publish the same number of stories as before — right at a moment when their once-reliable sources of revenue have disappeared. Scott Meslow, a freelance entertainment reporter who is working on a book, had an offer to write a weekly column withdrawn; the offering party, which Meslow declined to name, concluded it could not offer the assignment without running afoul of the regulations.

“It’s going to be more of a pain,” Meslow said. “I have to write for eight publications instead of four.”

In some cases, freelance writers have essentially been forced to create limited liability corporations or small business corporations in an expensive and time-consuming process that can complicate their tax situation.

To participate in Forbes’ contributor program, for example, writers must publish a minimum of five articles a month, meaning that a California-based contributor would hit the state’s limit of 35 articles a year before the end of the summertime. The statute’s toll is even more onerous on contributors paid to write seven articles a month, said Kristen Lopez, a Forbes contributor who also writes for sites like Fansided. Earlier this month, Lopez launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her pay for the costs of creating an LLC.

“It limits our options,” said Warren St. John, CEO of Patch. “A lot of hyperlocal news, at the town level, involves quick, breaking posts,” added St. John, whose company employs 10 full-time reporters in California across several markets.

While none of the publishers contacted for this story have said they are cutting back on coverage of California-specific issues, AB 5 has created a few job listings that have raised some eyebrows. For example, job seekers dragged The New York Times on Twitter after discovering that the news publisher was looking for a freelancer to write a column about California real estate listings but not considering residents of California.

Asked for additional details about that listing, a Times spokesperson said the law will not limit the news publisher’s coverage of California, where it currently employs 35 staff reporters, and noted that writing the column would be a limited role.

AB 5 has come in for criticism from a variety of quarters, including from U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader. The new law has also led to some attribution in the ranks of writers. Tom Ziller, one of SB Nation’s longest-tenured writers, decided to strike out on his own following the passage of AB 5, while the writers associated with a separate SB Nation property, Golden State of Mind, decided to launch their own site.

The frustrations are acutely felt by managers and freelancers alike because in many cases the law is affecting relationships that been built up over many years. “We want those people to stay engaged,” the Vox Media source said.

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