Last week I used my blog to ask freelance journalists to nominate what they are being paid by different publications. The result was overwhelming. There were 103 responses with information coming in about over 50 publications, lift outs, online sites and magazines.

I have summarised all this information in a table, which you can see here. It covers more than 50 publications, including newspapers, magazines and online. I am not claiming it as the last word, and do feel free to keep sending information to me (on a confidential basis) at [email protected]. I will update as necessary.

The good news is that the top of the market is $1 to $1.25 a word, and there are a few publications paying this amount.

The middle of the market is between 50c and 70c a word. The most  common payments are in this range.

And the bottom of the market? Zilch. Nothing. Rank exploitation.

Conclusions? Some publications are ripping writers off and being less than honest. While responses suggest that certain magazine houses have fairly fixed and consistent rates of pay, other publications – and Fairfax newspapers in particular – are all over the shop.

Doubtless it will be argued by the editors concerned that this is due to the quality of the freelancers – that premium copy attracts a better rate, but the testimony of freelancers suggests this doesn’t stack up. It seems to depend on who you deal with, and how you deal with them. Some are told there is no contributors’ budget at all. Witness this:

“I feel sheepish about admitting that I’ve written and published 12 features since September and got payment for none of them. Of course, I only just started out, so at least everything that I write is being published. This is a comfort, as it tells me that the quality is adequate. But I yearn for my first pay cheque. I have spoken to Fairfax editors who tell me they have no budget.”

Now, even if this person is starting out, I would suggest that if their copy is good enough to use regularly, they should be paid.

Fairfax came in for a fair kicking from the freelancers who responded to my call – more so than News Limited, which seems to be at least consistent and professional, if not generous. One freelancer said:

“Fairfax are all over the shop with people who aren’t established regulars. I got 60c from the Age once in 2008, and 75c for a careers supplement column in 2006 but aside from that getting 50c per word is the best I manage – and that’s for op-ed page pieces, which is exactly what I got paid for the same op-ed pieces in 1999 when I was 19 years old! “

And another:

“The recent treatment from Fairfax has been atrocious. I was commissioned to do several pieces that seemed to mysteriously disappear after being filed. One piece was pulled out of layout because of last minute advertising, but I wasn’t told it hadn’t been pulled and when it was paid, had to suffer a kill fee of 50%, although the work had been submitted, accepted and even laid out. Clearly there wasn’t a problem with the article. One piece was reprinted in the SMH, but I was roundly told off for asking for a reprint fee, as a piece published in one outlet is now automatically syndicated to all the others – but the fee is still 50c per word. Another piece was delayed and delayed, until it became extremely embarrassing because I had used close contacts to get it. The Fairfax editor was curt and abrupt in response to polite queries and finally allowed me a ‘kill’ fee – which had mysteriously become 30% of the agreed fee. Obviously she’d either over-commissioned or was having trouble with her budget, neither of which was my problem.”

Our very own Crikey came in for a kicking, of course, because it also pays nothing to some people, and up to $200 a piece to others. Some freelancers are on a retainer. (Declaration: Crikey is a part time job for me. I am on a retainer that reflects about a fifth of what I would expect to be paid if I worked full time in a mainstream newsroom, plus a bonus based on site traffic on the blog.)

Another oddity that showed up was the penny pinching behaviour of the Australian Financial Review. Several writers for alternative, small and not for profit publications, such as Griffith Review and Inside Story, reported that the AFR had offered to republish their work, but only if they waived all fees!

Keep in mind that the AFR sells subscriptions for its content online, and has the highest masthead price in Australia. Some authors accepted the deal because of the exposure it brought them. Others told the AFR to get s….ed.

Worth nothing, too, that the small and not for profits are by no means the lowest payers, with The Monthly and Griffith Review at the top of the market, although since the require heavily researched pieces, they probably need to be. Griffith Review operates a sliding scale, with academics paid less or nothing, but most freelancers report being treated well.

Other publications at the top of the market are Scientific American (US based) Marie Clair, Readers Digest and, on occasion, the Weekend Australian magazine and (rarely) Fairfax broadsheets.

Your ABC is by no means a generous payer , with most payments working out at much less than 50c a word and some people getting nothing.

Other freelancers pointed out that raw word rate is not the only way to judge whether writing for a publication is worthwhile. Some lifestyle publications commission long pieces that can be based largely on personal experience – nice words needed, but no interviews or time consuming research. In that case, a rate as low as 40c a word can still work out quite lucrative. One freelancer said:

“Some of my lower-paying editors in terms of word rates are my biggest money earners in terms of total amounts commissioned and time required from me. Part of the problem for freelancers is not just the stalled and shrinking word rates, but the fact that across the board we’re being commissioned LESS words than before.”

This was a consistent theme. Another freelancer reported that “a leading business magazine” (sadly not named) was using her less because they had found that public relations companies would provide copy for free – and they were using it unblushingly.

So, that’s the wrap up. Keep the information coming to [email protected]. In the meantime you will find the table summarising the data here, and a compilation of quotes from freelancers here.

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