Articles - 5th March 2019

Dried up: What really happened at The Pool

Words by Marisa Bate
Illustration by Ailsa Johnson

The irony is not lost on me. One of the last pieces I wrote for The Pool, a Webby-winning website where I had been hired as the first member of staff in 2014 before becoming a regular freelance contributor, was a piece about the precarity of freelance life.

I had wanted to tell some home truths about my experience of being a freelancer, writing for The Pool as well as papers and magazines because routinely it felt so at odds with what was being touted online. So, I admitted, for example, that it’s not all flat whites in cafés with exposed brick. I was honest about the #hustle – that it could be hard and lonely. I explained that getting paid felt like climbing Everest. I tried to lay to rest the myth of the Instagram GIRL BOSS who tells you all you need is a dream and a good filter. You don’t. You need so much more. And you need to be ready for anything.

Months later, I still haven’t been paid for that piece of work. Or in fact £9,000 worth of work. On the 31st January 2019, the Pool went into administration. The remaining 24 staff haven’t received their last pay cheque and the company owes freelancers just shy of £85,000. I hadn’t heeded my own advice because I certainly wasn’t ready for this.

Considering I am someone who sells words for a living (just about), I still haven’t found ones that articulately surmise the feeling that there should be an extra £9,000 in my bank account and what my life would be like currently if there was. I can only describe the consequences: I have been thrown to the bottom of my overdraft, I have had to give up my co-working space. I have exhausted savings. I have borrowed money. I have taken on jobs I don’t want to in time frames I can’t manage.

Even in my “tell-all” article, I hadn’t considered that one day, someone could not pay the money they owe you, and as a freelancer, there is virtually nothing you can do about it. If a company has gone bankrupt, freelancers or “unsecured creditors” as we are known, are at the bottom of the list when it comes to divvying up liquidated assets. Loans, HMRC, and banks are paid off, as are staff who are entitled to money from a National Insurance pot. If you are a freelancer, you have no safety net.

Now, nearly a month later, going about my day, I will feel unremarkable. And then, like a dream breaking, I’ll suddenly remember what happened with phantom pains of being kicked in the teeth. Industry events are tricky; sympathetic awkward smiles nervously offer to take me for coffee. My friends keep telling me to have a break or book a weekend away. I would love to, I say – if I had the money. This isn’t a sob story, but once again, I’m trying to be honest about freelance life.

So what did happen, exactly? A disastrous mix of mismanagement, a failed business model and a digital media landscape which still hasn’t really figured out how to monetise content. Unless of course, you are Google or Facebook who currently receive 61% of media advertising in the UK, according to Sky News research. On top of that, Facebook plays master puppeteer with its algorithms and there’s a whole new generation of consumers who have never paid for a single piece of content in their lives. Even if they have, it’s Netflix or Spotify, which for less than £10, gives them more content than they can possibly know what to do with. If subscription models are the future, journalism is competing with TV and music like never before.

But I want to break this down a bit further. Let’s start with the mismanagement. The director of the Pool at the time of closing, Dominic Hill, bought a company up to its eyeballs in debt from the founders and continued to practise a business model that clearly hadn’t worked, as proved by the company’s level of debt. Yet, still, under new management, with former CEO and editor-in-chief, Sam Baker, in the office two days a week, The Pool ploughed on, commissioning pieces of content daily.

A new commercial team was built to drum up business. I was involved, as a freelancer, in innovative partnerships with brands such as Natwest and DFS (again, work I’ve lost money on). But despite this and a loyal readership, it clearly wasn’t enough. When we began all those years ago, we felt like we were building something exciting and new and important. And maybe we were. But that #girlboss dream is not enough. If you can’t pay your suppliers, you are not a functioning business.

