Saturday, June 28, 2014

the economics of freelancing – 101

If you’re not a freelance writer and maybe even if you are, you probably have no idea what the pay rates are these days. And for those of you who’ve reached this post because you know I’m raising money, it might not make any sense to you why I raise money if I’ve also got a job.

First, as you may know, the media industry has been in a bit of a freefall since at least the 2008 financial crash. That, combined with the onset of the digital age, has left media entities scrambling to figure out how to finance the information they disseminate. The good part of this scrambling is that it’s launched a new season of innovation. [The Nieman Journalism Lab offers some good coverage of models people are trying out.] The question isn’t whether we still want to have news and reportage in some form – the question is what form we want it in and how to pay for it.

All the scrambling has definitely affected freelance writers and reporters. Our wages have stagnated or dropped. [This article’s a bit dated but is a pretty good summary of what’s happened to the industry.] Everyone wants content these days, but they need so much of it that they don’t want to/can’t pay real wages for it. Well, that and other problems.

Thus, similar to larger media entities that are testing out various not-for-profit journalism models, in the current phase of my Big Grand Ideological Idea, I’m trying out a nonprofit model of freelancing. One that says there are important stories to be told but acknowledges that it’s not cost-effective to tell them according to present business models. Thus, I’m seeking out people who agree that these stories need to be told (and told well) and who will make donations that supplement the gap between what media entities pay for my work and what comprises a reasonable, living wage for that work.

So, let’s get some real, hard numbers on the table:

Scenario #1: For several months now, I’ve been researching a story here in France. From interviews to web research, most of my research is in French, which means it takes even longer than it normally would. Before beginning the formal interviews, I spent hours in background research online and informal interviews trying to gain a baseline understanding of the question I was investigating and an initial list of sources – to help inform the formal questions I would ask. Very conservative estimate of time spent: 7 hours.

Next, I spent time contacting prospective sources, prepping for interviews, traveling to and from interviews, and conducting at least 7 interviews. Then, because most of these interviews were in French, I had to record them and then transcribe/take notes afterwards.  Very conservative estimate: 50 hours.

In addition to all this, there’s some ancillary research to do to verify information, to track down some stats, etc. Because I’m the thorough type and I want to get it right and report accurately, this will take me a very long time.  Very conservative estimate: 7 hours.

Finally, it will be time to write the 700-1000 word article that will not nearly hold all the things I’ve learned. Thus, all this good information will have to be distilled down into much less space than I’ll feel like the story warrants. And it will be a feat to tell the story accurately in short-form. Very conservative estimate of writing time: 10 hours.

Very conservative grand total of hours spent on this article: 74 hours (roughly 2 weeks of work time if it could be done straight through)

Guess what I’ll get paid for all of that work?


Yep, that’s right. $300. Before taxes and business expenses.

Taking the time regularly to research stories at this depth means I’d be living on $600 a month before expenses and taxes. And over here in Europe that’s only about 438 €, which doesn’t get you very far toward covering living expenses.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.

Scenario #2: This summer I’m going to Togo, in West Africa, on a reporting trip. The cost of my flights alone is $1600 (and I’m already halfway to Togo, coming as I am from Europe). Add on-the-ground expenses, and the rough estimate climbs to $2000-plus. There aren’t many media outlets I’m presently connected with for whom I could hope to be paid enough to cover the expenses of this reporting trip, let alone make enough extra to count as income. In this scenario, most of the expenses of the trip will be covered by the sponsoring organization, but it would be preferable, for the sake of objectivity, to cover them myself. I’m a minimalist traveler, but even the costs of cheap travel in the service of reporting a story are hard to make back, when most stories pay in the range of $300-600.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.

And contact me if you would like to be involved in helping important stories be told!

1 comment:

Charles Strohmer said...

Hi Kami,

It's been awhile! I do enjoy reading your newsletters. Just read your post about freelance econ. It's well said and matches my own econ. struggles as a freelancer the past 25yrs. And many others can say the same. But God is faithful, eh?

Keep going.