Archive for the ‘Freelance Finances’ Category

Score one for the freelancer! (a cautionary tale)

By guest blogger Hazel Becker 

This is the story of a freelance journalist who went up against a national publisher and won. The individual facts and circumstances are not uncommon.

Hazel BeckerThe freelancer had a personal story to tell, and pitched it to the editor of a publication that would have broad reach. The editor said yes, and the two agreed on compensation and a deadline. The story was published in print and online, pretty much as written.

After publication, as agreed, the writer submitted an invoice. In response, s/he received a contract to sign, awarding the publisher the right to disseminate the story electronically and republish it at will. After responding that s/he had asked about a contract and was told none would be required, along with a copy of the email in which all these terms had been discussed, the writer was told that if the signed contract was not returned, s/he would not be paid and the story would be taken offline.

The writer spent considerable time coming up with an altered version of the publisher’s contract that clarified some provisions and laid out specific terms s/he would agree to. Specifically, the writer made it clear that the work was not to be adapted or changed. S/he also stated that additional electronic rights had not been granted and would need to be negotiated separately.

Here’s the happy ending: the publisher agreed to go along with the agreement between writer and editor, and paid the invoice. This freelance journalist pitched to a respected national publication because s/he wanted this personal story to be told to a broad audience. After some hassle, s/he retained control over how the story would be told in the future and received the agreed compensation.

Here are some lessons, learned or reinforced, from this story:

  • Always have a contract. This happy ending would not have been possible if the writer and editor had not memorialized their agreement in email.
  • Email agreements can serve as contracts. The email thread between the writer and editor specified the elements necessary for a contract: the writer would send the specified work, the work would be published in print and online, the writer would submit an invoice, and the publisher would pay a set amount. No legal language or special form was needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge authority – or contract provisions you don’t agree to. When push came to shove, the publisher agreed to forgo most of the legal provisions it generally asks writers to accept. Strong-arm tactics aside, the writer stood up to the big guy and won.
  • Be clear about your negotiating goals. This freelancer wanted two things from the publisher – control of how this personal story would be told, and compensation for the work. S/he didn’t get sidetracked by other aspects of the contract or negotiation. In the end, s/he got what s/he wanted.

Not all contract disputes will come out this way – and not all of them should. The fact that the freelancer’s rights were preserved in an email exchange may have been the deciding factor here.

Most contract negotiations are carried out before the job is done, and standard contracts can be intimidating. Sometimes publication lawyers load freelance contracts with clauses that apply to all the media organization’s work, for “simplicity’s sake” or other reasons, and the publication won’t budge. Some publishers ask freelancers to take on more responsibility than is warranted. As independent contractors, freelance journalists often weigh their need of cash flow or total compensation ahead of other considerations. We have a tendency to accept the terms offered, knowing that most of the time it will come out fine.

But there’s no reason not to try – and if you can take some strength from this freelance journalist’s tale, please do.

Also, please tell us your own stories about contract provisions and negotiations. Send them to spjfreelancecommunity [at] gmail [dot] com. We’ll cull the results and write more on this subject in the future.

Two way-out ideas for freelance travel costs

We freelancers are always bumping into obstacles. Like, how to pay for our reporting trips. Here are two ongoing, creative approaches to freelance travel.

Freelancer Amber Nolan has come up with jethiking, or really Cessna hiking. She’s used that to bum flights to 13 different states. I love the idea, though I’m not sure it’s a great way to cut your expenses for freelance work. For one, there is no network of pilots willing to tote along a hitchhiker, so you can’t guarantee you’re going to be able to get some place when you need to be there for reporting. Her site suggests that the last piece she did was published in May, and involved travel by kayak. But she appears to have a TV show in the works, based on her travels. If there were a network of pilots offering up rides like this, there might be some way for freelancers to actually leverage this sort of thing, especially travel writers.

Chris Killian, a freelance political journalist and SPJ member, spent two months covering the presidential campaign in the swing states by living out of an old van. He set up his own site, SwingStateStories, where he published the bulk of his reporting, which was supported by Kickstarter funding. But he also landed this meaty cover story in the Christian Science Monitor’s Weekly. The numbers do keep this in perspective: he raised $4,472 on Kickstarter, and that’s what supported his two-month trip. He ran out of money before he could make it to Florida. But it is a sign of how unconventional methods are viable, depending on your costs and your interests.

Guide for freelance journalists debuts at EIJ12

Updated, 9/28: A year’s worth of work by SPJ’s Freelance Committee debuted at Excellence In Journalism 2012 with the introduction of On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism, the committee’s first effort to consolidate the collected wisdom of its members.

The 77-page guide, available only in digital form, addresses a broad range of questions common among new and aspiring freelancers — from bookkeeping to business licenses to branding — soon will be made available to SPJ members in good standing. Later this fall, it will be sold as an e-book for a nominal fee, with the proceeds going toward committee programming.

