Monday, February 01, 2010

Stop the exploitation of journalists

It’s time for journalists to stop participating in their own exploitation by working for a pittance – or, worse, giving away their valuable services for free.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While devaluating reporters, I note that top editors and owners are still rounding up cash. Of interest is the recent bankruptcy filing by Media News, showing that Billy Dean Singleton is in line to get an annual salary of $634,000 salary, plus a bonus of $500,000 ensuring cost-cutting will continue. He's also paid $360,000 a year under an agreement with the Denver Post Corp. Bet he's scouting for new ranch properties to add to the three he already enjoys in Denver.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Jennifer Deseo said...


6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like journalists need to organize. What a concept!

6:50 AM  
Anonymous John Reinan said...

An honorable notion, Alan, and a helpful spreadsheet.

But good luck. With potentially millions of reporters and writers all connected by the Internet, the editor who doesn't want to pay $300+ for a 600-word article can almost surely find someone else willing to do it for less.

Your established professional will find competition from hobbyists seeking the thrill of publication; youngsters eager to amass clips; and other veterans desperate for any sort of paycheck.

Our modern economy seems to have devolved into a race to the bottom. The same forces causing the loss of well-paid U.S. manufacturing jobs are at work here. There's always someone who will do it for less.

I wonder if the reasonably compensated freelance writer isn't as endangered a species as the daily newspaper journalist.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Rob Dickens said...

Typo in the first line ;) Perhaps journos should also ensure that they are delivering a decent product before bewailing the dearth of pecuniary reciprocity for services rendered. Standards are dropping on all sides. If we all delivered a quality product, perhaps we wouldn't have to worry about these things?

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't aggree with you more. As a 22-year-old J-school grad (who is working full-time in a publishing department-yes if you try hard enough and are good there are jobs for young people), I stopped working "for bylines" after I received my diploma. Even in college, certain niche magazines were nice enough to send me a check. For writers of any age or experience, receiving a monetary payment builds confidence and self-respect.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Greg Finley said...

Your "4 times the minimum wage" guideline seems really arbitrary. Sadly, a news article isn't worth as much as it used to be—it has less value to newspapers and can be expected to contribute less to their bottom lines. Accordingly, it's no surprise that newspapers are willing to pay less for them now.

As far as telling people not to publish just for the sake of exposure, what's the harm? Should people not take low-paying (or non-paying) internships just because the pay is only a fraction of that a full-tenured worker? Of course not, because an internship is an investment in oneself that will increase your expected lifetime earnings.

7:28 AM  
Blogger C.D. said...

a friend of mine will make it for half.
That's is going to be the answer, unfortunately.
Journalists are not in the strong side of the negotiation table, unfortunately.
I can agree with you on the line "United we stand, Divided we fall", but I believe the solutions for journalists wages is more related to the newspaper business: business falls, wages fall.
Personally, I believe the journalists have a target for themeselves to set: get back their capacity of influence.
Most of them, lost it.
Those who will be able to gather an audience around them and influence their decision, will make money.
The rest, no.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Keith Sutton said...

Amen to everything you say. I've been a freelance writer, photographer, editor and lecturer since 1978, and am constantly amazed how many people want me to contribute material for the chance of receiving "exposure." Last week I got a call from a representative of National Geographic who wanted to use some of my photos in one of their TV shows. She offered no pay, only exposure. What's the world coming when people have the gall to do this.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Greg Smith said...

Besides comparing highly skilled work requiring higher education, extensive experience and sophisticated equipment to menial labor, your "fair" hourly rate is low - at best, half of what most folks would need to be successful. Independent journalists have far more expenses to bear than those with a salary. Moreover, they have to work at getting work, swelling their overhead further.
Here's some math:
1. There are 250 working days in a year, less weekends and two weeks vacation.
2. Assuming you have regular, good clients (rare in most markets) and work on weekends, you might work 200 days for pay.
3. You propose about $30 per hour or $240/day.
4. 200 days at $240 is $48,000.
That's not a big salary for a highly skilled, educated, experienced worker. But wait: that total has to cover much more than salary, including health insurance, unemployment, office space, uncompensated transportation, other overhead. Oh, and you want to take pictures, too: add another $3k to $10k per year in overhead for equipment and supplies.
Most accountants will tell you that you need to bring in two- to three-times what you expect as salary. That makes the optimistic (again: 200 paid days is really tough to pull off) $48k worth more like $20k in salary.
Pass the ramen noodles, please.
For more precise calculations, please check out:
This free calculator was built for photojournalists, but it's easy to adapt to any creative profession: Just change/add/subtract some expense categories.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Greg Finley said...

Another thought: They are many non-monetary benefits to being a journalist. You get to spend all day writing, talking to people, and learning interesting stuff. You get your name in print and earn moderate fame. Many people are willing to trade off some earnings for these perks. There's no reason for newspapers to pay them the same salary that comparably educated people make in less glamorous jobs.

Same reason that teachers don't get paid very much: so many people love doing it and don't care about the money.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Folks who know how to set type letter by letter should know how to proofread the same way. See first graf, first line.

You seem unaware that $1 per word is a very bare minimum freelance fee (for first rights only) for what you term a "journeyman" writer.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I would leave a comment here but as the exposure is all I'm getting it's not worth it.

