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Editorial: Write if you get work

Mark Twain. Jack London. Upton Sinclair. J.D. Salinger. Ray Bradbury. Hunter S. Thompson.

They’re some of America’s greatest freelance writers – penning, respectively, such monumental works as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Call of the Wild,” “The Jungle,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Fahrenheit 451” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

They penned their celebrated books while making a living contributing to newspapers and magazines as contract writers.

But if those legendary writers were cranking out copy in California today, they wouldn’t be pulling deadline all nighters hunched over a Smith Corona nursing a watery snifter of bourbon, they’d be fighting a.m. commute traffic and watching sexual harassment training videos required by their parent media company’s HR department.

Or, they’d be out of their writing gigs altogether.

That’s because there’s a new law in town dictating the relationship between freelance writers and newspapers.

And, as some hack freelancer once wrote, this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.

Assembly Bill 5, a state law that took effect Jan. 1, is meant to secure certain employee rights and benefits previously denied “gig workers,” or folks taking on side jobs to supplement their primary income. The legislation, authored by Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, was inspired by the desire to require rideshare services such as Lyft and Uber – whose drivers have been non-benefited contract workers, many of whom taxi the streets as their primary source of income – to treat the people at the heart of their business model as benefited employees, with health insurance, workers compensation and other protections typically reserved for staff. But lawmakers can’t afford certain rights to some and not others and therefore the broad terms of AB 5 extend beyond chauffeuring tipsy nightclubbers to all types of freelance workers throughout the state.

And that includes freelance writers.

Like many newspapers and magazines in California, the Sonoma Index-Tribune relies on the contributions of several talented freelance writers to help fill in the gaps in staff expertise of such niche beats as music, food, theater, film and occasionally bolstering our news and feature reporting as well.

At local papers like the I-T, freelancers are typically community members who have or have had careers in other fields, but enjoy receiving a byline and a bit of supplemental income. Now the bylines and spare cash will be fewer and farther between.

Under AB 5, freelance writers are limited to 35 bylines per year; if they contribute more than that, the new law requires them to be hired as full employees. Given that many freelance reporters and columnists contribute to newspapers on a weekly basis, the result is that countless writers will either have to be taken on as full employees, or have their contributions limited by as much as one third of their yearly output, if not more.

Few small newspapers these days have the means to take on additional editorial staff beyond current levels – and even fewer can afford staffing specialists who focus on specific niche columns, or sports, lifestyles and entertainment métier, which typically account for the largest number of a publication’s freelancers. Most media companies intent on complying with the law will limit their individual freelance contributions to 35 per person.

National publications may go even further. Vox Media last month announced that its well-read SB Nation sports blog would cease using California writers and editors, full stop.

As a limit to freedom of the press in the United States, AB 5 is if nothing if not unprecedented.

One thing is clear: Every newspaper worth a read in California will be affected in some way by AB 5, the Index-Tribune among them.

For instance, going forward, we at the I-T will likely stagger the bylines of our most frequent freelance contributors each month to ensure their limit to 35 per year.

While a drawback in the contributions of our most read and longtime writers and reporters is regrettable, the Index-Tribune won’t downsize its coverage of community news and events by any means – we’ve got a dedicated staff and a willing stable of freelance writers committed to ensuring the I-T remain the vital community force it’s been for the past century and a half.

To that end, we’ll be looking to fill in the gaps in coverage with a few new voices - locals who’ve been published professionally before and would like to pitch us a few intriguing story ideas.

While we’ve always sought quality freelance contributors from the community, we’re in more of an action mode this year and are ready to try out new talent – email Managing Editor Lorna Sheridan at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

AB 5 is currently the focus of a lawsuit filed by the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association. Those groups say the law would unconstitutionally affect free speech and the media. A judge is expected to consider the suit in March, and who knows what may come of that – will it be delayed, tossed out, upheld?

This is one editorial I’d love to be rendered meaningless in the weeks ahead. But for now AB 5 is the law of the land.

Meanwhile, community newspapers like the I-T will continue reporting the local news to the best of our abilities – granted, with some of our best writing hands tied behind our back.

With that in mind, we’ll leave you with Hunter S. Thompson’s memorable pledge from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”:

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing,’ I will be a writer.”

Here’s to keeping the “dark thumb of fate” at bay for another day, another edition.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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