Iona Craig, a British freelancer based in Yemen, had 14 outstanding payments when she decided to do something about it.
On October 20, she sent out a Tweet promising she would launch an open-source project with the names of publications if the outstanding payments were not settled.
With technical support from Beacon, a new online media start-up launched in September, she set up “Pay Me Please” where anyone could list the name of publication, amount owed and the number of days outstanding.
Feedback poured in, with freelancers around the world submitting missing payments from leading US and British publications to smaller web outlets.
As media outlets are increasingly reliant on freelancers, many are struggling to pay on time: Al Jazeera, the BBC, Foreign Policy, Foxnews.com, Marie Claire magazine.
Some of the payments have been overdue for months, even years. One freelance reporter was owed $10,300 for reporting from Misrata, Libya in 2011.
In just four days of public shaming campaign, more than 58 submissions were posted on the site. At least three publications reacted immediately and settled payments, including Rolling Stone magazine and the Associated Press.
VALERIE spoke to Craig, who is based in Sana, via Skype.
VALERIE: What prompted you to launch the site?
IONA CRAIG: I was owed 14 outstanding payments from the BBC from August. I had gone through all paperwork and there were still 14 outstanding payments. So I was a bit fed up and put it on Twitter saying if they don’t pay me within 10 days I will create an open-source document so that other freelancers can add their payments too. I sent them all an email as well. Probably unsurprisingly, everyone got back to me very rapidly. Not only did they all start processing payments, there were a lot of apologies going on. Except for BBC Wales, which got in touch with me yesterday actually.
Other journalists got in touch saying they’ve got the same problem, not just with the BBC. And I thought it would be a good thing to do anyway because they are so many freelancers that are in similar situations and are very remote sometimes from the people who owe you money.
Then the guys at Beacon, who I was already writing for, offered to help with the technical side. They essentially designed and set up the whole thing.
Generally people were enthusiastic about the idea. Some were slightly worried they might be blacklisted by media companies, so we added the option of not having your name visible publicly.
VALERIE: So you verify information before it’s posted on the site?
IC: Yes, you can’t see it publicly, but there are half a dozen [posts] that have not been verified. And other people who are not journalists, doing PR work. But we are trying to keep it [limited to] freelance journalists. So some of them have not been authorized. We are trying to avoid people dumping false information. There is a also a way for publications to contact Beacon if they want to dispute or settle payment.
VALERIE: How many journalists have been paid?
IC: Three have been paid so far. One the journalists, she sent them a link to the website and then they paid straight away.
VALERIE: What about the concern of being blacklisted?
IC: First of all, you don’t have to put your name if you don’t want to. And secondly, why would you want to keep working for someone who owes you money? It just does not make sense.
It’s also [about] being able to see who the repeat offenders are and who the journalists should be more aware of. At the moment, it is actually the BBC.
VALERIE: There is a real range of publications listed there now.
IC: The larger sums are for documentary and film work, as it takes longer and is more expensive. It’s a complete mix. For example with the BBC, it’s not that they don’t want to pay you or refusing to pay. It’s that the system is such a disaster that it does not work properly.
It’s really difficult for freelancers. People say to go through the small claims court in the U.K. or America, but as you see on that list a lot of the people are living half way around the world from the media outlet that’s employing them. It’s almost impossible to do that.
VALERIE: And also the range of countries listed–
IC: Some of them are working in the most dangerous places in the world, which is really worrying. When those people have to cover their own insurance, they don’t have any back-up support if something goes wrong. These are the people doing stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other places.
And when they are not paid for their work, that’s all coming out of their own pocket.
VALERIE: What is the worst you’ve seen?
IC: Sometimes it can be six months. You’ve seen on that document it some of the payments have gone on [unpaid] for years. It’s the same with any small business. You could do huge amounts of work in one month, but you don’t get the benefits of that for some time. And of course for freelancers it impacts what you can do next and pay for your next idea out of your own pocket. That’s a huge issue as well.
VALERIE: Why are media organization so bad for paying freelancers?
IC: More freelancers [work] for media organizations that are used to paying staff in a more automatic way. It’s not like it’s happened in the last year or year and a half. That’s been going on for the last 10 years. I am not sure there is much of an excuse [for organizations] that they don’t have setup to deal with this.
VALERIE: What is the worst you’ve seen?
IC: Sometimes it can be six months. And you’ve seen on that document it some of the payments have gone on [unpaid] for years. It’s the same with any small business. You could do huge amounts of work in one month, but you don’t get the benefits of that for some time. And of course for freelancers it impacts what you can do next and pay for your next idea out of your own pocket. That’s a huge issue as well.