I did write a post considering other ways of thinking about this same question for photographers though here:

For which I didn't get paid.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Jim Donnelly said...

I ate ramen noodles, too. Way too salty. And here's what I heard from my editor back in the 90s, when the newsroom was under a wage freeze despite the fact the owners were clearing about 25 percent a year:

"That's the going rate here."

"There is no overtime. We're not allowed to pay it."

"They're not giving raises."

"If you don't like it here, get out."

And of course, that old standby:

"You're lucky to have a job."

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Lana's writerstudio said...

Hear Hear!
Problem is corporation and business CEO's take the lowest quotes caue they don't know themselves how good content reads.
And magazine editors often pay peanuts and get their editors to rehash the piece...The editors are overworked, underpaid and terrified of losing their jobs.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Star Lawrence said...

National Geo didn't want to pay...Eeek. I rant about this so much I am like the Ancient Mariner buttonholing the Wedding Guest. On our NASW freelance list, they seem to think even comparing notes on fees will send the feds after us for something. A concern I have is not only that I cannot make a living but that the information on the internet, being passed along, slightly altered, is like a crazy-mad game of Telephone and is reducing information to INTERNET GOO. I tried to find out how to get wasps off my pond--every single site was some version of put a pop bottle of sugar water out and they will crawl in. Yeah? They don't. Useless. AND I can no longer make a good living!!

8:21 AM  
Blogger Star Lawrence said...

By the way, I disagree that a semi-colon error should sink this argument. I have bad vision and sometimes make stupid errors in comments.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm trying to think of an appropriate quip about the irony of reading this for free on your blog ...

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Mark Gisleson said...

I get the impression from this blog post that the only compensation a true journalist desires is cash money. Nowhere in your article do I see any concern about the truthfulness of what is reported.

That concerns me because for a couple of decades now most the reporting I've read has been filtered through a corporate editing process that bowdlerizes the truth and leaves the corporate criminals free to continue baronially robbing our economy.

I'm one of those chumps who "gives away" his content for free. Not to lower the bar, but to help establish that there is indeed a bar, and that it is set too low.

Y'all can print the truth anytime you like, but today's corporate-run world will ensure that you don't get paid for it. Only corporate-approved content is entitled to a paycheck. If you want the big money, you need to be willing to go on ABC's This Week and pretend that Roger Ailes believes in real journalism, that George Will's global warming columns are factchecked, and that the Washington Post is still a liberal newspaper pushing liberal propaganda.

Reading the other comments, I'm guessing most of you are still getting paid.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan Mutter doesn't want people working for free just to acquire basic journalism training.

Instead they should PAY the UC regents an insane sum for that same privilege, so Professor Alan can get paid.

What an elitist hypocrite.

9:31 AM  
Blogger DawnSomewhere said...

So erm, are you a full-time freelancer? I'm just wondering if you've ever actually given that little speech, and if it's achieved any results.
Most of the editors would pay more if they could. While publishers like Singleton and Tierney take home $$$ in bonuses and pay, they are telling the newsrooms to cut and cut.
It's nice to tell reporters to take a stand, but few can afford to walk away from a story. I do think it's wrong to prohibit people from talking about fees. I usually get paid $1 a word, unless I'm doing a story for the Philly Inquirer. Those I just do because I love the story.
I'm one of the lucky ones - I got a full-time job after being laid off. I did freelance full-time for about nine months. It was incredibly hard and intense. But the only person paying my mortgage was me.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For starters, how about not using the word freelance -- because our work isn't free and because for as long as I can remember "freelancers" have been asked to write, edit, photograph for nothing. Independent journalist, or simply writer or photographer.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Kami Rice said...

I so agree with you regarding the importance of journalists pushing back against the trend for free content. The trend is incredibly disturbing for what it's doing to the quality of our news and level of public discourse. I was in talks recently with a prospective client, a different entity at a company I had previously written for. The prospect wanted me to send a sample piece that they would use on their website for free AND wanted all rights. I've been freelancing for seven years. I have a website with plenty of clips. I refused. In this case even the possibility of future paid work is not worth the disrespect that seems rampant. (Would anyone dare ask a plumber to fix their toilet for free before they hired them to fix a sink?) Additionally, I'm learning that people who are not good writers really have no understanding of how much time good writing and good coverage take.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Rosen Lum said...


Here at Guild Freelancers we are not only organizing, we are developing a Fair Trade-style certification for publishers and editors who recognize the value of skilled journalism and compensate appropriately.

We can no more afford as a society to entrust reportage to unpaid or poorly paid "citizen journalists" than we can to entrust health care to "citizen physicians."

Rebecca Rosen Lum
Unit Chair, Guild Freelancers

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can remember taking a phone call in the mid 80's in the newroom from a bright eyed fledging writer to too much younger than me pitching his services for free in exchange for exposure. I told him he wasn't doing himself or any other writer a favor by woking for nothing.
Ask your doctor, mechanic accountant or any other professional to work for free or on spec and see what happens to you.
This is long overdo, not just for writer but anyone else in the arts who is asked to work for free. Journalists, artists musicans, etc. should be required to take a Start Your Own Business 101 course before being allowed to graduate.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous still wonder why I do this said...

