Getting paid as a freelance journalist

Most news outlets pay per word published, a concept I’ve always thought absurd, as of course some words cost more to produce than others. Consider, for example, the cost of a smart, detailed, on-the-ground report from the middle of gunfire in an unheard of corner of Syria to the cost of a vacuous opinion piece written from a Brooklyn bedroom. Broadly, for an eight-hundred-word piece in a major international news outlet, a reporter was looking at between $250 and $500. Some outlets will offer a day rate if writing isn’t to be published directly, for example, doing research or getting quotes. The New York Times paid $150 per day; The Washington Post offered $150; TIME paid $200. Generally, an outlet pays the lesser of the day- or word-rate—so it isn’t rare to be earning $20 to $50 a day from a prestigious news outlet, without even considering the costs involved in doing the work.

Obviously, these numbers are not high, especially for people working in some of the world’s most inhospitable places and without insurance or pensions. News outlets are always keen to point out to readers that journalism costs money—and it does—but they rarely point out that they don’t pass the money they receive, in cash or benefits, onto the freelance journalists who play a large part in creating that journalism. 

I began to learn how ad hoc the industry was, how unprofessional and unregulated. The news industry’s failure to build a sustainable business model has meant the number of staff foreign correspondents has been slashed over the years. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2013, The New York Times had three reporters covering all of Africa; The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal each had two. As budgets fell, editors realized that the freelancer—who would be paid a pittance, wouldn’t get insurance, a pension or, frankly, anything resembling professional work—was far cheaper than a staff reporter. They were taking advantage of the gig economy long before Uber and Lyft. 

Photography, video, audio, and live hits—conversations with in-studio presenters—would eventually complement my income, but when I began, I didn’t know all this. I’d had a few pieces published and could see already that the low pay wouldn’t allow my work to be sustainable. In some cases already, I’d actually lost money. How did others do this? 

A deeper chat with Reuters bureau chief Andy Cawthorne in his large office in those early weeks in April 2011 put what had been abstract advice from London Times foreign editor Richard Beeston while I was in London into actionable advice on the ground in Caracas. Two key suggestions he offered that day would unlock the possibility for me to become a successful freelance foreign correspondent, able to do the stories I wanted to do, fly where I wanted to fly, and make that lifestyle financially sustainable, even lucrative.

What were those suggestions? First, Andy said, I shouldn’t just do one story for one outlet. I should sell each story multiple times to different outlets. But, I countered, surely that would annoy my clients, especially given everything was online.  

“Use different quotes and write in different styles, with different leads,” Andy advised, a lead being the top couple of paragraphs of an article. “When you’re out, get as many quotes as you possibly can.” It seemed wrong, but, of course, it wasn’t at all given the state of the industry and how little it paid. No one was paying me enough to demand exclusivity—not even Reuters, Andy assured me. Again, as with its inability to fund staff correspondents everywhere, the industry’s struggles allowed me to find a workaround.

If a story cost me $500 to produce and an outlet gave me $250 for an eight-hundred-word piece, then clearly I was going to be back in Slough very soon. Yet, if I could do the same story five times for five different text-based news outlets and sell photos and TV/video and radio/audio as well, I could easily make $2,000 or more. That both would cover my expenses and earn me money for my time. Voila, sustainable business.

Those same numbers wouldn’t fit every piece of work I did, but the framework became my new way of working. Any story would cost something to produce—be it in traveling to a place, operational costs such as paying my rent, or simply the expertise I was accruing—and it would take time. The total cost was, like in any business, the value of the monetary cost required to produce it plus the amount of money I wanted for my time in putting it together. I needed those things paid for, and no single news outlet would do that.

I thought about other industries’ business models. Would a restaurant just cater to one diner? No. Multiple people will eat a set menu of items and collectively pay the restaurant’s rent, the cooks’ and waiting staff’s wages, and provide some profit for the owner to offset the risk of having opened the business in the first place. My business model would be similar. Of course, if one diner wanted to hire out the whole place—i.e., wanted exclusivity—I could make that work, but it would come at a price. I’d realize this most starkly during protests in Venezuela in 2014 when I’d easily make more than $1,000 per day from various clients though The Washington Post could only offer $150 and wanted exclusivity. That wasn’t going to happen.

