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|Author Gloria Dickie on assignment in the Arctic. Such reporting trips can have heavy upfront costs, unless covered by fellowships, advances or other workarounds. Click to enlarge.|
Freelance Files: When Travel Expenses Get Too Expensive
By Gloria Dickie
At the start of 2018, I was sitting in my monthly sublease on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, staring at my agenda, my belongings pouring out of the suitcase next to me — very nearly ready to go. As they always are.
I was about to take off for nearly two months of a Tour d’Arctic: Norway, Svalbard and Iceland. That, my agenda reminded me, would be followed by a quick jaunt back to North America, and a whirlwind reporting trip in eastern Washington, before I boarded a plane to western China for another month of reporting, and, finally, landing in Las Vegas for a quarterly SEJ board meeting.
Adventure, absolutely. But the dollar signs formed a pit in my stomach.
The complaints of freelancers are many. Low pay. Late payments. No payments. Indemnification clauses. No benefits. Isolation. Spilled coffee. Not enough coffee.
Well, I’m going to tack on another one: fronting travel expenses and publications that are slow to reimburse.
Far and beyond, this has posed the biggest financial barrier and burden to me in my freelance career, like it has to others who might not have oodles of money in the reserve — especially those in the early stages.
Upfront costs can skyrocket
Unlike employees whose travel is typically covered in advance by their company, with smaller out-of-pocket expenses like meals or mileage reimbursed later, freelance journalists are often expected to pay for all their travel costs upfront — flights, hotels, rental cars, meals, insurance, visas and vaccines.
For small, domestic reporting trips, this is likely below $500. But get into international territory, and those costs skyrocket.
Moreover, freelancers often aren’t just working on one story at one time. At any point during the month, I might be working on five or six stories where I’m expected to cover the reporting costs. When combined with story payments that don’t come in until after publication, this method pushes a lot of freelancers to the financial edge.
By the start of June, I had shelled out nearly $4,000 and was anxiously waiting for reimbursement, hitting refresh on my online bank account in hopes a direct deposit might finally appear.
Some outlets allow you to invoice once the costs are incurred, reimbursing within 30 days. That’s the best-case scenario in the industry right now. But others wait until the final draft has been accepted, or worse, the full story published.
Even freelancers with decades-long, trusted relationships
with publications have reported that editors decline to
reimburse them until the story has been released to the world.
Even freelancers with decades-long, trusted relationships with publications have reported that editors decline to reimburse them until the story has been released to the world.
That means shouldering costs, sometimes several thousands, for months up to a year. And, moreover, paying any accumulated credit card interest on behalf of the company that you won’t see back in your pocket.
From what I’ve observed (and experienced), this willingness to take on what should be the company’s fiscal responsibility comes from the rarity of receiving travel funding at all.
While snagging assignments isn’t too difficult for seasoned reporters, most outlets don’t provide a budget for travel. Therefore, when that shiny carrot of a few hundred bucks for travel is dangled in front of us, we’re chomping at the bit, willing to pay those costs upfront if it means making it to Ghana, Guinea or Guyana.
When coupled with publications’ eagerness to push as much responsibility onto the backs of their workers — whether that’s fronting travel costs or releasing them of any legal liability — it creates a precipitous work environment, and ultimately forces many reporters to give up on in-depth field reporting altogether.
Workarounds when asked to shoulder expenses
My major workaround thus far has been to pursue what I call a “nomadic” or “hobo” journalist lifestyle.
The reality is I can’t afford to shell out several thousands of dollars while paying rent each month. Moving between hotels and subleases gives me more flexibility, and doesn’t feel like I’m pouring money down the drain when I’m out of the country for months on end.
But this no-strings-attached lifestyle isn’t realistic for everyone, so here a few other things that have worked:
- When signing a contract, ensure that expenses will be reimbursed within 30 days of invoicing after they’ve been incurred. That’s better than once the editor has a first draft gathering mold in his or her email inbox.
- Send your desired itinerary to editors and ask them to pay for the predictable costs – like flights, trains and, possibly, accommodation — before you leave. Then you can file for reimbursement for smaller incidentals that don’t burn a hole in your wallet.
- Negotiate an advance. This can serve as an important stop-gap in the event that expenses aren’t paid on time.
- In the event that they won’t budge on those options, tack on any credit card interest fees to your invoice. Or better yet, charge your own interest. You’re not a bank.
- Aim for fellowships that cover all your costs without you having to spend a dime. There are several out there that essentially take you under their wing the moment you arrive (beer and wine included). You can get a lot of story ideas with little to no expense on your part.
Gloria Dickie is a freelance multimedia journalist, covering science and the environment, with a focus on biodiversity conservation. Her work has appeared in National Geographic News, Outside, Discover, High Country News, Motherboard, Hakai Magazine, Audubon, OnEarth, bioGraphic, The Denver Post, Arctic Deeply and Adventure Journal. She is also a member of the SEJ board of directors.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 30. 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.