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How do freelance journalists get paid?

Isn’t that a question we all wished we knew the answer to.

Generally, a freelancing journalist is treated as an independent contractor or as a small business.

What this means is that the freelance journalist becomes a seperate legal entity trading with another legal entity – the corporation or publication that is hiring their services.


Before we start:

In terms of rates, you can be paid in the following ways:

  • By the word – in Australia, try to get fifty cents per word and up.
  • By the article/photo/video/audio/piece of content – some publications will have set amounts per pieces and a set number of pieces per month so that they can sort out their budgets with minimum fuss. In Australia, whatever the word length, it seems to hover around the $150 – $200 mark.
  • By the hour
  • By the day – usually when you are hired for a specific event and expected to generate as many stories/photos/pieces of work as possible in covering it but not sure how many exactly there will be.
  • By the project – there might be an overall project rate for the work required that the publication has decided is what it is going to hand over for the work and you will have to budget your time spent on it accordingly.

Invoicing

You set yourself up in business as a freelancer and you pitch a story to a publication.

The editor accepts and sends you a contract and/or a brief of what the work is. You sign this and send it back.

You complete the work according to the brief/contract and then send the editor/company an invoice with your relevant information and payment terms and options on it. This can be as easy as providing bank details for transfering money into your account or a Paypal link.

You send them a receipt when you receive payment and rinse and repeat.

On occasion you will have to chase them up for late payments. It happens.


Grants

This is less common but if you have a reporting project and it coincides well with timing, you can also apply as a freelancing journalist for grants to work on such reporting projects.

Perhaps it is a big issue that would need different stories in a series exploring different angles. Perhaps it is an investigative piece that needs financial assistance for resources you otherwise would not be able to access or use as a freelancer. Or perhaps the money buys you the time you need to do the work.

You will have to make a grant application and follow the rules and make sure the project you want to do fits in with the guidelines.

Currently, The Walkley Foundation in Australia has announced funding for freelance journalists.

Grants for journalism that apply to what you are working on as a journalist and that are timed well can be hard to find.


Stringers/Regular contributors

A stringer is someone who is a freelancer who is on a regular schedule or list for delivering some sort of journalism content to a publication. This doesn’t happen very often – sometimes you get on a list but you aren’t asked to provide content regularly but to pitch ideas instead before you asked to work on them.

In a lot of cases, most stringers will invoice after each bit of work as per the first method above but in some rare cases, you will have your details on file and a regular payment sent out. Again, very rare, usually you do have to invoice.


Short term contracts

What I mean by this is when you are hired as a freelance journalist to work for only a short time for a publication such as say you are coming in to assist in covering an election.

There will be a set amount of hours you will need to work, you may be asked to come into the office itself and base yourself there and there will be a contract that states how much you will get, what the hourly rate will be, whether you get super/pension on top of that or not, how you will track your work time and what you will deliver and start and end dates.

Then for that period of time, you will be asked to send in your tracked time to your immediate boss/project manager and you will be asked to invoice weekly/fortnightly based on it or be paid automatically – this will depend on their payment systems.

So for the duration of the short term contract, you may have a semblance of a full time or part time in-house employee office role with a regular paycheck.


Syndication/reprint fees

Say you wrote an article for a publication. Say that publication was able to generate some revenue or some value by allowing that article to be reprinted or reposted or republished in another publication that was either part of its parent company or that they had a content sharing arrangement with.

You should have a right to a lesser fee for it being reprinted or syndicated or content shared.

Always check your contracts for what they state about reprint fees and syndication and if you can do so, before you do the work (though this isn’t always possible). If you need to, negotiate for this.

If you do get reprint fees, this can be a useful source of some income for freelance journalists as well.


Apps, sites and software

There are some apps and sites where you bid for work with clients who post open briefs and if you are chosen, you have to submit the work and then you get paid into a bank account or Paypal account.