Andy’s second suggestion had to do with expenses. In general, a news outlet would pay nothing, or at most half the cost of a trip. Andy suggested that I always request expenses and not stop when I get the full amount. If a trip costs $500, then get $250 from one client, $100 from another, and $300 from another. Ultimately, it’s all money-in. Again, this felt a bit cheeky, but why should I be subsidizing these companies, many of them run by billionaire owners, and take on all the monetary—and significant non-monetary—risk.

If I could pull these suggestions off, I’d have a sustainable business. If not, I’d be back in Slough. My whole being as a journalist rested on whether I could run a sustainable business and game the system, not on whether or not I had solid reporting skills.

Talking with Andy always left me energized. I now had a formula—and following formulas through to their logical conclusion was something I was good at. Being able to do the same story for multiple outlets would unlock the value within it. Editors marveled at my quick turn-around times, though they often didn’t know I was turning around far more for other editors in that same period. My lack of patience and hasty writing fit perfectly with what I was learning was the modus operandi of a successful freelance reporter; without quite realizing it, I was predisposed to make this work.

I also saw how little some editors cared for quality. For many, it was just about filling pages of text, alongside which they could serve ads. I realized what was worth putting effort into and what wasn’t, what I was doing for nothing but money and what I was doing because I wanted to do serious journalism. Was I happy with this? Not at all—but I was happier with this than having to leave the industry. One thing I didn’t have to worry about, thankfully, was competition from other freelancers in Venezuela.

My pitches were more refined now than they had been in those early days when I’d been persistent to the point of being pesky. Now that I had the formula, I was happy to repeat that and cold call and email every news outlet in the world. I contacted every foreign editor from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course, most had no budget for foreign news, especially from an unknown reporter in Venezuela, but once in a while they’d encourage me to pitch or get in touch if a big story broke. To do the stories I really wanted to do, I’d need as many clients, and types of clients as possible; I’d need every English-language foreign editor in the world to know I was in Venezuela and available. 

Within a few months, I was filing and invoicing multiple times a day, everything tracked on a spreadsheet which proved to me that, yes, this actually was going to be sustainable.

One of the best ways to get a foot in the door at a news outlet is to jump in when it’s momentarily ajar. Benedict Mander was the Financial Times’ reporter in Caracas.  He invited me for a light lunch in Los Palos Grandes and told me he would be going on vacation soon. Would I like to cover for him? Of course! The newspaper, Benedict told me, would likely want short blog posts, but perhaps some news stories.

Per Andy’s advice on pitching the same story to multiple outlets, I suggested a quick blog post on the smuggling of gas at the border and how those same subsidies were leading to power outages across Venezuela as soon as I was back in Caracas. It took no time to write and Jonathan Wheatley, the London-based editor, was happy with my work. The Financial Times logo was a nice one to add to my online portfolio; alongside that of Reuters, it gave a gravitas that The Times, and certainly the British tabloids, didn’t quite muster. When I asked about invoicing and for how much, though, that illusionary gravitas was shattered. 

“I'm sorry to say it's a miserly $50,” Jonathan said by email. “I'd hoped Benedict would have mentioned that rather than leaving it to me!” I laughed it off and sent an invoice—and would happily work with him again. At least he’d been decent and honest.

But, $50? That’s what one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers paid its freelancers? It was just 350 words, but still. This shattered any guilt I might have been harboring about pitching the same story to multiple outlets. According to a spreadsheet detailing rates I was sent when working with the newspaper the following year, a 500-word article would receive just $138. It was a pittance, and soon enough it wouldn’t be worth me doing. Years later, I’d learn that the Financial Times was infamous within the industry for only hiring people “of means,” according to one editor there. (The Financial Times did not respond to a request for comment.)

It wasn’t only low payment that was an issue. New Statesman, the magazine which had published my work from Juárez in Mexico, still hadn’t paid either the agreed $400 expenses or the $1,200 for the 2,500-word magazine piece—six weeks late. This would precipitate the second sore point, after unpaid internships, between me and the journalism industry. Many news outlets simply don’t pay their invoices in a timely way despite legal requirements that they do so. I’ve never got to the bottom of why this is, whether it’s inefficiencies in their processes or an active means to improve their own cashflow. Either way, it was damaging to my cashflow given that I was always hovering just above being maxed out—and I had to pay a deposit on the apartment I was about to move into.

