Putting the Free in Freelance
Sometimes It's Okay to Work Without Pay
By Kathryn Roethel
With newspapers cutting newsroom staff around the country and hundreds of digital news sites and blogs appearing every day, there is no shortage of work for freelance journalists. There is, however, a serious shortage of pay.
The going rate for freelance articles at many online start-up sites is $25 an hour. Even Patch.com, the hyperlocal news endeavor backed by AOL, only offers freelancers an average of $50 per article. Then there are the sites that don't offer any money, but insist that contributing writers will get "great exposure."
For seasoned freelancers who are used to refusing any gig that pays less than $1 per word, it's easy to balk at these paltry paychecks. But, according to panelists at Stanford University's Future of Freelancing conference, there are times when it's a good idea to work for little - or no - pay.
"I get emailed constantly by people telling me it would be great exposure for me to write for their site," said Michelle Goodman, freelance writer and author of a book about surviving as a freelancer. "I turn most of it down, but I did write a free guest column for the New York Times, and that really was good exposure. And one of my least-paying gigs is also one of my steadiest gigs, so I do it to keep up my work and build my brand regularly."
In response to questions about Patch.com's low rate for freelancers, Marcia Parker, Patch.com's west coast editorial director, blamed the industry.
"I can't wait until we're in a place where we can pay more," Parker said. "I'm hopeful that our industry will come up with something that sustains us as journalists, but I think the reality is that we don't have a sustainable business model across our industry yet. We don't have a bunch of strong revenue sources or people paying for content yet. We're not trying to get everyone to write million-word stories for us. You won't make a mint, but it's a beginning."
"If you're going to write for free, ask for promotion on the website or in the newsletter," said Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures and a blogger, speaker and author. "Ask them to link to your Amazon page or your Twitter or Facebook, or post your photo and biography with your article. Be creative and think about what else you can negotiate if they're not offering you money."
Freelance writer Dan Fost, authored a book this year about the San Francisco Giants. He had to sell 10,000 copies in order to get his hourly rate up to 75 cents. "It seemed like a pretty bad situation at first," Fost said. "But then a friend gave me some great advice. This book is not about the money. It's about the promotion. Now my name is out there, and I'm established as an author and something of an expert about the Giants. All of that will really help me when it comes time for me to write another book."
Still freelance writer Matt Villano says he tries to limit the free work he does to no more than two or three pieces per month.
"Don't overdo it with the free work," Villano said. "It hurts the whole freelance industry. At the end of the day, we all still need to earn some money. The paying jobs are the jobs you need to complete first, even if the free stuff interests you more."