How transparency in freelance earnings empowers journalists
Julie is a copy editor for “The Ringer” and a freelance journalist based in New York. She’s written for publications including BuzzFeed, Vox, Mental Floss, Paste, the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact. Follow her @jmkliegman.
Good journalism costs money. Much of it is done by freelancers.
Free databases on Contently, the newly redesigned Who Pays Writers?, and even Google Docs give journalists a sense of what they can expect for their work based on factors like its length, degree of reporting and deadline. Writer and illustrator Susie Cagle, who published her 2015 income publicly, is surveying freelancers about their pay for a Stanford University project. Writer Nicole Dieker tracks her income publicly on The Write Life, The Billfold and Tumblr, giving her colleagues the opportunity to learn from their strategies. Images & Voices of Hope spoke to Dieker, along with two other freelance veterans, about transparency in freelance earnings.
Over the past several years, freelance journalism has become increasingly transparent, said Who Pays Writers? founder Manjula Martin. Seeing what others are getting paid for their stories can in turn empower journalists to advocate for themselves and try to earn what they deserve.
“I think freelancers are tired of being underpaid and tired of the lack of transparency in publishing and media,” Martin said in an email.
There’s a lot of conflicting wisdom about freelance negotiations, and it can be daunting: Always negotiate. Negotiate with a new outlet only after publishing at least one story with them. Accept $250 as a baseline rate. No matter what approach freelancers choose, they’re always better off with more information about the industry’s going rates.
Martin suggested freelancers gather as much as possible before negotiating with a new publication.
“Do some research and find out how much you think a publication will pay you,” said Martin, who also has an upcoming book on writing and money. “How does the publication make money? How and where do they spend that money? Find out what have they paid for similar pieces. And then ask for more than that.”
Quality journalism isn’t directly correlated to how much writers are getting paid to produce it. At the same time, higher pay can’t hurt. There’s only so long you can spend on an article if you’re only earning $150 on it, said Jamie Lauren Keiles, a freelance writer with bylines in outlets including New York and The New York Times Magazine.
“If I have more money, I can spend more time on something, and time makes writing better,” said Keiles, who tracked her first year of full-time freelancing on Medium. “That said, I don’t think the publications that pay the most necessarily publish the best writing.”
Keiles suggests that freelancers do work for a mix of publications: some that pay well for writing, and others that may offer lower rates, like The Awl, but have reputations for treating their contributors well and devoting a lot of attention to the editing process. Dieker pointed to The Toast, a popular humor website that’s shuttering July 1 after struggling to keep revenue up, as another example of the latter.
That’s not to say accepting high rates and quality editing are mutually exclusive, or that forgoing good pay on a story is a realistic option for every freelancer. Paying more can be one step — but certainly not the only one — toward diversifying a publication’s pool of contributors. Would-be talented writers and photographers and illustrators without savings or a support system might never even be able to afford leaving their day jobs and trying their hand at freelance journalism.
“It’s an extremely closed-off field where I think you have to have a pile of savings to chip away at or someone bankrolling your life to get into it,” Keiles said. “If the industry paid higher, people without those resources could break into it.”
If editors can collectively do a better job of accommodating their freelance contributors, they may just see the payoff in a sustained stream of creative storytelling. Be prepared to hold raise conversations with each freelancer at least once per year, Dieker said. Any payment boost, even if it only covers an increased cost of living, is a good way to acknowledge that freelancers’ have probably leveled up their skills since they first signed on.
Editors can also respond to freelancers’ emails faster, Keiles suggested, and be more clear about when they can expect responses. Not hearing back about pitches makes it difficult for freelancers to schedule their days and manage their workloads.
On the flip side, freelancers should remember that advocating for themselves is important, but so is keeping an open mind about which assignments to pursue and accept, Dieker said. Taking on high-paid work that isn’t ideal can help fund potentially lower-paying projects you’re more passionate about.
“People go into writing thinking they will only write about what they want or that every job will be interesting or that every job will have their byline attached,” Dieker said. “Not every job will be interesting. Some of it will be work.”
Above all, being easy to work with can go a long way toward landing more and higher-paying pitches.
“I see a lot of people trying to do this job and being wildly ungrateful for the opportunities to do that,” Keiles said. “People will complain about deadlines and about not being paid enough. I think the opportunity to pursue a career that’s directly related to your passion is so, so rare today.”