Freelance Files: Meeting the Challenge of Making More Money
By Christine Woodside
“Money does not buy you happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery.”
— Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman
We journalists often choose this line of work for the satisfaction it brings. Yet most of us, at some point, have also worked for less money than we’d like.
|Freelancer Jane Braxton Little, above, says she generally tries to negotiate for more money or a longer assignment. Photo: Lisa Morehouse, via @JBraxtonLittle, Twitter.|
But just because we do fulfilling work doesn’t mean we need to suffer the difficulties of low incomes.
That’s how I felt after many years as an independent contract journalist, so I have started to think of ways to make more, especially at those outlets where I’ve worked for a while.
This year, for example, I negotiated a major increase on a two-year contract. It worked for many reasons: The timing was right for them, I know I have skills that are valuable and I was confident that I had done much good and was worth this increase.
But finding more money as a freelancer is not about the old financial saw to make money while you’re sleeping. That speaks to investments. For freelancers like me, it’s about continuing to do the good work I’m doing but making more doing it, because my work is good enough and deserves it.
Yes, freelance article rates have been more or less stagnant for years. But there are many ways to ask for more money and hear yes for an answer.
So for Freelance Files, I talked to a handful of longtime freelancers to flesh out a half-dozen strategies. Here is our collective wisdom.
No. 1. Ask for more
If you don’t ask, it’s fairly certain they won’t pay more. I almost always ask if publishers can do a little better than the initial offer, whether for my articles or even for book advances from smaller presses. Sometimes they say yes.
My colleague Jane Braxton Little, who writes about environmental disasters like fires and nuclear accidents for major outlets, does the same. “When I get an assignment from a publication I’ve worked with, I always negotiate for more money,” Braxton Little says. “I’ll say, ‘Would you consider this time paying $2,500 for this 2,000-word story?’”
‘You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
Finding a diplomatic way to ask, and a
strong justification for your request, is key.’
— Sharon Guynup
Another colleague, Sharon Guynup, an award-winning photographer, writer and documentary maker, realized at some point that when people would call looking to pick her brain to help their new documentary project, she could charge them for her expertise. Project budgets vary, so she will figure out the rate based on their available funds. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Finding a diplomatic way to ask, and a strong justification for your request, is key,” she says.
Erica Gies, author of the new book “Water Always Wins,” also asks for more. “I often say my minimum rate is x, or my range is x to y, so are you able to meet that?” she explains. “They usually come back with something, whether it's a flat rate, lower word count, etc.”
Gies said one outlet paid an “OK word rate” but wanted her to do very short stories. She negotiated a minimum story length to make writing for that outlet worth her while.
No. 2. Negotiate length
Editors estimate story lengths, but journalists will know once they start the reporting whether the story justifies more room. This often results in more pay.
Guynup says she has negotiated longer stories — and thus more pay — for a more in-depth story or one that includes field reporting, or a complex story that needed more history, legal explanation and interpretation of regulations.
“I usually brainstorm with them what I feel it’s important to add,” she says. “The editors I’ve worked with wouldn’t allow me to write a substantially longer story without compensating me. I haven’t had to fight for it. What I had to make a case for was that this story needed more space.”
Braxton Little says that as she works with an editor to finalize her original pitch, often it becomes clear that the story should be longer than first proposed. “A 2,000-word piece becomes 3,000 words.”
No. 3. Seek grants
|Dan Grossman uses grants to extend resources for almost every story he writes.|
Some of us have benefitted from grants from the Society of Environmental Journalists or other journalism organizations, non-profits and foundations.
Freelancer Dan Grossman says, “I get a grant or cobble together several grants for almost every story I write. This means that I can do travel that the outlet would never pay for.”
Having a grant helps him get more assignments. He will at times write several stories for several outlets out of one big reporting trip.
Grossman also says he builds in more pay through grants. “One way I've been getting a little more money is by adding a small additional salary to a grant I’ve applied for,” he explained.
No. 4. Expand your skills
In my case, I earned a master’s degree and started teaching journalism part-time in 2019. I also will sometimes work hourly now as a developmental editor. And I know a freelancer who earns a third of his yearly income by giving paid talks about his books at community centers and nursing homes.
“There are many of us who have expanded our skills,” Guynup says, adding, for instance, “I don’t let publications use my photographs for free.” She also has started recording her own voiceovers for multimedia pieces, which brings in more money. “Don’t give things away,” she says.
No. 5. Build relationships
Freelance journalists must think long-term. Braxton Little and Gies both say that sometimes they can justify writing a story for a little less than they’d like if there are good reasons to do so, such as exposure that will lead to other assignments from other editors.
Says Gies: “If there’s a reason to do a particular story (a passion project, or a reach) for a bit less than I would normally accept, or for less than I know they pay others, I will sometimes specify that the rate I’m agreeing to for this piece is not a precedent for other pieces I may do for them in the future.”
She adds, “One more universal: Stay polite and positive. Editors working for low-paying pubs often move to higher-paying pubs. And I’ve found more continuity of work with a particular person with whom I have a relationship as opposed to a particular outlet.”
No. 6. Value your time
If a story is going to take too much time for what it pays, don’t do it. Seek out editors and publishers who will pay you more. I have learned to put my energy where the project and the compensation best match my expectations.
Gies adds, “Above all, you have to be ready to walk away. That can be hard when you need money. But in general, I find the space/time not invested in working for less is converted to time seeking/getting assignments that pay more.”
Journalist Christine Woodside, Freelance Files co-editor, specializes in environment, American history and mountain adventure. She is the editor of Appalachia, a journal of mountaineering and conservation. Woodside writes for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team and many other outlets. Her book “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books” (Arcade) traces the influence of the early libertarian political movement on the iconic children’s pioneer books. She teaches a journalism history course at UConn.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.