California’s largest news industry trade organization has made another change to reflect changing conditions in the news business, as well as in the state and national economy. For the first time, the group will admit freelance journalists, as well as other content creators not affiliated with any single news organization, as members.
Four years ago, the members of the California Newspaper Publishers Association voted to change the name of the organization, founded in 1888, to the California News Publishers Association. It was a seemingly small, semantic change, but one with outsized significance. It meant that the news industry trade group officially acknowledged that the traditional newspaper was no longer the only—or perhaps even the primary—medium through which news was delivered to the public. And that’s a development that has brought about seismic changes in the news business.
By 2018, daily newspaper circulation had sunk to its lowest level since 1940, according to Pew Research data. At the same time, online visits to the websites operated by the United States’ top 50 news organizations rose steadily, from a monthly average of 8.2 million for each site in 2008 to almost 13.9 million in 2020.
The industry-wide transformation coincided with, and at least partly caused, a catastrophic drop in newsroom employment, which plunged by 26 percent since 2008. As a result, the industry has relied increasingly on non-employees—better known as freelancers—to generate news and other forms of “content” for their online and “analog” publications.
The new CNPA policy is both a response to the drastically altered employment picture, and a pragmatic consideration for member news organizations.
“There are plenty of publishers who are not able to find enough quality content to go with the fabulous advertising and other messages that they are publishing, whether it’s print or digital,” CNPA Director of Affiliate Relations Joe Wirt told California Local. “What we are offering is a suite of benefits worth the price that we’re asking in order for them to be reviewed and bona fide by the Publishers Association and included in a registry or in-house rolodex of freelance journalists.”
That price is $100 per year.
Wirt also noted that the new freelance membership is open not only to freelance news reporters, but also to “visual journalists, digital developers and designers, business writers—not just basic news.”
The freelance membership initiative is also “political, to a degree,” Wirt said, coming two years after the passage of AB5, the California legislation designed to prevent employers from improperly classifying workers as “independent contractors”—in other words, freelancers—in cases where they should be treated as full-time or part-time employees, with all of the benefits and protections offered to employed workers.
The law sounded well-intentioned, but freelancers across a variety of industries objected, saying that it limited their opportunities to market their work and services to companies. But the law hit freelance writers, and the publishers who hire them, especially hard by imposing a limit of 35 articles per year for any freelancer writing for a single publication.
“The bill temporarily put the fear into both publishers and freelancers, until we got a stay on the restriction,” Wirt said. “At the same time, we saw that there just aren’t enough full-time jobs to create the content that’s needed to fill out a bona fide, upstanding publication.”
Freelancers who apply and are accepted for CNPA membership will also receive “the value of publishers sticking up for them at the capitol, and might want to pay a little bit toward the effort,” Wirt added.
Freelancers in the news industry who want to join the CNPA can see a full list of the organization's membership benefits, and fill out an application to join, at this link.