The fall out has already started. More young people are leaving the business before really getting started and are going in to "other." They are going back to college for business, law, tecahing, anything but journalism. They are looking at the "quality of life" that we vererans have, old cars, spouses who have to work, loans, stress, etc and have decided they don't want a life worse than the one their parents gave them. This isn't the priesthood, but somehow journalists are expected to take on this cross beteen a vow of poverty and service, that starts with working for free.
The brain drain as already started, youth is starting to abandon ship and the vets are following.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Tamara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

As a full-time editor who has both worked as a freelancer and commissioned freelance work, I recommend that any experienced person set a minimum hourly rate and stick to it. Sooner or later, any professional organization worth working for will get sick of dealing with an amateur/beginner's plagiarism, blown deadlines, unwillingness to go back and re-interview sources, etc. Then, they'll pay enough to get someone decent to work for them. If they don't, the heck with them!

1:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Alan, my heart agrees with every word, but my head says this is naive. I teach my students to "go forth and make media" and not wait for somebody else to pay you. I know a veteran journalist in Florida who's starting to make really decent money for what amounts to a neighborhood news website that's advertiser-supported. He didn't pitch himself to those who have money; he went out and built a business for himself. We may initially need another form of income to pay the bills, but there's nothing stopping professionals from attacking niches or zip codes. All of this complaining doesn't get us anywhere. Nostalgia isn't reinvention; we need to just move along.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Otiko Communications said...

This is a great article, and touches on one of the issues that is killing modern journalism.

If a reporter is not going to be compensated for his work, there is no incentive to produce it. Of course it is much easier for unscrupulous editors to get high school students, college students or bloggers, who are willing to work for free. But you get what you pay for.

I refuse to work for free.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're lowballing your hypothetical journalist in this posting urging journalists not to allow themselves to get ripped off. I agree with an earlier poster that $1 a word would be a better market minimum.

To the posters huffing about journos trying to get rich, I have one word for you: oops, it's unprintable. Suffice it to say, it's clear you've never worked in the news biz and can't do math.

Some posters kvetched about the low quality of current, corporate-owned journalism and others wondered why reporters weren't eager to write for close to nothing, since all the stories they get to work on are so fabulous and interesting and all. One gets what one pays for, as the saying goes.

Journalists do need to organize. Profit-hungry corporate owners were already screwing the workers in the good times--and now they're laying them off.

Well-reported, well-written news stories take time, talent and skill to produce. To supply such stories to readers, owners must charge for their product and pay their reporters a fair wage. Many good reporters, editors and photographers have already left the profession for PR and corporate communications and such. You get what you pay for.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel for journalists (I was one...have since branched out into media education and consulting). I got tired of busting a vein and acting all indignant with the people hiring for low pay. You give them too much power when you see them as placing the value on your work. A technologically shifting landscape has placed a new lower value on your work--society at large, if you will.

Like "video killed the radio stars," the Internet has at the very least transmogrified journalism. It's not up to these employers to pay us high retro glossy magazine rates because it's "fair." They're paying what is valued. Notice SEO consultants and web designers are being paid more than they were a decade ago ( the former probably didn't even exist then).

It's up to journalists to reinvent themselves, their media, and to learn new and needed technologies and methodologies that add to their arsenal.

It's a little sad to see old school journalists digging their heels in and trying to push the proverbial Sisyphusean rock...sorry to sound harsh.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Christopher Lloyd said...

Great post, Alan. Although like paywalls, it's the sort of thing that will only be successful if everyone does it. As someone who's been both a victim and perpetrator of the tyranny of free, I'm skeptical that it will end. More here:

4:27 PM  
Blogger Daisy said...

I hear you; I'm a public school teacher, and we get exploited all the time. We call it "contract concessions." I call it insulting.

And I'm NOT giving up my subscription to my local paper. I love it.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

I'm not going to glorify reading past the first comment, because by posting this blog that people can freely read completely negates the purpose of this entire blog post.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Beautiful Knoxville said...

Alan, you have managed to be both right and wrong at the same time. Of course journos should get decent pay. Even good pay. a woman newspaper reporter since the 1960s, I got tired of being laughed at by editors when I demanded equal pay for equal work. My favorite quote from an editor when I told him Joe, who did the same work as me, got $20 more a week: "How did you find out?"

The same mentality in management exists today. Get As Much As You Can From As Many As You Can As Cheap As You Can.

Thank goodness I have finally gotten that federal subsidy for the arts -- Social Security!

Good luck to the rest of you kids who haven't gotten here yet. You have my sympathy -- and sorry that it's all I have to contribute!

-- jeang287

5:45 PM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

"What an elitist hypocrite."

Oh, what an ungrateful statement, Anonymous.

Alan has provided a healthy, open & free forum for discussing the myriad challenges of journalism and the newspaper industry in an electronic age. Its value has been considerable to me -- and I'm not even a journalist or in the industry, just someone concerned with quality reporting on matters of community interest.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another issue: offshore writers. I had an online editor tell me last week that he could "get someone in the Philippines to make a few calls, do a little research, and write a story for $3 per hour." When I suggested that, yes, he would be able to get someone who could string together grammatically correct sentences, but not necessarily someone who knew how to fact check, cultivate "real" sources, and craft a compelling story, his response was, "writing is writing. No one cares about that other stuff you mention. A journalism background isn't needed to write for online news organizations. It's about quantity of words to get rankings in the search engines. That's what our news site is about."

