Stop the exploitation of journalists
Apart from the sheer righteousness of being paid an honest dollar for an honest day’s work, journalists need to stand together – and stand tall – to reassert the stature of their profession.
The reason is simple: If they don’t put a value on what they do, then no one else will, either.
Last time I checked, the prevailing way to express value in our modern economy is via the transfer of m-o-n-e-y. In a minute, I will share a simple spreadsheet to help you calculate your own worth as a journalist.
But first, I am urging everyone to join in my new year’s resolution to just say no to people who invite you to work for nothing or something awfully close to it.
I hear from people almost every day who want to commission an article or reprint a post in exchange for the ephemeral compensation known as “exposure.”
Amazingly – or, should I say, outrageously? – most of the requests come from people who themselves are being paid for their work at either a for-profit or non-profit organization.
Instead of simply declining, I tell them something like this:
Quality journalism takes training, time and tenacity. Although it’s easy to fill space with words, pictures and videos that are produced quickly and on the cheap, down-and-dirty “journalism” is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories.
The more empty calories you consume, the unhealthier you get. It won’t be good for our democracy – let alone our self-esteem as journalists – if we attempt to nourish vital local, state and national conversations with the journalistic equivalent of Ding Dongs and McNuggets.
The dangerous devaluation of journalism is the direct result of the contraction of the traditional media, which have idled tens of thousands of experienced journalists in the hopes of approximating their exceptional historic profitability.
The market is flooded not only with sidelined veterans but also with hungry, young journalists trying to land their first gigs (see also Journicide: A Looming Lost Generation of Scribes).
This makes it easy for countless new media ventures, and even some of the older ones, to pick off writers, photographers and videographers on the cheap. Such was the case last year when a freelancer got a measly $31.50 for a photo that ran on the cover of a Time magazine issue ironically devoted to “the new frugality.”
The only way for journalists to fight back is to demand to be paid what they’re worth.
Having articulated the principle, the only thing left to consider is the practical question of how much to charge. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because – as always has been the case – there is a wide disparity in pay among journalists.
A fortunate few make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and an even smaller number make millions. They have agents to handle their finances, so there’s no need to worry about them here.
For those of you without an agent, I have prepared a simple spreadsheet that you can use to calculate your worth as a journalist.
Follow the template (left) to build a working model for yourself. Here are some notes to help:
The section called “Professional Services” (lines 2-9) tries to account for all the time you spend on a story – not just reporting and writing but also scouting up ideas, writing pitches, to-ing and fro-ing with editors, travel time and all the rest.
The calculation called “Overhead” (line 10) helps compensate you for the considerable burden of being self-employed. And it is a burden. When you are self-employed, you have to buy your own computer, pay your own phone bill, buy your own health insurance and pay what otherwise would be the employer’s share of state and federal payroll taxes. Round numbers, this means you should charge 20% on top of your professional fee to cover those expenses.
The “Expense” section is there to remind you to include not just the value of your labor but also the very real costs associated with fulfilling an assignment. While the categories are self-explanatory, lots of people neglect to charge for mileage. I have used 50 cents a mile, which is the charge established for this year by the Internal Revenue Service. (It changes annually, so remember to check in the future.)
Once the spreadsheet is ready, the single most important question is what hourly rate to plug into cell C3. Here’s how to think about what the number should be:
The Newspaper Guild publishes a list of newsroom salaries here for a number of organizations around the country. While some of the information is not up to date, the Guild says that scale today for a journeyman reporter at the Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette is $29.33 per hour. (Fun fact: This is $2 an hour more than the Associated Press paid its janitors in 2007.)
As it happens, $29.33 is almost exactly four times the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. You can establish a fair and defensible hourly rate by multiplying the minimum wage in your state by 4. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conveniently publishes the minimum wage in each state here.
If you want to price your services on a per-word basis, fill out the “Professional Services” section of the spreadsheet and divide the total cost of your professional services and overhead (line 11) by the number of words you plan to write (line 12).
The 35-cent-a-word charge in the sample spreadsheet seems awfully low to me. So, feel free to raise the hourly or per-word rate as you see fit.
Whatever you do, though, don’t sell yourself short, because journalists can’t protect society if they can’t protect their own careers.