Fair Wages for Freelance Writing

A recent story in The Australian caught my eye. The title of the piece is “Online magazine offers less than 2c a word to freelancers”. The name of the online magazine is Breathe Magazine Australia (BreatheMagazine.com) and it is scheduled to launch in April 2012.

The Australian journalists’ union, called Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) has a recommended word rate of 93c a word (which is comparable to U.S. currency).  The MEAA criticized Breathe Magazine’s owner, Flujo, stating that “Employers must realize that journalists must be paid properly for their work.”

Flujo is looking for three full-time writers, and is asking journalists to agree to write a minimum of six 400-word articles throughout the course of a month in the hopes they are hired for the full time gig. A 400-word article, by Breathe Magazine’s pay rate, is $7.

Many established freelancers would scoff at that rate—and it’s unclear by this article if the full-time writer would be paid more than that once hired.

The editor of Breathe Magazine Australia, Cedric Chenefront, conceded that it was a low rate but defended the offer on the grounds of his publication’s limited advertising budget.

“We’ll give it three months (at the $7 per article rate) but we’re hoping to pay them more as soon as we have more budget,” he said. —theaustralian.com.au

When I first started freelancing for a couple of monthly publications in Boston, MA in my early 20s, I wrote for free. I was testing the waters. I had a full-time job that I liked, but I was trying to figure out if I wanted to go back to school to become a journalist. I got perks—like free movie tickets and DVDs—but that wasn’t what I cared about. I wanted to see my name in print for the first time ever. I didn’t care about getting paid.

Fast forward 10 years and I have a graduate degree in journalism under my belt, and a handful of bylines at newspapers and magazines along the East Coast. I work as an editor for a regional publication and I do some freelancing on the side. I have some great credentials and I have a lot of experience. Heck, I even teach undergraduate courses at a local university. I am a good writer, and there is no way I would accept a job that paid 1.7 cents a word—not in the stage of my career today. I know my worth.

If you are just starting out in the freelance world, writing for little to no pay might help you get some clips under your belt. If you’ve never written before, you might have to write for free (or very low pay) because you have no experience. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Once you start building your portfolio and getting better paying clients, you can start turning down work that doesn’t help your bottom line. And pretty soon, 1.7 cents a word is going to sound pretty ridiculous to you, too.

“It is clear from the work that the alliance has done into freelance rates in Australia, $7 for a 400-word article is clearly well below the rate a professional journalist would expect to receive for their work.” —MEAA spokesman, Jonathan Este

It always makes me roll my eyes when any magazine offers the following retorts when faced with people complaining about their low pay rate:

  • We may be paying below the industry standard, but your byline will get tons of exposure on our site.
  • We’re hoping to pay our readers more as soon as our budget increases.
  • We’re a new publication and don’t have a lot of advertising revenue.

These are excuses, and not a sound way to run a business. Clearly, magazines that are not willing to pay their writers a fair wage, are not overly concerned with publishing the best content.

Freelance payment should be worked into a publications monthly budget from the get-go, and should not be predicated on how much advertising revenue is generated. What happens, say, if you raise your rates because you are generating more revenue, and then have a few months when your ad sales are abysmal? Are you going to pay your writers less because your ad sales team is not doing a good job? Good luck keeping any of your best writers on board.

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