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New ways for reporters to cover the gig economy

July 12, 2016

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Independent contractors often get compensated without getting benefits from employers. Thanks to the gig economy, lawmakers are rethinking the social safety net. (Photo via Pixabay)

Technology has made it easier for workers to connect with side jobs and projects in the digital marketplace where employees and customers can request services on demand. The resulting gig economy remains a real, growing piece of the employment picture in America, albeit one still difficult for experts to quantify.

Here are five ways to start covering this emerging form of employment in ever-deeper ways.

Go beyond Uber

Perhaps the most well-known gigs right now are with the ridesharing services Uber or Lyft. These companies have generated much of the hype and media coverage surrounding the gig economy, but ride sharing is only a small part of the story.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released information on the gig economy, citing a number of occupations flush with gig employment. Among these were jobs from the following industries:

  • the arts and design (musicians, graphic designers and fine artists)
  • computer and information technology (Web developers, software developers and computer programmers)
  • communications (technical writers, interpreters, translators and photographers)

You can find gig workers in these other industries almost everywhere, even if you report in a less populated area. Almost every business has a website these days, which means that even web designers working from their homes in small towns are in demand. Artists can make a good living designing pieces specifically for customers across the street or, with the reach technology gives them, across the country.

Research how many people are working gig-to-gig all around you. Find someone with an interesting job in the gig economy then use a profile to better tell the story of the gig economy–its benefits and its struggles–as a whole.

Get some numbers

Unfortunately for journalists, counting gig workers from government data sources remains tricky.  Some sources of data that the bureau points to in its release can help.

Within the BLS data, gig workers could fall under the category of contingent or alternative employment arrangements, or both. But the data the bureau has on these workers is from 2005. Other recent data shows an increase part-time and self-employed workers, though gig workers don’t completely make up those categories.

Thankfully the BLS plans to update this data next year.

In the meantime, other places to look include the Census Bureau’s (much more recent) data on nonemployers.

You can search data between 2002 and 2014 by state or by metropolitan and micropolitan areas. Search for any useful patterns in different industry sectors over the year. You can also get a more detailed look at the data by following the link to nonemployer statistics on the American Fact Finder website.

The Pew Research Center also recently released data on how many Americans use services such as Uber and the influence of the gig economy across the country.

A recent report from the Department of Commerce defining “digital matching firms” — the government’s first-ever definition of companies that use Internet and smartphone apps to connect service providers and customers — cites a number of studies looking at the scale of the gig economy, including a report by JP Morgan Chase & Co. that estimates 10.3 million people participated in the “online platform economy” during a three year study between 2012 and 2015. Researchers found an estimated 47-fold increase in the number of adults that earned income from online platforms.

Follow the politics

The gig economy hasn’t received universal praise. Like many other emerging technologies and fields, the gig economy remains relatively unregulated. Controversy exists around many gig workers acting as contractors versus regular employees.

Earning an income in the gig economy typically means that workers take care of the benefits employers usually provide. Pensions, 401(k) or health insurance plans remain scarce in the gig economy, and these workers might pay the employer’s portion of taxes on their income. On top of that, workers often have to provide their own tools to complete the work.

Elizabeth Warren is one of the best-known senators to call for reform and keep large companies from exploiting gig workers. You can read a nice summary of her recent remarks at TechCrunch, which included advocating expanding benefits programs to encompass workers who aren’t full time and better enforcing labor laws.

Worker classification has been an issue as well. Both Lyft and Uber have faced lawsuits over how they classify their drivers.

Beyond worker benefits and classification, other aspects of the gig economy have come under fire from businesses that compete with gig services. Take, for instance, the anger from city governments and taxi services over the unfair advantage the ridesharing services have when they don’t have to meet commercial vehicle licensing requirements.

Ask workers about these concerns when you’re covering the gig economy. Is the flexible schedule worth not having health insurance? Are they worried about any local or national regulations? How do they feel about the company they work for?

Explore the motivations

Find out how gig work fits into a person’s overall employment picture. Ask gig workers you interview whether the work they do is their full-time, primary but part-time or additional employment. Ask why they prefer gig vs. full time and how long they expect to keep it up. Consider asking your sources the following questions:

  • Does it offer flexible hours?
  • Is it a passion?
  • Is it easy to make a few extra dollars on the side or even a livable wage?
  • Is there a demand for the work in the area you cover?
  • Are they positive or negative on the gig economy as a whole?

Keep up on the innovators

Do you know about Lift Hero? Shipt? What about Handy or Postmates?

Because the Internet makes it easy to connect skilled workers with customers who need them, many new gig services are popping up online.

Make sure you’re keeping up on the newest services in the gig economy and what’s popular in your area. If you need a place to start, the blog over at Hurdlr lists 100 side gigs workers around you may be doing.

The technology involved is an important part of any money story you’re working on, especially when reporting on the gig economy. How does the online service or app work to get workers more customers? How does it make the company money? How does it save money or make life easier for customers?

These are questions your readers will want to read about and better understand when looking at the gig economy.


  • Rian Bosse

    Rian Bosse is a PhD student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012 and worked for a small daily newspaper, the Daily Journal, in his hometown o...

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