Even when industry publications pay, writers can hardly eke out a living, and solutions to the problem are few and far between
By JULIE SCHWIETERT COLLAZO
On the one hand, we live in the best of times for freelance journalism, with seemingly more—and more varied—sources than ever to fund the work of independent journalists. In addition to fellowships and grants, there are ultra-democratic platforms like Beacon, Kickstarter, Patreon, and Contributoria, each promising that journalists can take greater control of funding and raise the financial resources they need to report on subjects that might otherwise be overlooked.
On the other hand, we live in the worst of times for freelance journalism. With conventional media slashing freelance budgets, putting independent journalists and foreign stringers in precarious situations, and new media outlets often failing completely to provide the kind of financial backing that is required for freelancers to report stories responsibly (not to mention benefits of any sort), freelancers are more than ever functioning as the journalistic equivalent of cook, server, and bottle washer, as well as accountant, fund raiser, and payroll department.
Take Francesca Borri, for instance.
In a 2013 article published by Columbia Journalism Review, Borri, an Italian freelancer who was reporting from Syria at the time, detailed her expenses and her income in a single powerful paragraph:
[W]hether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors see no difference. [I am] paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance–it’s almost $1,000 a month–but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that $70 a piece pushes you to save on everything. They know, too, that if you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded. But they buy your article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball handmade by a Pakistani child.
$70. Not per day. Per article. Reported and filed from an active war zone in which the journalist is covering all of her own expenses.
Borri’s balance sheet is hardly an outlier. In an article for The New York Observer, where she works as a senior editor covering media issues, Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke cited Borri’s article and added anecdotes of multiple freelancers who specialized in conflict zone reporting and who made little more–and sometimes less– than Borri. One freelancer Bloomgarden-Smoke quoted was Danny Gold, who lamented the fact that staff writers who aren’t even reporting from the front-lines are making more than he and his independent journalist colleagues. “The people online who summarize our articles with maybe a line or two of snark make a lot more money and have a lot more stability than people who are actually out there doing this work, looking these people in the eye and telling these stories,” Gold said to Bloomgarden-Smoke. Borri’s and Gold’s experiences beg the question: If editors and publishers–and, let’s not forget, the reading public–aren’t even willing to pay adequately for frontline war zone reporting, can freelancers writing under less intense circumstances or less urgent beats reasonably expect that they’ll receive fair funding and compensation from outlets where their bylines run?
The answer: Probably not.
In a survey of freelancers conducted by Payoneer earlier this year, only 46% of the 23,000 respondents said they are happy with what they are earning. While the survey’s sample was not comprised exclusively of journalists, the writers included were among the least happy of the freelancing pool, with 43% expressing dissatisfaction about compensation. According to Amanda Walgrove, who summarized Payoneer’s survey for Contently’s The Freelancer, the worldwide average per hour pay for writers was a mere US $17.
And that fee represents only the average of what writers are supposed to be paid, not what they actually “take home” before taxes and after reporting expenses, which are rarely covered by their outlets. Too many independent journalists report troubles getting paid, spending uncompensated hours chasing down publishers who delay payments unreasonably or who seem to be evading processing invoices altogether. According to the Freelancers Union, which currently counts 266,000 Americans among its membership, at least 77% of freelancers will confront the problem of deadbeat clients during their career. The union, which has periodically conducted surveys on the issue and has attempted to pressure lawmakers into taking legislative action by showing them the extent of the deadbeat problem via educational publicity stunts such as the World’s Longest Invoice, counts client non-payment as among the top problems with which freelancers, including independent journalists, must contend.
The Freelancers Union isn’t the only group that’s attempted to ensure that independent journalists and writers get what they’re due and to advocate for more just compensation of the people who are responsible for keeping readers informed. The website Who Pays Writers?, which invited writers and journalists to log their rates and corresponding publication anonymously, was absorbed into a new project, Scratch Magazine (which, coincidentally, announced on July 1 that it’s shutting down), a subscription-based digital magazine that costs $6/issue or $20/year. The original impetus of Who Pays Writers? was the idea that writers could advocate for better rates if they just had a sense of what the going rates were at outlets they wanted to pitch. A similar idea underpins WordRates and PitchLab, a project proposed by freelancer Scott Carney that, as he puts it, is intended to serve as a “publishing platform for journalists to share payment structures, rate editors, and sell pitches.” The project, funded by a crowdfunding campaign Carney launched on Kickstarter, is expected to go live this fall. Carney has said he hopes that the project will be a “tiny revolution in the publishing industry” that brings the focus back to a writer and his or her work.