At that instant, I was SO glad that I am only doing journalism on a very part time basis now, and only because I still love it--not for the money. (I was a news reporter for 18 years, but started a training company awhile back.) However, even doing it as an avocation, I have REFUSED to work for a pittance.

Sadly, I fear that journalism will continue to be outsourced to people willing to work for next to nothing.

So, I wasn't all that stunned when I read the comments about National Geographic not wanting to pay for photos. Seems the going rate now is either free or cheap.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. Apparently the "moderator" didn't like my comment about my experience with an online news portal that told me he was outsourcing writing and reporting to the Philippines for $3/hour. Can't imagine what was offensive about my post. I was just stating what my experience was. Oh well...

7:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the post.

One of the reasons for the low pay is the fact that most of us need to write for new media to be published nowadays. And none of the readers online are willing to pay to access our content. Are you? You do the math.

We need to realize that good content providers and web editors still need to pay the rent. Many online news portals, however, want revenue and fresh content but are not yet willing to pay their content providers adequately.

Sure, print is struggling. No wonder: They pay salaries. Online can not give away content for free for long, because soon they won’t have any professionals left who can afford writing for them.

7:15 PM  
Blogger MJP said...

I think this barely scratches the surface. I know Alan has provided a template, but the idea that any given free-lance articles will be done is six hours seems low. When I worked as a reporter, editors seemed to think the amount of work was in direct correlation to the length of the story. So a brief, theoretically, could be done in an instant. Briefs sometimes take just as much work as a full length article. Three hours for reporting? That's just a couple of phone call interviews. Unfortunately, the price would be that much higher.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If it's any consolation to you all, it's the same in South Africa. I work as a freelancer for one of the newspaper groups and we have had one increase of R0.50 a word in the last 10 years, bringing us up to R2.00 (US$ 0.25). When I pointed out that the advertising reps automatically get an increase every year because their commissions are tied to ad rates, I was told that the previous fifty-cent increase had added enormously to the bottom line and couldn’t be justified. Of course, what was I thinking – readers read the advertisements!

As a freelancer, I do PR and I offer business writing training because schools now teach ‘creative’ writing and, as my son was told, grammar is not important it’s about just telling your story! Which is great because I get paid to teach basic English grammar, how to craft a press release and how to write a report. Interestingly enough I get paid a lot more without a blink of an eye.

So consider passing on your skills to a texting, illiterate generation that still can’t compete in storytelling against the Baby Boomers!

PS Freelancers were the first mercenaries offering their lances to warlords in exchange for loot – get back into the saddle and fight!

8:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I assume you will then start charging for your blog ... or are you doing this for "exposure"? Wait, my post is being read for free also! Please send me my check. I guess that illuminates the stupidity of a free blogger telling others to charge for their work.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Despondent said...

What amazes me is when people talk about poorly paid reporters who make a pitiful "$48,000 a year."

Come on, folks. Most of us out in corporate-chain newspaper land (i.e. those of us outside the biggest of big cities) are making $13-16 an hour. That's low-$30,000s a year.

And we're not second-rate writers who couldn't hack it elsewhere. I make $15.50 an hour and have clips that would rival anyone from any of the major metros.

And I have absolutely no chance of ever going anywhere higher because of (1) my non-East Coast location/upbringing and (2) the state of the industry.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Eger said...

This is why we need a gift economy where the positive karma created by whatever you are inspired to write is repaid as those who appreciate it see fit. This would make journalism about spreading good news, rather than just getting paid to fill peoples minds with whatever fluff is being spun around. It would not only promote good writing, but would also put writers in a position that cultivates thought leaders rather than just sideline commentators. Good journalism is the light that makes transparency noticeable.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Steve Reilley said...

As someone who “freelances” on the side, I’ve had my fair share of experiences doing too much work for not enough pay. I’ve written stories for newspapers where I reported for two weekends and spent more in gas driving around the state than I earned from writing the story.

But I also have a full-time media job to fall back on. And working in such a setting, I, like many, put in way too many hours – more than I’m compensated for. But I knew that when I entered this line of work. And I also know the realities of managing a newsroom; there are budgets, fixed costs and – gasp – business considerations at play in determining how much to pay people — paid staff and freelancers (or is the new term “independent journalists”?). Just as newsroom managers, publishers and media company executives would do well to see the realities faced by freelancers from receiving little compensation for a lot of work, freelancers would be well-served to spend a few days making business and editorial decisions. Perhaps then they’d see that there isn’t a giant pool of money waiting to be doled out with Scrooge “Editor” McDuck swimming in his vast wealth. If news outlets paid what every staffer and freelancer thinks he or she deserves (a subjective measure, to be sure) there would likely be even fewer outlets for which to work.

(This comment also cross posted on an SPJ blog that discussed Alan's post:

6:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Editors & middle management (Those former writers that have moved up the ladder) need to look out for those that will come behind them. When I worked as a Chief Photographer - I refused to allow photographers to work for low/no pay - even even when they offered. Then I told them I could not use someone that had that little respect for thier work (or mine)and / or that little knoweldge of economics.

