June 11, 2013
Another day, another disappointing conversation about money. If you've been here before, you may have read my October 2012 post about the low pay meted out to freelance public radio reporters. That blog post about cash went more viral than anything I have ever done for Marketplace, NPR, or any other journalism outlet. But the more I interact with editors about pay, the more $400 begins to sound generous (though please don't get me wrong - it isn't, at least in my neck of the woods).
What has sparked me off today is this piece about freelance reporters on The Huffington Post. It's an important, well written piece by Lily Hindy, who works for Sebastian Junger's organization RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues). She writes about the terrible risks freelance reporters take to report abroad, and how some of them are expected to do it on spec (yes, just go out to places like Afghanistan and Libya and risk their lives and then maybe, just maybe, the newspaper or other journalistic entity will deign to pay them for what they bring back). I hightly recommend the piece. But I had to roll my eyes at its exhortation to "treat freelancers like the professionals they are." I mean no offense to the writer, who, I'm pretty sure, was not paid for this very piece. That's my point. The Huffington Post apparently sees no irony in posting a great argument for paying freelancers on its own site...which doesn't pay freelancers. I'm sure The Huffington Post would argue that it is not 'a news agency'. But in today's media world it comes close enough. It has lured top talent away from publications like The New York Times. I can see how some smaller outfits could claim poverty, but HuffPo is not one of them. I know I'm cutting off any chance that Ms. Huffington will ever come on board as a funder of my podcast, The Broad Experience, but this topic is too important to ignore. There is only so much free writing to 'get your brand out there' that a person can or should do, me included.
HuffPo is, of course, not the only one that doesn't pay or barely pays. I was shocked two weeks ago to come away from an email conversation with an editor at a top journalism brand, which lately shut down its print arm, to find the page I was inquiring about pays between $150 and $300 per piece, and to get $300 you need to write 1,000 words or more. I'm sure this publication would point to journalism's gloomy economics as their reason for such low pay, or at least I assume they would. Last night I read this piece by Anna Pratt in the Society of Professional Journalists' quarterly magazine Quill. I had never heard of most of the freelance-oriented sites she mentions, but I have heard of and had some small dealings with Contently, and was disappointed. These are sites that aim, in theory, to make it easier for freelancers to find work. Contently, in its early days last year, certainly made it sound like it was on freelancers' side. So imagine my surprise when I was offered some work writing for iVillage that paid about $20 per post (and this would be a few times a week, so that's about $60 a week). Huh? I can only imagine that all these sites are relying on very young and inexperienced writers and reporters to work for them. The trouble is, where does that leave those of us who are neither particularly young nor inexperienced? Increasingly, I suspect, working as writers for large brands, which have money, even if they lack journalism's allure.
I'd be glad to hear from anyone else who has thoughts about this topic.