Regardless of whether that revolution comes to pass–and, crucially, whether it achieves the ambitious goals Carney has established for it–writers and journalists who work independently aren’t waiting for a savior or a radical shift in an industry whose interests are deeply entrenched–and not in favor of writers. The lack of adequate compensation and financial support for independent journalism is one key reason why freelancers have turned to funding and fund raising platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, and funding-publisher hybrids like Beacon and Contributoria. Each of these models is distinct in terms of structure, but each holds out the promise of one important idea: that a writer can take greater control of his or her income and, in the process, become less dependent on traditional publishers.
Patreon, as its name alludes, is a sort of patronage program; in fact, visit its website and you’ll be welcomed by the tagline, “Be a Patron of the Arts.” Launched in 2013, Patreon purports to be “bringing patronage back to the 21st century” by “enabl[ing] fans to support and engage with the artists and creators they love.” Not designed solely, or even primarily, for writers, the site levies a 5% fee for “creators,” plus credit card and bank transfer charges that range from 2-4%. Some writers use Patreon like a virtual tip jar, placing a link on their blog or website that allows readers to make a donation based on the value they ascribe to the writing or content they consume. The donation is charged monthly and, like many crowdfunding models, the “patron” receives not only the content itself, but also perks that are selected and delivered by the writer or content creator.
Kickstarter is the platform that comes to mind when most people think “crowdfunding,” and, like Patreon, it wasn’t developed just for writers. On Kickstarter, journalists seeking funding develop a “campaign” for a particular project and they have a set period of time, usually 30 days or so (the average is 38 days), to get their project backed. The journalist or writer sets his or her own total amount, but it’s an all-or-nothing proposition: if the project is not fully backed by supporters, the writer doesn’t receive a penny, not even for the time invested in developing the proposal and pulling together the roster of “rewards” that donors will receive. When it works, journalists can receive no-strings-attached backing that lets them report on topics that they might otherwise have trouble funding. Kickstarter retains 5% of the money raised by successful projects.
Beacon’s model is a hybrid of Patreon and Kickstarter. The Beacon approach combines monthly patronage with a reward-style system and it is distinguished from these other models in that it was designed primarily for journalists. Like Kickstarter, journalists using the site have a set amount of time to achieve full backing, and that support can, in many cases, be financially significant. The site claims to have raised almost $1 million in funds for journalists, and some successfully-backed projects have pulled in more than $20,000 (AllDigitocracy raised a little more than $12,000 last year for a journalism web series). Climate Confidential, a group of six journalists using Beacon to report on climate change, has raised $60,000 on Beacon to date.
Finally, there’s Contributoria, which appropriates elements of each of the preceding models but is entirely unique in that supporters don’t have to spend a cent backing the projects they like. Writers and journalists propose story ideas, set the amount they’d like to be paid for the piece, have a month to rouse their networks to back their ideas with points, and, if fully backed, are paid in full upon publication of their story. Contributoria is also unique in that it is a publishing platform, too, and its approach to rights is 100% writer-centric; journalists who use Contributoria retain rights to their work and can republish elsewhere if they choose to do so.
While each of these models offers independent journalists a compelling alternative to the traditional publication and payment system, they are not without their challenges and shortcomings. For one thing, they involve a considerable amount of work without the promise of necessarily receiving funding. For another, there’s the question of how sustainable these models are for journalists who’d like to rely upon them over the long-haul. Even in the case of Contributoria, where backers aren’t pledging any of their own money to a project, several journalists who have used the service three or more times have found it difficult to lean on their networks repeatedly, despite the fact that pledging support takes less than two minutes. This is particularly the case for journalists who set higher fees, especially since Contributoria has adjusted corresponding point values upward over the course of this year. A writer does not know, when setting his or her fee, how many points will be required to get it fully backed (and, by extension, how many people will need to back the project); the site operates a fluctuating point system not unlike the ups and downs of currency values. The problem for the writer, though, is that the system isn’t transparent and, in general, the “currency value” has gone up– way up: a project that once required 75 or 100 backers may now require 200 or more to be fully funded. Since most journalists are actively bringing their own networks to the site (as opposed to simply hoping that casual visitors will stumble upon their project, find it interesting, and pledge points to it), the amount of work required to get a project fully backed can feel like a second job.
