I have a magic trick to offer newsroom leaders: How would you like to pay freelancers more without increasing your budget? It’s possible. And it’s important, especially at a time when newsrooms are increasingly relying on freelance labor.
Let me explain. All journalists trade our time for money, but that tradeoff is even more salient for independent journalists. The more quickly and efficiently we complete assignments, the greater our hourly rate, the more projects we can tackle, and the more income we receive at the end of the month or year. That holds true whether it takes 10 hours to report, write, and edit a breaking news story, or 500 hours to tackle an in-depth investigation.
Yet too often, freelancers waste time — and thus money — due to a lack of clarity. And, too often, newsroom leaders are stuck in zero-sum thinking around their rates and don’t bother to examine how their policies and procedures may do more to hurt freelancers than the per-word or per-assignment pay. To address that, editors should provide clear expectations and a timeline for each assignment, which would dramatically increase freelancers’ hourly rate. By investing up-front time and thought, and streamlining processes, media organizations can create a more equitable process for freelancers.
Here are a few concrete ways to do that:
The single most important thing an editor can do is be specific with the assignment scope. Freelancers suffer when an assignment is unclear or editors move the goal posts during the editorial process. Editors should clearly communicate the angle, depth of research and reporting expected, number and types of sources, tone, any must-have pieces of information, as well as assignment length and timeline for the editorial process.
It can help to create a new assignment checklist that establishes the expectations for the assignment up front to save time later. Here’s an example of a checklist you can use.
For example, editors should share whether they need the reporter to provide contacts for photos or information for fact checking. This ultimately saves freelancers time. It takes slightly longer to ask about photos or document sources during the reporting process, but it’s far more efficient than going back after the piece is done to follow up with people or figure out where a commonly held fact originated from.
Ideally, an editor and freelancer would agree on the scope down to the number of people quoted, the type of supporting evidence sought, and the major points or takeaways from the piece. Even if that’s not possible at the beginning of the reporting process, editors can do this at a mid-reporting check-in.
It may take more up-front time to provide a clear scope for each assignment, because editors have to think through what they actually want in the piece. But it’s an investment that pays off for both the freelancer and the editor by paving the way for a smoother editing process and a higher hourly rate. A bit of planning helps everyone.
Photo editors should offer detailed information on the angle of the story to be illustrated, the context for the photos or the person who’s being photographed, and a rough draft of the article, if possible.
Streamlining the editorial process is also key. When editors start thinking through how to scope an assignment, they may realize that from a freelance perspective, there are some dysfunctional elements to their editorial process that often lead to revisions. For example, when a top editor doesn’t participate in the assigning process but has a different goal for a piece, that often results in an overhaul of the piece and requires new reporting. This is a signal that you need to rethink your editorial process.
This is a bigger task than simply communicating scope more effectively. The higher up someone is in newsroom leadership, the more likely they will have less time for upfront thinking about a freelance contribution. But newsroom leaders either need to trust their mid-level editors by stepping back from the process or commit to being involved earlier.
Some equity-minded newsrooms proactively give freelancers a guide to their fact checking or editorial processes. At the Institute for Independent Journalists, which I founded and run, we help editors create such a document in our workshop on recruiting and managing a diverse corps of freelancers. It explains expectations and processes for working with that publication in as much detail as possible.
Take, for example, Type Investigations. Editors provide a two-page onboarding document that includes a check-in schedule with the editor, a written reporting plan, interim deadlines, a research support plan, a guide to seeking comment, an explanation of the legal review process, a promotion plan, and a discussion of potential news pegs. In the last 15 years I’ve been freelancing, I have never seen any onboarding doc, much less one this thorough.
Ask only for what you need. As someone who also edits on a freelance basis, I know well that exciting moment of diving into the first edit of a story. All kinds of questions occur to me, and it’s tempting to put them all into comment fields. But each unnecessary back-and-forth with the reporter adds to the time they spend on the story, so I limit my curiosity to just the questions that will clarify the actual story in front of me. If you have more than one editor looking at the story, batch your requests to freelancers. That allows them to work more efficiently.
Similarly, ask yourself if you really need full transcripts for every interview. Or is it sufficient for the freelancer to transcribe only the relevant portion of the interview? Understand it is a waste of a freelancer’s time to provide full transcripts when they are not really needed — and it erodes their hourly rate for that assignment. If you truly do need full transcripts, then be willing to pay for the time and effort that takes with a higher freelance rate. If not, accept a more modest fact-checked document and rest comfortably in the knowledge that you’ve successfully bumped up your freelancers’ hourly rate — without hurting your bottom line.
Be fair with your copyright terms. Some publications try to seize all rights from freelancers through a work-for-hire or copyright assignment contract. That means only the publication — not the writer — benefits from reuse of the creative work or any derivative works. Not only is this exploitative of freelancers, often it’s unnecessary. If your publication syndicates content, it’s just as easy to license the copyright from the freelancer exclusively for a set period of time, and then share a nonexclusive license after that time. You are only taking the rights you need — not all that your lawyers might want — and leaving more value in the hands of the freelancer.
If you do believe that the publication deserves to benefit from a future book or streaming video deal based on a freelance article, use contract terms that allow the freelancer to share equally in the revenue from any such deal.
As someone whose viral article on kids’ behavior led to a book deal, I am deeply grateful to Mother Jones magazine for the writer-friendly contract that left me with derivative rights to that story. More newsroom leaders should offer equitable contracts, even if it means pushing back against the lawyers when they overreach.
The journalism organizations that follow these steps for working with their freelancers will see the payoff in more loyal, reliable, and productive contributors who will create more value because they’re not worried about making rent.