These issues, of course, sit on top of choppy waters. We knew print magazines were suffering (The ABCs of women’s magazines came out recently and some are down by as much as 24% year-on-year), but in recent weeks we’ve seen big layoffs from Buzzfeed, Vice and Huffington Post, both in the UK and in the US. Either on or offline, editorial content is increasingly a shop window, designed to entice in consumers and brands to spend money in other ways; subscriptions, live events, e-commerce. Now advertising has pulled the rug, and people don’t want to pay for what they read, particularly online, money has to be made somewhere.

So where does this leave the freelancer? In an ever precarious position, of course. If staff jobs are being slashed then will publishers rely more on freelancers, who remain so unprotected? In January, freelance journalist Anna Codrea-Rado launched a campaign called #fairpayforfreelancers. She’s calling for three things:

  1. The Late Payment Act of 1998, a £40 fee, plus interest, to be enforced (right now it is routinely ignored)
  2. That half of the writer’s fee is paid upfront and the rest when the piece is signed off (typically, you have to wait for the piece to be published and that can leave you with a very real cash flow problem)
  3. An update of antiquated payment processes. To date, I have been asked to provide a copy of my passport, redacted bank statements and fill in a tax questionnaire in order to get paid. And no, I don’t have a scanner.

I’m fully behind Anna because on top of her reasonable demands, she is bringing us together. Yes, we need legislation like the Late Payment Act, but we can see that doesn’t work unless there is a widespread, united cultural pressure to take those Acts, and those freelancers, seriously. And in order to achieve that, what we truly need is a massive shift in the balance of power.

Because, as it stands, part of the reason freelancers are so vulnerable is that the power balance is so unequal. We will accept a late payment, often months after we’ve done the work because firstly, we need the work and secondly, we need to access potential future work (the Pool were routinely late payers. So normalised was it that it masked the fact something much more serious was taking place). We need relationships with the commissioning editors. And we will not do anything to jeopardize those relationships because it is essential to both our financial security and also our careers.

We want the money but we also really want the byline and so we’re not going to kick up a fuss or make a scene. And editors know this. There is an ingrained unspoken message in the media that you are lucky to be in the room. That message is amplified further as a freelancer; you are lucky to be commissioned by us. Payment, it often feels, is a bonus, not a transaction. Over a year ago, I did a large project for a global magazine. Once I mentioned invoicing, to this day, I have never heard from that commissioning editor again. I had to track down the accounts department. Good job I’m a journalist.

There’s a current ecosystem that profits off the precarity of freelance life; we are quick and always available, and our remit is ever widening (two most recent jobs have involved taking on the work of a picture editor for no extra money). We come without the cost of benefits. We overdeliver because we know we’re only as good as our last piece and we might not get commissioned again. And we tolerate wildly unprofessional and disrespectful behaviour because we know we have no choice. I didn’t realise just how precarious a position I was in until The Pool folded, but I knew, to some extent, I was out on my own. We need those relationships so we won’t rock the boat. This makes us affordable, fast, and more often than not, hassle-free labour.

But as the market increasingly becomes made up of different working styles, including freelancers, that has to change. Self-employment now accounts for 15% of the population and all we want is something that is fair. At the very least, we need a basic level of professionalism, respect and the ancient practice of equal exchange of goods for cash. But we have a responsibility to be informed, too: we need to educate ourselves on our (few) rights, we need to campaign, we need to consider unionizing. There’s a wonderfully supportive community out there but we need to harness the power of the numbers. If freelancers chose to strike, what would newspapers and websites and social media feeds look like? We are more powerful than we realise.  

Losing that much money has been a very tough experience but in order for it not to be a complete nightmare, lessons must be learned. Diversify your income; you never know what is around the corner. Don’t be afraid to chase payments. If you get repeatedly ignored, why not ask them on a social media platform as the last resort? You are not lucky; you are talented, with a good idea, great writing or whatever skill it may be. Watch your money like a Colombian cocaine baron because you have to be a creative and business person in equal measure. Be agile, keep learning new skills, meet everyone you can, always take the coffee. And mostly, take it from me: the unthinkable really does happen, so be ready for anything.

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