How freelance journalists can (mostly) avoid working for free
Imagine punching in and out for time spent on researching, interviews, and writing. Now imagine making nothing or next to nothing for that time. Welcome to the minefield of freelance journalism in the age of the Internet.
Most journalism outlets use some combination of salaried, contract, freelance, intern, and sometimes what is called a “citizen journalist”, “user-generated content” or some other term that means unpaid work.
“Like many modern media outlets, we're not completely exploiting everyone, but we are exploiting someone,” wrote Cord Jefferson in 2013 for Gawker of that publication’s practices.
At Forbes, some contributors are not paid, while others get a flat monthly fee and bonuses for good traffic. One of those contributors, Susannah Breslin, opines that her flat-fee-incentive-based work for Forbes is normal.
“These days, it’s not enough to be a good writer online,” notes Breslin in a Forbes post. “You have to be a smart marketer, your own content factory, your own publicist. If you can do it all, you are golden. If you cannot, you are screwed.”
The complexity of the market means that the writer must decide, repeatedly, how much their work is worth.
Sites that don’t pay are usually described as a contributor network, curated contributor network, or blogger network. Phrases like revenue share, incentive-based, pay-per-click, entrepreneurial journalism, or “break into the industry” are red flags for potentially very low pay.
The pay-per-click model can work well for the writer who is adept at buzz-worthy, viral topics that can be produced quickly and with relatively little reporting. Yet it remains an option akin to gambling with time and talent; the payoff can be huge if an article starts to trend, or the work can pay pennies an hour for weeks if nothing pans out.
Publishing platforms (platishers), rely almost completely on work done for free, with the promise of “great exposure.” One of the most popular, Medium, is a self-publishing hybrid of staff-assigned content and those who want exposure for their thoughts and ideas. There are plans in the works to monetize content for some contributors.
Some, like writer and entrepreneur Alyssa Royce, believes that a general decline in the value of content is to blame for lower rates of pay or invitations to work for free. Royce rages on her blog that publishers perpetuate the problem.
“Exposure is the new currency–it’s also a thing that people die of,” writes Royce. “And if you want to compete with HuffPo for ad dollars, you have to tighten your budget somewhere, so you just don’t pay for content.”
Still, more than 20,000 people write on Medium every week, sometimes by well-known figures.
Last month Jay Carney, Senior Vice President for Global Affairs at Amazon, used Medium to post a lengthy rebuttal to a New York Times article about his company, rather than a more traditional letter to the editor.
For those with steady paychecks who want a wider audience, working for little or nothing might not pose a problem. It can also be an effective way to build a following, a brand, and even become an expert on a certain topic.
“I always come back to not that people shouldn’t write for free, but that we shouldn’t rely on it,” said Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Stearns wrote for Huffington Post for free before they were bought by AOL. He now posts content on Medium. “There’s a lot of questions. There are ways of using the writing for free that can be really productive for people.”
But where does that leave full-time freelancers who are trying to make a living out of their writing and reporting?
There’s no solid measurement of how many journalists write or have written for free at some point in their career.
A recent notable anecdotal indication, though, was the reaction to freelance journalist Nate Thayer’s now-infamous exchange with The Atlantic over their request to repurpose work he’d done elsewhere and pay him nothing. Many of the comments on Thayer’s experience echo the frustration freelancers feel.
“I’m so glad someone finally posted something like this so that we can see the BS that now populates ‘for profit’ news agencies, magazines, and newspapers,” commented David Shorter. Another comment from a username Tohmkatte pointed out the problem of perception.
“Working for free or paying for exposure is just perpetuating a disrespect for art and the work that goes into creating something great,” they wrote.
Researcher Kathleen Kuehn, a lecturer in media studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, has studied the curious willingness to work for free “hope labor.” She believes that the mere possibility of future work is a common motivation for journalists to sometimes work for free.
“Everyone wants a job they love,” Kuehn writes on J-Source. “The problem is that making a living at something you love in precarious times is hardly a matter of choice. We lack agency, so we hope.”
There is a path toward paid, sustainable work that starts with saying no to low or unpaid work.
The main aim of these sites is to provide tools. At The Freelancer, there are a wide variety of helpful articles, but it’s their rates database that’s a big draw. The list isn’t exhaustive or definitive, since it is provided anonymously by folks who have worked with the publications in question, but unlike some more traditional tools like Writer’s Market, it’s completely free.
WordRates employs a five-star rating system generated by writers, with a flashy database that shows some details (like rates paid) if you create a free account, but hides other details (like contact information of the publisher) unless you pay the $35/for 6 months of $50/year fee.
Still in beta, Pressland bills itself as the “Yelp for media” and is free to registered users. There are about 15,000 outlets listed. Much information isn’t listed yet, though contact details are. Every entry can be edited, rated, and reviewed with a 5-star system, and you can search by name, genre, and type of publication. At a minimum, the interactive nature of the site makes for great brainstorming.
Who Pays is a very simple, crowdsourced forum of which publications pay and how much. If a publication exists in their database, there is typically at least one comment.
Genevieve Belmaker is a freelance journalist based in New York City and Jerusalem who regularly reports on the journalism industry. She can be found on Twitter at @Gen_Belmaker.
Correction: Jay Carney was incorrectly identified in the original article. He is the Senior Vice President for Global Affairs at Amazon.