Now sometimes, you have to build up a certain amount in your online account with the app or site before you can request the funds to be released to your actual bank or Paypal account.

There are some caveats here:

  • The rates can be low especially when you start out as some of these sites have a rating system in place where you need to prove you are a credible, reliable worker by either taking tests or working on low rates till you sort of prove yourself a bit more and can extend how much you can ask for.
  • You can also be limited in how much you bid with some sites which maybe a problem if you are starting out as you have no guarantee any of your bids will be accepted and often the lowest bid may be accepted which doesn’t help anyone.
  • It may cost you more in time to bid for not much work for not much pay. Always weigh it up and see.

Agencies

There are a lot of agency type places springing up that connect freelance journalists with publications wanting content. Again, there is often a bit of gatekeeping in terms of them wanting to make sure you have experience as a freelance journalist.

Quite often, requests will be sent out to those who have joined and you will have to pitch or bid. The amounts can be higher than on apps and sites but they quite often are also not close enough to compensate adequately for the time spent on the work.

There have also been issues where the work has been done, the actual publication has paid over their cost of placing the work with the agency and the freelancer has not been paid because the agency has not got a great business strategy in place. In that case, you cannot negotiate or liaise directly with the publication, you have to do so with the agency to be paid.

You may also find your byline not being used on the piece or the piece ending up in different publications because again, in the publication’s mind, they have purchased a piece of work from an agency or middle man and now own it and whether the journalist is adequately compensated for it is not their concern.


Crowdfunding

There are a lot of crowdfunding sites out there that operate in very different ways – I myself have a Patreon where I post behind the scenes stuff on how I get and write my stories.

Crowdfunding works if:

  • You have a project or series that people can get behind. Andrew P Street resurrected the column he used to write while working for Fairfax papers and his column readers went with him to Patreon.
  • You have a fanbase already. If you are charging small amounts per person, you need a lot of people power to make it work. Ginger Gorman is an investigative journalist on Patreon making it work.

Crowdfunding is NOT a miracle answer though. You have to provide rewards and constant updates and you have to offer something that people think and feel is of sufficient value for them to follow and pay you per month or per piece.

What it can do is provide a little bit of additional income – not provide an income entirely but help fund a reporting project or help pay some of the expenses in working as a freelance journalist.

A few journalists do really well with crowdfunding, either with one off campaigns to allow them to work on certain stories or more permanent campaigns that allow people to support them doing more regular work where they do make a lot more from it than they would with just regular freelancing work. This however is an outlier. You can aim for it but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen for you.


Other sort of related sources of income:

These sources come about because of your freelance journalism work but can be very helpful.

  • Speaking fees – you may be asked to speak at events and conferences on your journalism work.
  • Consultancy fees – an organisation may need your advice.
  • Training/teaching fees – you may be asked to run workshops and other training events for fellow journalists or even teach on a casual or regular basis at an educational institution.
  • Mentoring fees – you may be able to mentor other fellow journalists either directly or through a mentoring scheme for which you may get direct compensation for your time or an honorarium.
  • Royalties on books or the borrowing of them – if you write a book as a journalist you will either get an advance against royalties or royalties and if your book is borrowed via a library or used in a curriculum, you will, in Australia, get copyright use fees via Coypright Australia or fees for it being borrowed through the library system.

Things to be aware of:

  • Sometimes you will get people wanting to pay you very low rates. Do not fall for this unless you absolutely need any money coming in the door. If you can walk away, aim for the highest rates you can get and don’t be afraid to negotiate.
  • Some clients may want to pay you on the basis of how many views or hits you get on your work – please always try to get paid for the hours you work or the work itself.

Keen on more journalism related content?

You can follow me on Patreon for behind the scenes stuff on how I get assignments and write stories or you can sign up to my mailing list to keep track of when I have upcoming events and courses and other cool things.

If I missed any other ways freelance journalists have of getting paid, let me know.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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