Compensation rules in journalism: unions criticize publishers

The publishers’ association announces industry-wide compensation rules for freelance writers. The reason is a law that allows association lawsuits.

With pen and paper: Freelance journalists often earn extremely little money Photo: dpa

Poor, poorer, author – this whimsical alliteration is often used by freelancers in the media when they outline their working conditions to outsiders. After all, they have little to do with the cliche of lavish expense allowances and beautiful penthouse writing rooms. Self-employed journalists at daily newspapers are hit particularly hard: Here, expenses and earnings are sometimes in a downright antisocial imbalance. This could now tip even further.

Almost ten years ago, author Gabriele Bartels reported with admirable candor in Die Zeit on the consequences of this pricing policy: "Writing makes you poor," she noted, recounting full-page reportages with several days of work for 250 euros and that – when she was in a really bad way – she even had to pump friends so that she could afford the practice fee charged at the time and thus a visit to the doctor.

For many authors who are paid "by the line," January 2010 was a ray of hope: That’s when common industry-wide compensation rules went into effect, effectively a minimum wage for freelance writers. Now, however, the newspaper publishers’ association BDZV has terminated this agreement.

The reason for this is the "Act to Improve the Enforcement of Authors’ and Performers’ Right to Fair Remuneration," which came into force at the beginning of March. In fact, the law poses a major risk for publishers: It introduces a right of action for associations – a gain for authors, i.e. freelance journalists in this case.

Lawsuits against dumping fees

Thanks to the right of associations to take legal action, individual authors no longer have to go to court against sometimes powerful media companies. It is now their associations that can sue against dumping fees. The problem: With the termination, the common remuneration rules are no longer a yardstick for this. The German Journalists’ Association (DJV) speaks of an "affront to the freelancers," while Verdi calls the move "exposing.

The joint compensation rules were quite effective. For example, two freelance journalists won fees totaling just under 23,000 euros in Cologne courts – expressly with reference to the minimum line rates negotiated throughout the industry. The Federal Court of Justice confirmed this just over a year ago. The dispute involved, among other things, line rates paid of 21 cents. Plaintiffs and judges found 56 cents per line reasonable, based on the common compensation rules.

"Panicked publishers"

At the time, the success of the lawsuit also caused jubilation among the unions because of a piquant personal matter: The Generalanzeiger in Bonn, of all places, had to pay extra because its managing director for decades had once led the negotiations on the remuneration rules for the BDZV. The decision will serve as a model, but lawsuits would certainly be more promising if plaintiffs could point to industry-wide negotiated rates.

"The termination just before the deadline seems like a panic attack by newspaper publishers," says DJV chairman Frank uberall. He works as a freelance journalist himself, albeit more for radio. Verdi deputy chairman Frank Werneke even speculates that the newspaper publishers "obviously want to worsen the conditions for their freelancers even further.

The step was "absolutely necessary," according to the BDZV. However, the association is prepared to hold talks with the unions in order to clarify "how joint remuneration rules can look in the future, taking into account the new legal system [. . .]". However, a quick agreement is not to be expected: The negotiations for the now terminated compensation rules had lasted seven years.

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