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While old media outlets, if not simply disappearing (as my main longtime client, Metropolitan Home magazine, did a couple of months back), have been cutting both word counts and per-word rates for years (I remember getting upwards of $3,000 for articles; now I'm writing $400 pieces) - it's the new media that's really taking advantage. I've been offered $10 per post by a well-known real estate website, and -0- per post by a garden magazine's blog, which I took, because it links back to my own (non-paying) blog and is on a temporary basis. But still!! This is no way to make a living.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


6:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am former staff writer, editor and employer of freelancers and now a freelancer myself. I've been trying to convince so many colleagues of exactly what you've said. Although it's been hard, I've turned down jobs that would end up paying little more than work at Burger King. Thanks for posting this.

6:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Despondent, I'm in the same situation as you. I was a little stunned when I saw that 29.00/hr figure. That's $12/hr more than what I make, though I've been in the industry for seven years now. I and many of the people who work at my paper would kill to make 48 grand.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The horse is out of the barn. After taking a couple years off from writing and pursuing other interests, I was astounded when I checked out some of the online writing websites, where people, and I use that term lightly, are literally paying 50 cents for a 500-word article for the web -- and others are bidding on the opportunity.
Fortunately, I have other non-writing related work to pay the bills. But I have stopped looking for freelance work.
If I'm going to write for free, I write for my own blog and I write screenplays, which I hope to sell for gobs of money.
In the meantime, should a real paying writing job come along, I'll take it. But I'm not holding my breath and screw "exposure." My name's already all over the frickin' internet.
I refuse to write for someone else if I'm not getting paid fairly. That, I fear, is the only solution to the dilemma you pose.
For folks like Anonymous, your comments are more a reflection of your own beliefs about yourself than the value of journalists. You don't value yourself very highly, you don't think you should be paid fairly for their work, you don't really give a crap about what goes on in your world.
That's fine. You and your citizen journalists can sip cappuccino all day long at Starbucks and write about the latest post on TMZ. I don't even understand why you'd bother to come to a site like this and comment.

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would add to the calculation a value for the "exposure" the article garners. With traditional media publishing in print and online, and with the pickup/"reprint" of coverage via portals and blogs, a single article may be published and/or referenced on hundreds of sites/feeds. I wrote one (for which I was compensated well) recently that was republished more than 200 times giving great exposure to the source publication. When a story has that potential, I charge for that exposure I'm providing. I don't write an article for less than $500. I write fewer articles than many of my peers, but I don't make less money.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Paul Raeburn said...

As a long-time member of the Newspaper Guild when I worked at the AP, I'm completely in sympathy with your position--we shouldn't work for nothing.

I now find myself, however, happily working for nothing, or close to it. In this age of entrepreneurial journalism, anyone writer who isn't willing to invest some capital (that is, some writing) in new ventures, with uncertain prospect of payment, will be left behind. We need to invest in our futures.

I can report that it's working for me--I now have a paid blogging gig at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which I wouldn't have had if I hadn't established myself as a blogger.

I'm also investing some of my time on True/Slant, which seems like a worthwhile thing to do.

So--we shouldn't work for nothing is an excellent principle. But, in practice, it's more complicated than that. I should add that I make my living as a reporter and editor, and I'm married not to a lawyer or a bond trader but to another freelance writer. (And a lovely one at that.)

8:35 AM  
Blogger PattyEats said...

I've been a newspaper and magazine journalist for 42 years, the last 10 as a full-time independent and the author of two books. I have watched my freelance pay drop over the last few years from decent to absolute peanuts, even though my quality remains the same. I couldn't do it any other way.

The joy I used to feel about journalism is gone. The message I keep getting year after year from every editor is loud and clear: "You're great but unless you drop your rate we can't afford you. Our profits are down. We are relying more and more on our citizen journalists for our blog, and there are plenty of people out there who will do it for the great exposure."

But here's a warning for all who are working for free: You will never be paid what you think you're worth, no matter how many stories you've written, because you've already been pegged as having no worth.

As the old saying goes: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This can't be emphasized enough. Thanks, Alan for the reminder and also for some basic tools to break down the costs of decent reporting.

There are a few bright spots in the emerging new models for digital news outlets such as Peer News and ProPublica, but they seem far too few to fill the gap of what I call an ever-widening information black hole. It's ironic that in the so-called information age, we seem to be getting less usable data and a flood of garbage.

Additionally, with ProPublica at least, these outlets seem to be advancing the idea of work for "exposure," enlisting the support of reporters who will be the eyes and ears on a list of projects for free.

I've also noticed a decline on many "news" sites in the quality of material as well as in its presentation, particularly with endless typos, spelling errors and faulty editing.

Finally, I believe the pendulum will eventually swing back, that consumers of information know quality when they see it, and that individuals like you,
Alan, will help them find it. Until then, I love Harlan Ellison's anger expressed in this video posted by (

9:35 AM  
Anonymous DarrenInDC said...

Supply and demand. If there weren't so many awful "journalists" out there vying for attention, they wouldn't be paid so awfully.

