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Opinion: A Journalist Stands Up for Unpaid Freelancers

#EbonyOwes: A young writer’s perspective

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When I wrote my thoughts on the viral hashtag #EbonyOwes in June, my op-ed in NBC BLK was able to finally get a public response from Ebony. After several weeks of black photographers, editors, and staffers trying to get the publication to properly pay them for their labor, Ebony Media released a statement to NBC BLK saying that they “regretted the inconvenience” and “should have this issue resolved in the next 30 days.”



Even after that announcement, the matter still has yet to be fully resolved.

Although I’ve never contributed to Ebony, many of my fellow black freelancers have gotten their first pitches accepted by the publication. In an industry where black writers have to intensively compete for national exposure, black spaces like Ebony made it easier for them to break into the business. But with great opportunity came exploitation, as some of them continued to write for them continously without getting compensated along the way. I was shocked when one of my friends finally told me after I wrote my NBC BLK op-ed that he, too, had been awaiting thousands of dollars of back pay owed to him from Ebony. I was initially confused as to why he never confronted them publically after recognizing a breach of contract. His answer: They were a black business that gave him his first shot. He wanted to believe them.

As the cloud of litigation hovers over Ebony, the feeling is still bittersweet. It’s great that black freelancers may finally be able to get their due compensation after some have claimed they haven’t seen a check in over a year. Yet, it is also a shame that one of our own staples of black media did its people so dirty – it’s moments like this that make you sternly shake your head like your grandma does when she watches Trump. It’s baffling that for all of the issues black journalists already face in this industry, being paid for the work we do get is now an addition to the list.

Ernest Owens, NABJ’s Emerging Journalist of the Year

I haven’t picked up a copy of Ebony since the hashtag was went viral; and I grew even more disgusted by the fact that they hosted exclusive social parties and galas while some of their writers went without in the meantime. Some in the industry criticized my stance because they claimed it didn’t involve me directly and that I would be making “unnecessary enemies” by criticizing Ebony Media. But what these skeptics didn’t understand is that anytime a black freelancer feels as though they’re being exploited, the fallout impacts us all. At 25 years old, I know what it’s like to have to hunt publications down for my fair pay. If I didn’t connect with others in the field, I would have never known how to defend myself, join a union, and get paid. There’s strength in numbers and black freelancers must have each other’s backs even if the matter isn’t directly affecting you.

That is why I felt vindicated when the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) awarded Ebony with its infamous “Thumbs Down Award” alongside the disgraceful Fox News. NABJ calling out the publication’s embarrassing attempts to intimidate and block freelancers who asked for their payment via social media (along with other tone-deaf approaches) sent a message loud and clear that the industry is watching and isn’t here for their shenanigans.

All of this, coupled with the powers of social media, has sparked a renewed sense of power in black writers that I haven’t seen in years. I can’t personally recall another time in my career where I’ve witnessed so many of us unite across digital platforms to defend an issue that directly impacted us. We have taken on political election cycles and social justice causes, but nothing so immediate compared to the power of #EbonyOwes. Let’s keep the conversations going and have each other’s backs until all get the fair pay we deserve.

Originally from Chicago, Ernest Owens is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor for Philadelphia Magazine’s G Philly. The National Association of Black Journalists has named Owens its 2017 Emerging Journalist of the Year. Chat with him on Twitter @MrErnestOwens.



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Opinion: A Journalist Stands Up for Unpaid Freelancers