Shane Burley: “Freelancers are low-wage workers with almost no stability and no support”

An Agency Series: Interviews with Radical Journalists

For the latest in our series of interviews with radical journalists we were excited to chat with Shane Burley, a Portland-based journalist who writes regularly about fascism and antifascism, and a wide range of other topics. Shane has also written an excellent book about fascism: Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press). 

This is the third interview in our series talking with radical journalists. We have also interviewed Natasha Lennard and Dan Arel, with more to come over the next few months. 

Agency: How would you describe the focus of your journalism? What do you find yourself writing about the most, and what do you most enjoy writing about?

Shane: I think the focus of my journalism is on a few really key buckets. I write about social movements very heavily, so I focus a lot on speaking with organizers, talking about how the movements work, and what their underlying issues are. That means a heavy focus on labor, especially on “unconventional” labor struggles like the IWW or shops that can’t have CBA’s or that have unique organizing models. 

Obviously I write a lot about fascism and antifascism (more fascism than antifascism), and I enjoy writing about that for a number of reasons. I have spent a lot of time on research and so it flows a little easier as I am pretty well acquainted with the key figures and issues. Lately I have started writing about the arts, music and comics though, and have really enjoyed that and I think I will do more of that. I probably enjoy writing longer essays the most, which is tough since there is much less of a market for that kind of writing, so when I get the opportunity I really relish it.

Agency: Can you tell us about how you started out in journalism?

Shane: I actually had a pretty conventional beginning to my career in journalism. When I was 17 I started writing for a local paper where I grew up. They needed someone to cover things like school graduation and whatnot. And I later went to journalism school and wrote for a student magazine. After journalism school I started working as a tech blogger, which, for most people, is ultra-low pay. I used to basically stay up all night writing 300 word articles at $10 a pop and just do them by the hundreds. I did that for five years, well into grad school, and I credit that for why I can write fairly fast.  

It was after I was leaving graduate school, and when I was teaching documentary and journalism students, that I really started doing social movement reporting. I was out trying to get jobs working in film and just started writing about stories that I thought were really interesting and had no one covering them. Only a few places were interested in my writing at that time and that experience was invaluable. I still write for almost all of those places because I like their workflow so much and the people are great.

Agency: Do you find yourself being approached by other journalists who want to better understand antifascism?

Shane: Constantly. I do interviews about this 1-2 a week on average, sometimes upwards of 10-15 a week. I am usually always happy to do this and journalists are very grateful. I am happy to dispel any misconceptions and I think being willing to talk about it has helped give clarity to the issue. Plus I’m happy when anyone will listen to me blabber on about [anti-]fascism.

Agency: You have attended antifascist protests to cover them as a journalist, but you are also known by the far right as a leftist writer. In this context, do you feel more at risk attending protests as a journalist compared to just being another protestor?

Shane: Yes and no. I have a very earnest personality and in my experience that can sometimes be disarming. And so, in person, I rarely have that much of a problem because I’m very open and honest about who I am. That doesn’t mean it never happens. I’ve been confronted by far-right people a number of times, but I would be lying if I said it was constant. What is more constant, however, is threats virtually. I’ve faced a ton of those; anti-Semitic and homophobic threats. Photos of my home have been put up on white nationalist forums, my information sent out on fascist lists, that kind of thing. That is much more threatening because it could lead to spontaneous targeting that I can’t predict. This is why I am taking more security and privacy measures, something I shouldn’t have to do, but that is the lay of the land. 

Agency: Portland, Oregon seems to get a lot of attention for antifascist activity – from street protests, to resistance to antifascist symbol bans at soccer games, and also unfortunately a number of fascist attacks on people. What do you think makes Portland a sight of so much conflict on these issues?

Shane: Part of it is that Portland is very, very heavy with fascist organizational history. I grew up here  and in the 1980s-90s there were neo-Nazi gang controlled areas and they were discussed in much the same way the media talks about gangs in other cities. While Portland is a nominally liberal city, it is also a very white area and has had a lot of backlash against the left. So militias, white nationalist groups, and other far-right organizations have always flourished in this area. This has grown even more so as the rural economies collapsed and the patriot organizations began mass recruitment.

So, Portland has always had a tradition of militant antifascism that was there as a response to the very real threat of Nazi violence. The organizations that exist in the city and the state today are the direct inheritors of the anti-racist skinhead culture of the 1980’s and 90’s. And their experiences of being terrorized by Nazis informs people’s reactions today. I think that if Portland was not such a center of these different generations of fascist organizations, from the Hammerskins to the III%ers to Identity Evropa and the Proud Boys, then antifascist traditions may have been lost because they would not have been seen as essential. 