When the mindlessly rapid expansion of new media outlets inevitably reverses itself, 9 out of 10 of today's so-called journalists will be rationally forced into more productive work (e.g., digging ditches, building bridges, trimming my hedges, etc.). Those who survive the cut, presuming they're competent, will again be paid reasonably well.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you would "kill" for a $48K salary, why don't you just change professions? At least changing jobs is legal. Your salary is highly dependent on how the market values your skills. You can't have the same job description for hundreds of years and expect the same salary. That's like the typewriter/paper-encyclopedia salesman crying because he can't make an honest living selling typewriters/encyclopedias in 2010!

Journalists need to find a new way to market what they are selling.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Mark Hugh Miller said...

Sadly, even august organizations like National Geographic Society, while building up a bloated upper tier of "executives" has worked hard to make the freelancers who contribute to its publications marginal earners. My solution: move on. It's all about finding a market for your skills. We want to be reporters and editors forever, of course -- it's in our blood. But sooner or later it's time to stop barking at a closed door, or a deaf master, and move on, as a friend just did, from the San Jose Mercury-News to a fine job as a writer-editor for a major Silicon Valley online software company. He no longer feels like a chump, or a victim of executives who don't have a clue.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Allen Shadow said...

I'm with you. As a music artist and writer, I face this in multiple ways. The same Internet mob-rule that flattened the music field is steamrolling over the pastures of publishing, from newspapers to books.

The sense of ownership regarding intellectual property among Internet users is fading as fast as the sense of entitlement for "free" stuff is building. In fact the noise surrounding this sense of entitlement is so load it's difficult for writers of all stripes to be heard.

I tell people: imagine if you owned a furniture business and were told one day that people just won't pay for your wares. They are simply going to take them. So, you have to find a new business model. You'll just have to give the furniture away as a loss leader, if you will, and make money selling t-shirts and other company souvenirs.

Or, how about: tomorrow, your employer tells you that he's no longer paying you, because there are many who will gladly do your job for nothing. However, if you want to continue on for the sheer joy of it, please do.

Other analogies invited!

11:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What will all the so-called" writers freelancing for no-pay or low-pay web sites, mainly as a form of "future" investment (byline exposure, royalty or Google Adsense hit residuals) do when they're work gets scooped up by a big conglomerate who then sells it under a pay-for-read banner site? Bylines will vanish; residuals will vanish. You may still own first rights but good luck extracting pennies from this inevitable monster. This will happen, likely sooner rather than later....mark my cheaply paid words.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When is the last time a journalist "protected society?" Get off your unrealistic cloud. Journalists nowadays are either partisan hacks, mouthpieces for someone's agenda, or activists for their own. I don't feel sorry for them, and will say good riddance when most of the mainstream media disappears.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. In the age of the internet, I can generate all the free 'exposure' I need on my own, so that sop no longer has even the small coinage it did a few years ago when it promised to get a writer's name into print. I promised myself quite a while ago that I won't write for free unless I choose to do so for charity (and I don't consider any entity savvy enough to sell advertising against content to be a worthy charitable recipient).

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a highly skilled, experienced freelance graphic designer and I find myself in the same position all to frequently. In my field I am competing with jobs that go to bid online. It is very hard to compete with designers in other countries that would be thrilled to be paid $10 per hour. It is a challenge to convince potential clients that you get what you pay for but I will keep trying.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:25 PM  
Blogger Tish Grier said...

great post! and what you say, Alan, should extend to "the people" as well. Many of the bold new experiments in journalism require participation for the audience--usually for free or for some little accolade: to win a contest, to have one's name featured in a publication. But the eagerness of some of the people to create news for free really isn't going to help any of them either. Because when some of those who've been doing it for free want to do it for Real (as in $$) they just might be told that they are pure and wonderful citizens and shouldn't sully themselves nor their contributions with filthy lucre. oh b.s.! If an article is produced with a level of professionalism--whether that person has a degree in journalism or not--he or she should be paid for it. We shouldn't split hairs over what make a professional when even professionals have their work fixed by editors. We should, though, make sure that wages are fair. And if wages are going down in the newsroom, they should certainly be going down in the executive suite too. After all, it's their bad decisions that got things in this mess in the first place.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in journalism for 8 years...started out at a whopping $22,000 salary (in 2001 mind you), and before I moved on, was making $32,000.

Part of the reason I even put up with this was because my college professors made the low salary seem like some kind of noble in, "if you were getting paid more, than you would be working for money rather than for the love of what you do."

I took a job in PR making 2x as much, and actually worried for the first year that there was no way I could truly LOVE my job, because I was making too much money and you couldn't have both.

How twisted.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Cyn said...

Good luck getting journalists to succeed in getting paid what they're worth.

A small minority of readers and employers now care about journalism and a vast majority don't see a need to hire a journalist.

Take a look at a few freelance hiring sites, such as odesk or elance, and you'll see that people are happy to hire "writers" from any country with any degree (or lack) of language and writing skills as long as the freelancer will agree to work for less than minimum wage. I've seen jobs posted that came out to $1 an article -- and no promise of "exposure," which itself is BS.

I worked nearly 12 years as an editor at one of the top 10 U.S. papers, and will not accept those terms. I might work "for free" for myself as a marketing tool.
But given the lack of market demand for quality journalism, I've moved on to translation jobs as well as custom baking work on the side.

