From Madera to Mill Valley, Eureka to Encinitas, Coalinga to Claremont, local columns are among the most popular features in newspapers that still survive in this era of Craigslist and eBay taking away classified advertising and many display ads moving to Google and Facebook.
But now local columnists following in the large footsteps of the late icons Herb Caen of San Francisco and Leon Emo of Madera are suddenly an endangered species.
Few newspapers, especially weeklies, can afford to pay these writers regular salaries for the valuable work they do in feeling out and revealing the pulse of their own communities, and many of them have other jobs or sources of income.
Now a new state law best known as AB 5, authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego threatens the very existence of this vital species, without whose popular appeal some surviving newspapers might wither away.
Many small papers also employ similarly-situated part-timers – day traders or supermarket cashiers or medical assistants by day, reporters by night – to cover city councils and local boards governing everything from water and sewers to schools and building permits. Without them, these agencies might get little or no coverage and many areas could become de facto news deserts.
Under AB 5, newspapers now must make such almost-volunteer workers into full-time employees if they are paid for more than 35 news articles or columns per year. Never mind if the writers want this or not. Few small newspapers can afford to do it; even many large dailies are cutting off freelancers for fear they might be sued and found liable for huge legal fees and back pay.
All this ties the fate of local columnists and other freelancers who are paid by the piece to truckers and gig workers like the thousands of contract employees at some of the same companies that now get advertising revenue which once funded news coverage. This includes outfits like Google, for one, which pays little or nothing to aggregate huge amounts of news that other people and companies produce at great trouble and expense.
So far, truckers have done the best in getting around AB 5, which was opposed during last year’s legislative process by many of the very gig workers it supposedly will protect, especially those who drive for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.
A federal judge exempted independent truckers – many of whom own their own vehicles and drive as contractors for shipping companies – from the new law, saying AB 5 conflicts with a federal law that forbids states to make laws affecting prices, routes or service of freight haulers. If those companies had to hire their current contract drivers with full benefits, it would certainly affect shipping prices. Freelancer writers have a pending lawsuit of their own.
Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are pushing a proposed November initiative to overturn the law.
These moves have not stopped news outlets from moving to protect themselves from possible lawsuits. The largest such action came from Vox Media, which announced in mid-December it would cut ties with more than 200 California contract writers and editors who covered sports for its blog network SB Nation.
Even a large outfit like Vox, which also owns New York Magazine and blogs like Eater and The Verge, can’t afford to give all its workers full benefits, so it has dumped those in California and won’t say how it will replace the coverage they provided.
If Vox can’t afford to keep writers under AB 5, how can small-town weeklies be expected to?
Gonzalez and other AB 5 sponsors never say they intended to target freelance writers, yet they wrote a very specific article limit into the law.
The solution, if lawmakers want newspapers to survive, including some classic small businesses with one editor-ad salesman-writer who needs help but cannot afford to pay much for it, is to fix AB 5 with a new law exempting freelancers and newspapers whose revenues don’t exceed a specific limit.
Anything short of that ought to provoke a First Amendment lawsuit, for no California law has ever threatened to curb freedom of the press more than this one.