While numbers like Climate Confidential’s Beacon funding are impressive, that kind of robust funding is not the norm on these sites. On Contributoria, for instance, per-writer monthly pay-outs typically average between US $350-430. While individual writers have been able to get backed for pay-outs of several thousand dollars (including this writer), the per person average (calculated by dividing the total amount of money paid out each month by the total number of writers who are backed each month) has never exceeded US $758. Thus, while these models for freelancers seem exciting on the surface, they may not be tenable over the long-haul.
This issue of sustainability is one that has, finally, begun to be addressed by various stakeholders as newsrooms continue to slim down and rely increasingly upon a broad freelance base. Those stakeholders, however, are finding that the subject is knotty. In mid-May, a select group of journalists (including the founder of this website as well as this writer), scholars, and funders was convened at The Pocantico Center of The Rockefeller Brothers Fund to engage the question, “How can we support independent journalism to thrive?” In addition to discussing how existing resources and services could be used better and by a wider number of journalists, participants at the conclave were invited to think about whether–and if so, what–resources were needed to improve the financial status of freelancers and independent journalists so that these individuals could “not only survive, but collectively grow into a vibrant, powerful and resilient media sector.”
Far from being yet another conference where talking heads would get together and just converse about issues of mutual interest, the Pocantico convening was intended, by the end of the weekend, to produce a set of action items that would, if not answer the questions posed, begin implementing concrete strategies for addressing it in a tangible, productive way. Organizers referred to that end product as “the roadmap.” Conversations at Pocantico were intense, lively, thoughtful, and engaging, with the session subjects determined and hosted by participants themselves. This approach was possible in part, because of the incredible amount of intent and preparation that were invested in the planning of the meeting, in part because of the facilitation style (the convener, Journalism That Matters, uses an approach called Open Space Technology to stimulate and guide conversations), and in part because of the participants themselves and the vast wealth of experience they brought with them to the conclave.
Answering that central question, however, proved to be a robust challenge. While dozens of interesting ideas about creating a richer journalism ecosystem were proposed and discussed, far fewer were proposed about how those ideas could be funded, much less in a sustainable way over the long-term. Participants had difficulty agreeing upon shared definitions of essential terms, including what independent journalism/journalists even mean(s), and, curiously, most seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about money. In the final conversation of the weekend, one participant, the founder of a major independent media group, raised the point that the issue about which everyone had been brought together to speak had hardly been addressed at all.
That the issue of money was never really addressed head-on should not be seen as a failure of the convening, but rather, symptomatic of the larger ecosystem of contemporary journalism and, in particular, independent journalism. Editors and publishers avoid talking about money with freelancers (in fact, more often than not, freelancers are the party that must raise the issue of what their words are worth). Readers have little clue what independent journalists are paid and are often ambivalent about or unaware of their own role in this matrix, struggling as so many of them do against the idea of paying for writing when so much of it–regardless of quality– is available online for free. And writers undermine their collective value by agreeing, in too many cases, to write for free in exchange for the always-elusive intangible, “exposure,” or by grousing about colleagues who make more. In my own work, I’ve been told by other writers that I should just be happy to be writing (as if an accountant is just happy to crunch numbers, regardless of the pay). And even on Contributoria, I’ve been challenged by other writers, questioning why I’ve set a high fee when their own fee is lower. And let’s not forget: While the climate is challenging for all freelancers, the difficulties are compounded exponentially for writers who come from marginalized communities,.
So where does all this leave independent journalists who are desperate for funding and fair compensation? As you might suspect, the answers aren’t simple. Continued experimentation with platforms like Patreon, Kickstarter, Beacon, and Contributoria is recommended, particularly if these platforms are willing to work more transparently with independent journalists to refine certain aspects of their systems. Being more generous in sharing information about the myriad resources already in existence, including grants and fellowships, rather than allowing information about these opportunities to sit in silos, is another best practice that’s easy enough to implement. But there’s also work to be done outside of our tight collegiate circles. That work includes expanding our efforts in the oft-overlooked field of media literacy, educating readers and consumers about what it takes, money-wise, to fund responsible reporting. It includes continuing to look for ways to engage readers in feeling some sense of involvement in the news’ creation, rather than just passive, helpless consumers of it. And it involves educating ourselves, making decisions about what, both as individuals and as a profession, we think standard rates should be, and exerting our collective strength to stand up for fair compensation and support or to stand down, rejecting an assignment when a publisher refuses to pay fairly for freelancers’ work.