The activist culture also has an influence on music and arts and lifestyle elements of the area and since that is such a big part of the area’s history it has also become a really big part of the way that people socialize as well (i.e. antifascist music shows, bars, etc.). 

Antifascism is sort of the result of being forced to “call the question.” How do you feel about these fascist ideas, people, movements? If they are not in your face, and not trying to, for example, enter your soccer stadium, then why give it much attention? But the far-right has had their hearts set on Portland, and the Northwest in general, so people have been forced, by circumstances, to pick a side and take a stand.

Agency: If you could lay down three rules that publications had to follow when working with freelance journalists, what would they be?

Oh that is really tough, there is a lot. I’ll try to narrow it.

The first is treating them with respect. This sounds like a vague labor demand, but it is really tangible. Not responding to pitches, making demands of writers that are unreasonable, acting insulting to writers with less of a portfolio, and dropping stories that are being worked on for spurious reasons. Freelancers are low-wage workers with almost no stability and no support and if a publication wants to be respectful they need to refuse to contribute to that culture of instability by providing clear answers, instructions, and fair accommodations. What they really need to do is sign the agreements offered by the National Writers Union (UAW 1981), which are certain parameters (like pay) that they will agree to for freelancers. I am a member of the Freelancer Solidarity Project with NWU and this is a really large problem for freelancers, who are really taken advantage of. I am also a proud member of the IWW Freelancer Journalism Union, and I encourage all freelancers to join both of these projects so we can get started in improving our workplaces.

Second, I would encourage editors to ensure that they have a good sense of the subjects their reporters are writing on and to trust their journalists. I work with a lot of journalists who also cover the far-right, or labor and social movements, and they often have a really deep knowledge of the issues at play and often report difficulties getting on the same page with editors. Reporters who cover particular issues can be the most informed people in a publication on those issues, so I would like to see judgement deferred to them more.

Third, I think editors need to commit to standing by their reporters. I should say that in my experience they usually do, but it can never be said enough. Reporters receive targeted harassment, including a lot of viable death threats, and a lot of smearing in far-right media. If an editor works with you they should be willing to put up in your defense, to stand by your work against these attacks, and not let disingenuous peer pressure influence professional decisions. The amount of award winning journalists who have had worked pulled or have lost jobs because right-wing personalities have slandered them is embarrassing, and editors should be a wall against that. Any time I have been an editor on something I have to remind myself that I will need to take responsibility for everything I publish, and so I always try to make sure I am prepared to defend the work if the time comes (including work I disagree with, but think is fair). 

Agency: Have you got any hot tips for radical leftists or anarchists that want to work as a journalist without needing to hide their politics?

Shane: I think it is important to find ways to communicate that are not immediately alienating because of your political background. I write for a number of different places, and when it is welcome to editorialize, I do, and when its not, I don’t. But I am always honest and open about who I am. I just try to maintain the standards of the publication, which means I write the way that they have hired me to write, but I never write anything I disagree with or lie about how I actually feel about something. I think they can expect me to be professional to work with no matter what my background is, and I try to prove that with the work. I think being dependable, turning in quality work, and being flexible is what matters to editors rather than your personal politics, and there are enough publications out there that you do not have to rely on places where you have to hide who you are.

I also think that it is useful to use that credibility to speak up as well and to provide journalism that lends itself to those issues and social movements. Luckily, there is enough New Media that you can string together a career on work that will not penalize you for being a person committed to a better world. I think it is good to create a range of content types, including writing opinion pieces, so that a more radical voice is also present and that those types of politics can be normalized as a valid expression. This also means being willing to explain yourself, to be available to people to talk about your political commitments, and that way people can put a face to ideas.

More than anything I would network with other radical journalists, and there are a lot of them, for support, encouragement, and resources. I would also say that, like any workplace, you need to organize. Which is why I would recommend getting involved with the IWW Freelance Journalists Union and the Freelancer Solidarity Project from the National Writers Union. If you end up with a regular position as an employee in a non-union shop, then reach out to the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) – East or the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to see how you can form a union in your workplace.

I also recommend freelancers join Study Hall, which is more like a private company, but has been a great resource for freelancers and has been helpful to organizing as well. It is a subscription Patreon that gets you into a bunch of message boards, job boards, places to share pitches and sources, and, most importantly, editorial contacts, information about who pays what (or who doesn’t pay), and everything you need to know. The world of freelancing is really tough, particularly early on, because you don’t have all the professional contacts and insider information, and Study Hall has been really helpful. I can also solicit help from other freelancers and plug my work with them.

Shane Burley is an author and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has been featured in places like the Independent, the Baffler, In These Times, Truthout, Waging Nonviolence, Jacobin, Alternet, Protean Magazine, and Commune.

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