I pleaded with the accounts department at New Statesman to get me the money as soon as possible but was met with stonewalling, absurd inefficiencies and what felt like outright lies. It seemed as if it was the first time the accounts department had had to pay an invoice. I was angry that my time, unpaid, was being taken up by dealing with this incompetence.  I finally received the money, too late for the apartment deposit (hence selling my car in England), and hoped it would be a one-off. It wouldn’t. (The New Statesman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some six weeks after invoicing The Times of London Magazine for some work, payment still hadn’t arrived. After countless emails and phone calls, I was put through to a senior reporter, despite requesting someone in accounts who could actually make the payment.

“I am a journalist, not a clerk in the payroll office,” he wrote in an email, angry with my “hounding.” 

“I am also a journalist, not a debt collector,” I responded, my hands trembling in rage. “I need money to live and work. If the payment had been dealt with properly weeks ago, we would not be in this position and both you and I could get on with journalism.” My demands, he said, were “hyperbolic.” 

He added, “I find it astonishing that you are dependent on one payment from one publication in order to survive.” (The Times of London Magazine did not respond to a request for comment.)

How dare he? His company owed me money and had failed to pay. He should be apologizing. Sadly, he wasn’t an anomaly in this industry. I received payment ten weeks after my invoice—and only after considerable emotional stress at both the futile back and forth, and in having to find funds to offset the delay. I didn’t get it. Surely it was black and white. I’d done the work and sent an invoice. That invoice needed paying. What most angered me, though, was the attitude that I wasn’t worthy of on-time payment and that the companies were doing me a favor, both in commissioning my work and in paying me for it. 

I learned another valuable lesson, however, about emotion and people’s reaction to it. Being either kind and positive or angry and negative wouldn’t work. After the first few late payments, I looked up the law. In the UK, thanks to the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Act 1998, I could fine outlets $60 for a late—past thirty days—payment. And if they didn’t pay the fine, I could take them to the small claims court; it took just a few minutes to make that claim online, cost $40, and, given the black-and-white nature of the law, I couldn’t lose and would receive the invoice amount plus the $60 fine plus the $40 court costs. 

Over the following years, I would fine the Financial Times, CNN, Sky, The Daily Mail, Vice (twice), and New Statesman (four times), all for not paying within thirty days. Two refused to pay the fines. “Empty threats over $60 aren't really going to help you in this matter. I suggest you shift your attitude,” an editor at Vice wrote in an email. Thirty days later, my hands not at all trembling this time, I wrote: “Attached is an empty threat for $60.” It was court documentation which had taken five minutes to put together. She didn’t respond but Vice paid up. The Daily Mail’s attitude was similar but, they too, paid when served with court documents. (Vice and The Daily Mail did not respond to requests for comment.)

I was always polite but short; there was no reason to give long, emotive explanations. They either paid or they didn’t, and if they didn’t, the court would deal with them and I’d get a little extra money. This was how a professional dealt with the problem, I thought. One editor was surprised, though said he respected me for doing this; everyone else kept quiet, my first hint that many journalists and editors are happy to bow down to the authority that pays them. All paid up and all came back to me with requests for further work. My principles and inability to choose which battles to fight overshadowed my desire to be liked or worry that this would hamper my career, similarly to my spat with The Independent a year earlier. I became militant about getting paid on time and imposed this policy on everyone I worked with long after the odd late $250 was important to me; it was a matter of principle. 

It disappointed me that left-wing outlets such as New Statesman, which ostensibly fought for the worker, didn’t appreciate that their own policies perpetuated the wealth inequalities they apparently despised. One sentence in it read: “The self-employed should be entitled to timely and fair pay, and adequate parental leave.” Yet they consistently paid late, paid less than minimum wage and offered no benefits whatsoever.

It also amazed me that so many people—especially journalists who were meant to seek truth and justice, and fight bullies—could be so unkind, so unsympathetic, and feel so comfortable hiding behind bureaucracy. They acted as if pay wasn't part of the equation when it came to work.

While I was naturally personable, human and decent to all those I dealt with, my positive traits began to fade in a Pavlovian response to this repeated abuse from editors. I hardened to them, quick to spot signs that they would behave like this. I became transactional and more business-like with those who stepped an inch out of line, a position I hated but that I knew worked. Often, they were decent and human when wanting something but stonewalled and played the big company card when it came to payment or anything I may need. Which was it?  Was I dealing with kind human beings or robots in heartless corporations? I didn’t have a problem with either in principle; I just didn’t like it when one person pretended to be both. Very few editors were like Andy or Richard.  

Either way, I’d found my own fix, though my resentment toward the journalism industry was growing—and I was only a few months into my career.