Since the first edition of this book was published, a number of students, most of them working professionals, have asked for help navigating the fluid, fastchanging world of freelancing. The days of working for one company for 30 years are, of course, long gone. Many find themselves freelancing to make ends meet and to soften the blow of layoffs and business shutdowns. Help is here.
As anyone who has tried to freelance full time well knows, freelancing is a punishing business for all but an elite few. Your academic degree(s) don’t matter all that much, even if they are journalism degrees. It is difficult to know how much you will earn month to month, producing economic uncertainty and financial instability. You have to appear to prospective clients, paradoxically, as both productively busy and available for hire at the same time. There is incredible pressure to work for low or no pay, in exchange for “exposure” in the Internet’s “attention economy.”
Writing the Pitch
To get someone interested in publishing or running your story, you have to pitch it, and this, too, requires skill and industry. Once you’ve identified a potential publication or website or app, you should read it. Become familiar with its presentation, its sensitivities and style, and, most importantly, the audience. Learn the types of stories that publication likes to run. Once you’ve edited your story to fit that publication’s style of writing, find out whom to send it to. Search the publication’s masthead or online staff listing. Email and/or reach out via social networks such as LinkedIn or Facebook.
If your pitch is successful, your next task is to negotiate compensation. For digital-first organizations, freelancer rates are varied and mostly arbitrary, and often it is difficult to get paid in a timely manner. A search online for pay rates found the following:
- Buzz Feed: $0.17–0.50/word;
- more for investigative reporting, less for opinion pieces and news articles;
- Fast Company: $0.33/word for 1,500-word feature; Gawker:
- Before it declared bankruptcy following a successful lawsuit against it by Hulk Hogan, as part of its Recruits program to attract new writers, Gawker paid $5 for every 1,000 unique visitors an article attracted to the site
These idiosyncratic piece rates show how little agreement there is on how to account for the capital costs of creating good “content,” the value of that content in terms of generating traffic, or the market value of any one writer or reporter. They also hint at a huge shift in digital that makes each individual article a stand-alone profit center, a ticket to generating more attention de-contextualized from any larger whole.
Such a shift turns good writing (and bad writing, for that matter) into a saleable commodity—content—robbing it of its dignity as an art. Where once we celebrated the arts of writing, photography, criticism, illustration, and film, each with its own notions of taste and artistic and professional standards, today digital workers are asked to produce content, as if it were sugar, flour, or barley or oats.
At Buzz Feed and Huffington Post, the largest single source of revenue is native advertising, or branded content. This “between the banner ads” filler looks and reads as if it were independently produced journalism but is paid for by a single sponsor or brand.
Thus, much of digital writing today is treated as simply a process of commodity production for private profit. Though freelancers have great individual autonomy and control, which are the benefits of being entrepreneurs, ultimately they are also subject to capitalist production processes that often result in what can only be described as exploitation. With so many sites simply re-shuffling the Internet by aggregating and re-arranging, the freelancer’s value as a knowledge worker is under great pressure.
It is also to counter the message these important writers get that it’s up to them to find a way to fit into the new media ecosystem when it should also be the responsibility of privately owned media companies to figure out how to fairly pay for the labor they count on to turn a profit. “Exposure” doesn’t pay the bills or send the kids to college.