(FYI to freelancers who need to put food on the table -- many babysitters, especially in metropolitan areas, make $10 to $15 an hour. If you can speak another language, especially Mandarin Chinese, or if you can handle multiples or special needs, then you can do much better as a nanny, with benefits, than as a journalist.)

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

I worked for $5 per hour back in 1991 and I was the Managing Editor of a paper owned by former Sun-Times reporter Art Petacque in Chicago. The weekly paper called the River North News had offices weren't even in the area immediately north of the river like you'd expect but instead over a pest control company in Bucktown neighborhood further north. All told, I did learn a lot from him about journalism, reporting and life. He and I were the best headline writers at 11 p.m. at night.It was a great job for me at 23 years old. Now I'm in the Palo Alto, CA on to more serious journalistic adventures for Stanford University

4:35 PM  
Blogger Nan J said...

From reading some of the comments, it seems there's a real disconnect with full-time employees' understanding of freelance compensation. For those who said the sample was $12 more than what they were making, or $48k a year would be terrific, note that a freelancer has to pay for his own health insurance and retirement (two things which can easily add up to $12,000 to $20,000 a year, assuming max. contribution to an IRA and no additional SEP), in addition to paying for the employer match to Social Security. So an hourly rate does not compare apples to apples to a full-time staffer's rate. I'd echo what others said -- maybe $29 an hr. is good if you're in a super low-cost market, but if you're trying to live on one of the coasts, those rates are poverty level and workable only if you have another decent wage earner in the household who can support your writing habit.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an excellent article. Just one problem: what happens when you work for a boss who tells you that you'll never get ahead in journalism if you DON'T work for free?
Workign for free somehow is supposed to prove your enthusiasm, drive and passion for the profession. If I stopped working for free I wouldn't be working as a journalist.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a recent journalism graduate with no experience, it is necessary for me to write for free until I can gain experience and find a paid job. It's certainly not a long-term solution, but everyone has to start somewhere...

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Mayhill Fowler said...

The journalism world has been slow to catch up with the bottom-line realities that have changed other professions. Take acting, for example. My older daughter spent her 20s in New York as a member of Actors Equity and as a temp jobber in support of her acting career. The line in the sand for her was when a (famous) Off Broadway Theater asked her, and the rest of the union cast, to lie to the union rep. and say that they were being paid the union wage. Given NY state and NYC taxes, these actors paid more in taxes than they took home in pay. Given IRS rules, it was tax fraud. But actors do this all the time.

Having come late to this career of reporting, I can see many sides of the issue of the pauperizing of reporters, just as I understand how a love of theater can lead actors to self-defeating decisions. I suppose I am a Ding Dong or a McNugget, or one of those people who supposedly sit in Starbucks and comment on TMZ. However, I see myself as part of the "transition generation," the people of all ages and backgrounds and predilections who will bridge the chasm until journalism can find a financial footing again. However, I doubt that the monetary rewards will ever be what they were in the second half of the previous century. As elementary school teachers and actors do now, newshounds will do reporting because they love the calling and cannot bear to be away from the field.

But everyone will see a different line in the sand.

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

I'm amazed publications such as National Geographic are simply offering 'exposure'.
The whole idea of 'exposure' is that it would work to get you bigger gigs, ie National Geographic!
If you're not getting paid for them, who will you expect to actually pay you?

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Sara Fitzpatrick Comito said...

He was talking about TV writing, but Harlan Ellison said it best.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous marducey said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm going to show this to my students.

12:23 PM  
Blogger WriterRuth said...

< 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. >

Yay! I'm with you, and have been encouraging colleagues to think in these terms for quite awhile now.

And about that exposure thing: Exposing yourself can get you arrested. :) Even worse, you can die from exposure.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anything that points out the reality of journalistic survival in the marketplace is good; but I think the "overhead" estimate of 20% is way low (and I think most accountants would agree with me.

This is something I've studied for decades. I've been in this business as a photojournalist for almost 50 years.

@0 years ago I co-wrote, with Nick Harris, "The Freelance Bible-a guide to freelance journalism and photojournalism in Australia". Journalists underselling themselves is not new. They've always done it and there are primarily two reasons: ego; the desire to see their deathless prose and their byline in print, and a lack of business sense.

The internet just means that those without the knowledge of what it takes to survive, are closer to the coal face.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Not sure if anyone has noticed, but the race to the bottom is not solely the domain of journalism. It has been going on in the USA for some time in every sector of society, except the upper (power) levels.

There is a story in this downward trend for journalism to tell, but I fear that it comes with a truly unhappy prognosis.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read all the comments, just your article and want to let you know that I also had that New Years resolution. Oddly enough it's working. I pitch, I quote in no nonsense terms, they like. Work is coming in now, I have valued myself and they value me. I act professionally and they see a professional. I won't give photos away or put words together for free, they are mine, I have the skills and the ideas, they do not.
I will not work for 35c a word thats for sure; that rate was so last century :-)

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Alexis Grant said...

THANK YOU for this. Thank you!

