‘Rates aren’t rising at all’: Freelancers lament stagnated rates amidst inflation

Freelance journalists say rates from large national publications haven’t changed in years – and they’ve had to take on more work, or supplement their income with other pursuits, according to conversations with six freelancers.

Typically, freelance journalists are paid around $0.50 to $1 a word, they told Digiday. But that rate hasn’t changed, despite rising inflation and cost of living. (The U.S. inflation rate from January 2020 to January 2024 increased by 22%, according to inflation tracker Truflation.)

“If I was paid $1,000 for a story in January 2020, I should be making almost $1,200 for that same story today. But I’m not. Rates aren’t rising at all to keep up with inflation,” said Kate Morgan, who has written for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Her rates haven’t changed since she became a freelancer in 2015, she said.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the founder of The Institute for Independent Journalists, said that in her 15 years of experience as a full-time freelancer, she has seen rates stagnate or decline slightly. The last year has been “particularly challenging” because the “cost of living has gone up,” she said.

Jenni Gritters, a business coach for self-employed creatives who became a freelance journalist in 2017, added that budget cuts at a number of large media companies and staff layoffs (which has led to more freelancers looking for assignments) has made the issue “much more contentious” in the last six months. 

Freelance journalists who spoke with Digiday named Business Insider, The New York Times, Trusted Media Brands and The Wall Street Journal as publications they have worked for that haven’t adjusted their rates. Business Insider declined to comment, and TMB and WSJ did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A New York Times spokesperson denied that rates hadn’t changed in years. “Freelance rates naturally vary for a number of reasons, but in all areas The Times aims to offer compensation that is fair and competitive for the journalism contributed to our report. In recent years, we have raised our minimum freelance rates across a number of assignment types, and we regularly evaluate these rates to ensure they remain competitive among our industry peers,” they said. The Times did not share how much they pay for freelance stories.

Asked to do more, for the same pay

Some freelancers said they have been asked to do more work for the same rates, such as sourcing photos, increasing word counts, adhering to additional SEO requirements, conducting more interviews or doing additional rewrites. One lifestyle freelancer, who has worked in the industry for nearly 25 years and asked to remain anonymous to protect their relationships with the publications they write for, said a typical assignment from one publisher paid $300-350 for a 1,500 word article. In the past year, however, they’ve been asked to include subheaders, keywords for SEO, linking to previous stories and multiple expert interviews meant articles were clocking in at 2,500-3000 for that same rate, they said.

“While it may not be less money in your pocket, it’s taking up more of your time so your hourly rate at the very least is decreasing even if your flat rate hasn’t decreased,” the lifestyle freelancer said. They added that, while this trend has been going on over the past few years, it’s “ramped up” over the last few months.

Caitlin Kelly, a freelance journalist for 30 years who has written for publications like The New York Times and the Financial Times, said she doesn’t take assignments that are below $500, but in the last few weeks was offered three assignments that would pay $300 for 1,500-word stories.

“Journalism has become – for freelancers – an expensive hobby,” Kelly said. “I’m finding it incredibly depressing, incredibly demoralizing, very frustrating.”

Turning to other pursuits

Gritters is the primary earner in her family and has two small children. She said she recently came to the conclusion that she can’t rely on her work as a journalist as her primary source of income. She said at least 50% of her income now comes from her coaching business. 

One recent 800-word story Gritters wrote took eight months and had seven rounds of revisions. She was paid $800 for that piece. “My hourly rate was like 10 cents or something an hour. I mean, it just was negligible,” she said.

“[It’s] a bummer because I think this work is so important. But for me and my family, it’s not an economically sustainable decision for me to land my business on this kind of work. It would lead to burnout if I take on the number of things that I would need to take on to hit our revenue goals. That doesn’t make sense. So I’ve just changed the shape of my business quite a bit. It’s why I do more coaching now than other things,” Gritters said.

Kelly also makes money from her other businesses, including teaching French, a coaching business and PR work. Morgan said she has to take on more assignments.

A freelancer with 20 years of experience and who writes for large, major publications – who also asked to remain anonymous – said they’d seen the $1-a-word rate for the past two decades, and even if that did increase a little bit with some assignments, it usually came with an inequitable amount of additional work.

Freelancers should “say no” or ask for more

So what can freelance journalists do about the stagnant rates they’re being offered by major publications? 

“You say ‘no.’ That’s the advice,” Lewis said. Unless they’re a student or new to the field, freelance journalists shouldn’t take lowball offers from publications that devalue their work, because that time could be better spent at “a part-time job at Starbucks where you have benefits and you’re making more than minimum wage,” she said. Freelancers should use the time to market themselves, network with editors, or do research and reporting for a piece that will make more money, Lewis said. 

Every time they get an assignment, the first freelancer said they negotiate for more money. Sometimes, they’ll get an additional $40-$100. Morgan said she’s more likely to get a pay bump when she has a regular, good relationship with an editor, who will try to increase her rates when they can.

Stagnant freelance fees have significant consequences to the journalism industry at large, Gritters said. “If there’s not enough budget to support good reporting, then we lose good reporting. You can’t have an expectation of a really good product without being able to actually pay for it,” she said.

https://digiday.com/?p=531527

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