Incoming chairman Michael Fitzgerald says the committee plans to update the guide on a regular basis, and include more personal experiences from freelancers to reflect changes and trends in the marketplace. SPJ also encourages freelance writers and editors not yet affiliated with the society to join and add their input to the guide.

Comments, suggestions and criticisms are welcome and should be made to David Sheets, the guide’s editor, by email at, or through Twitter at @DKSheets or LinkedIn.

David Sheets, a freelance journalist and former content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is Region 7 director and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter.

Freelance Q&A: When will I get paid?

There are three primary times when a freelancer can expect to get paid from a news organization:

  • Upon submission – when the freelancer submits the work
  • Upon acceptance – when the editing and fact checking is complete
  • Upon or after publication – self-explanatory

I’ve been paid by different news organizations in each of these ways. I prefer being paid upon submission because I control the timing of payment and cash flow. Being paid upon acceptance is my second choice. You’ll develop a feel for how long a piece takes from submission to completion of editing, so you can work around that as well.

Being paid upon or after publication can get tricky. I write for one magazine that mails the checks almost the same day the magazines go out. I’m happy with that arrangement because I know what to expect. However, I have written for one company that paid 90 to 120 days after publication, on a good day. I’d be wary of such situations, because slow payment on the part of a media organization can indicate a cash flow problem or a lack of respect for its freelancers.

Perhaps the most important thing a freelancer can do is to understand the terms of your agreement before accepting any assignment. Of course, you want to know what the assignment is, approximate word count and due date, but you should be just as diligent with the financial details of the assignment. Often these details will be outlined in a contract or business agreement. If not, get them in writing via email. That way it is clear who does what, when and how. You do the work on time, they pay you, everybody’s happy!


Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of and An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).



Freelance Q&A: Why won’t anyone talk specifics about rates?

As a new freelancer, it can be frustrating to not get a straight answer about how much you can make annually or what a “good” price per word is. But the reality is that so much depends on the situation – the media organization’s budget, your experience, complexity of the story, your relationship with the editor, etc. – that you can’t nail down a range. It’s truly a moving target. One of my first, and favorite publications, paid me $0.07 per word. When their revenue dropped, it was reduced to $0.06/word, but I loved the work and my editor so I stuck it out. I wouldn’t write for that amount now, however, but that’s really a personal business decision.

You will also find that, on message boards and list servs, members are discouraged, sometimes even prohibited, from discussing rates. I think there is a fear that there will be price fixing or increased competition. Those fears are debatable, but freelance etiquette tells us not to discuss rates in such forums. If you are meeting fellow freelancers for lunch and want to talk shop, feel free. Most of us do it, but don’t do it in an online forum. You’re likely to get booted from the group.


Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of and An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10, serves on the membership committee, and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).



Freelance Q&A: How do I charge for my work?

In most cases, the media organization for whom you are working will dictate your pay, and your paycheck will be calculated one of three ways:

  • By the word
  • By the page
  • By the assignment (or a flat rate)

Payment by the word can be tricky to calculate, because it will probably be determined based on the edited word count, not the word count of the original submission. You can use that word count as an estimate though. Let’s say you write a 600 word piece at a rate of $0.20/word. You’ll earn $120 for that story, give or take, based on word count. The same is true of payment by the page. It will be based on the edited version, not the submitted version. For payment by assignment, this is typically a flat rate per piece. Longer, more complicated stories normally merit higher rates but that will depend on the news organization.

There is one other payment method to be aware of – the kill fee. This is a fee that a news organization pays for a story that it decides not to run. Let’s say, for example, you write a story about seed potatoes for an agricultural magazine. You fulfill the assignment, submit it to your editor and your editor decides to write about vegetable seeds instead. You may get paid a kill fee. It will be substantially less than the amount you would have received had they used your story, but you will get something for your time. I’ve had editors offer to pay a research or travel fee, too, when a story didn’t really pan out but I had spent time doing some preliminary work.

If you are doing corporate work, like writing website copy, you will need to set your own rates. I recommend reading Michelle Goodman’s “My So-Called Freelance Life” for advice on setting rates for your services.


Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of and An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10 and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).



Freelance Q&A: How much money can I make?

“How much money can I make” is often one of the first questions a new freelancer asks. There really is no easy answer to that question, but I believe how much you make is largely within your control. Why? Because you choose who you work for, how often you work and how much you get paid. Granted, you can’t control the budgets of media organizations for whom you work, but you can work around that by planning your work accordingly and managing both your time and cash flow.

If you are a full-time freelancer, you can make as high as six-figures. If you are part-time, your income will be dependent on the amount that you work. Either way, you CAN make a living as a freelancer if you work at it, and you can make as much as or more than you do working for a single news organization. It’s really up to you.


Dana E. Neuts is a full-time freelance writer and editor and is the publisher of and An avid SPJ volunteer, she is the regional director for SPJ’s region 10 and is the chair for the freelance committee. She is also a candidate for the office of national SPJ Secretary/Treasurer. Followe her on Twitter (@SPJDana, @SPJFreelance, @VirtuallyYourz).



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