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a graphic designer, I can observe similarities to what's happening in out industry. Logo "contests," speculative work and other invitations to work for free are accompanied by the expectation that we as creative professionals should be grateful just to get our work seen by the public. The attitude doesn't change unless everyone in the industry takes the same stance.Keep fighting the good fight.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is one fatal flaw in your argument for better pay. I read many comments (not all) and didn't see this reflected. Freelance and content budgets have also been drastically reduced. It's great to demand higher pay, but thinking that simply demanding it puts it in the budget is wrong. If editors decided their own freelance budget, they would decide their own newsroom budget and there wouldn't be layoffs or staff reductions at all. Unfortunately, publishers decide things such as this and there is no room in the freelance budget to buy good (and reasonably paid) content. You can't blame the editors for being cheap - they're still putting out publications as best they can. You can blame publishers, but they don't care ... at all. Certainly there examples of people demanding more pay, but surely they know they are in the vast minority. Sign (or should I say sigh) of the times. I have to chuckle at the 22-year-old grad saying, "Yes but if you try hard enough." If I didn't laugh, I'd cry. I said the same thing for years, starting more than a decade ago.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. This topic has been on my nerves for years now.

As a freelance journalist of ten years with a Bachelor's and Master's both in journalism, I've had enough of people and websites offering half a cent per word, and less. I'm not interested in the following and find them in many ways pointless:

1) "We can't pay you but you will gain exposure"- Exposure to what? If you're an unknown website, what sort of exposure could you possibly provide? You're not the NY Times!

2) "We'll give you a link to your site"- So what? I can put my site to be searched and found on Google.

3) "We will pay you $2 for a 200 word article"- So you expect me to spend at least an hour typing up an article and get paid two bucks? Get real.

So, to all of you journalists who are actually trying to EARN A LIVING, stand up to these people and tell them you expect to be paid fairly for your hard work. Don't undersell yourself and the rest of us journalists.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the handy chart for estimating free-lance charges. On the IRS mileage rate, please note:
1. For 2009, the IRS mileage rate was $0.55 per mile.
2. For 2010, the IRS has REDUCED the mileage rate to $0.50 per mile, for which the IRS offers the following feeble justification:

"The mileage rates for 2010 reflect generally lower transportation costs compared to a year ago."

This change might be worth a good freelance story in and of itself!

6:57 AM  
Blogger Coolopolis Montreal said...

I agree with Rob Dickens. I haven't read a good article in years. And when I mean a good article, I mean one of those stories where they rifle through someone's garbage, test for cocaine in the bathroom and stake out a house while eating smoked meat sandwiches in a car. They're all just cooking recipes and varities thereof nowadays. Muscular journalism has been killed by what Christy McCormick calls the three Gs of media.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Lysistrata said...

Wow! Thanks! I found this article by googling "can't pay you but" and expecting to see the slews of Craigslist ads I slog through daily.

The "Journicide" posting was interesting, but readers trying to click through to it might have a problem. Here is the correct link

Ann Brenoff's recent article on at has another link to the Harlan Ellison video and some interesting new thoughts.

Yes, writers can unionize, but just like pipefitters we'll surely find that bosses don't mind taking production overseas.

Perhaps the solution there is to educate readers about the benefits of good-quality writing. Pay for subscriptions to print materials ourselves (gasp!) or at least read them in the library. Send letters to the editors complimenting them on particularly fine pieces. Hope those compliments appear in print, so readers learn to recognize the difference.

As to shrinking editorial budgets, I sympathize with editors trying to slice up smaller pies. Yet, it is possible for editors to fight aggressively for larger budgets, especially if consumers/readers demand more and better content.

Can each of us galvanize three readers (better yet, subscribers) to write in to a publication to say something like, "I used to enjoy reading your publication, but now I see more ads and the articles just don't make it worthwhile to slog through them."?

If the editors can take those comments back to management, there's a better chance that they can increase their budgets. As long as management thinks that readers don't care about quality, why wouldn't they price content so that only someone who can't afford a flush toilet can write it?

4:08 AM  
Blogger Wish You Were Here said...

Seems to me it's not journalists and freelancers who need to get organized. We're all of the same opinion: writing and shooting for free is working for free and that is illegal, immoral and unsustainable. In fact what we need is education. National Geographic won't pay for images because there are so damn many hobby photographers with expensive equipment who gladly give their work away free for the thrill of having it published. Bloggers who write for fun are giving their work away for free because they already had a salary when they started. We need to educate the public. We need to let them know that their work is worth money too. And they should expect to get paid. They need to know that laymen giving work away for free is eroding the integrity of the media they depend upon for honest, factual news. The public values that. But they don't know and they don't think about it. And no matter how organized we get amongst ourselves, if the editors can get it cheaper elsewhere they will.

Incidentally: to Newsosaur or anyone else who might know. Is there any such organization (to educate the public and organize the media)? if not, does anyone know of a way to start one? If you are interested, let me know:

10:52 AM  
Blogger jzz said...

Breaking News:

Recent graduates can not afford to go into journalism because of the low wages for fear of not being able to pay back their college loans.

Let's see... I can make less money at a journalism gig, than I made my freshman year as a part time office clerk at a law firm.

No thanks.

It seems the only people still in journalism are rich kids whose parents could pay for their rent/tuition while they take a low paying job. For those of us paying off college, rent ourselves, journalism is just not a real option. Sure I would love to, but it would mean I would be teeter tottering on making my rent payment or going into default on student loans.

8:08 AM  

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