Freelancing Crybabies

Feel free to supply your own caption. ©2018 Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

There might not be any crying allowed in baseball, journalism however is another matter. When one loses a colleague, like many of us have, crying is a perfectly natural and much needed response. Crying about low pay in the freelance world doesn’t rise to that level. Especially when one has agreed to and has accepted the low rates in the first place.

If you’re not completely happy with the amount you’re offered or the terms of the agreement, take Nancy’s advice, and just say no.

When you say no, the assigning editor who made that offer is forced to go to their second choice. If the next person says no as well, and the third and fourth follow suit, they’ll have a problem. Believe it or not, the assigning editor is often on your side. They’ve reached out to you for a reason. They want to secure quality content for their outlet. Their job depends on it, and they need what you can deliver.

The assigning editor is the one that’s going to tell their boss that they can’t get the talent they need on the rates offered by the outlet. That boss might not be able to change the rates, but the next boss up just might. If the big boss refuses to change the rates, the outlet, because of poor content, will suffer in the marketplace.

Viewers demand quality content, if the outlet doesn’t supply it, they’ll move on. That’s how supply and demand works. One can argue that viewers don’t demand quality content, and that’s certainly true for some outlets, but as a freelancer why would you want to contribute to an outlet that is known to produce poor content?

Time and Sports Illustrated are real world examples of this phenomenon. They instituted horrible contracts with terrible copyright grabs and in doing so have sentenced themselves to mediocrity. Their best contributors have moved on and their readers have as well.

One could argue that their old, print based business models, are to blame, and theres something to be said for that, but not much. Every round of managers who came through the Time/Life building failed and moved on after receiving huge paychecks for their management failures. Even the last couple of groups that didn’t even work out of the now defunct building.

Same can be said for those working on the advertising side of things. At the same time that rates and budgets were slashed, the advertising staff continued to throw parties for their clients, fly them to private concerts in the Caribbean, and receive their commission on ad sales.

The only group that was punished were those on the editorial and operations side of the business. You know, the ones responsible for supplying and delivering the content that would attract the eyeballs of readers who the advertisers wanted to reach in the first place.

Regardless of how the content (and advertising) is delivered, whether its via print or digitally, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that poor content fails to deliver traffic.

Freelancers are cheap. Much cheaper than staff. Freelance contributors are a bargain even when you pay them a decent rate and don’t try to strong-arm them into giving up their copyright. Outlets today cannot provide enough content, good or otherwise, to keep the editorial pipes flowing without freelancers.

So its troubling, and a bit depressing (though not enough to cry about), when one sees freelancers behaving in ways that hurt both themselves and other freelancers as well.

I saw this tweet this morning from a freelance journalist;

I have a master’s in journalism from Columbia. I was paid $350 last year for a 2000-word feature from Iraq — standard freelance web rate. I know over a dozen very talented reporters who quit because they couldn’t eat. Blogging and Youtubing don’t pay bills.

I replied;

Why’d you agree to that rate? You just made it easier for them to justify low pay. They should have taught you that at Columbia.

This was the response;

I agreed to that rate after pitching a good story I had worked hard on and risked my life for to 6 different outlets and being rejected. But thanks for blaming me for my own exploitation. I guess I must have been asking for it.

I replied;

You not only asked for it, you agreed to it. Save the victim card for a real victim.

The response;

You really don’t need to mansplain victimization to me. I know what real victims looks like. Been reporting on them for years. I agreed to it because I had no other options. Clearly you don’t know what that’s like. Take your condescending, mean-spirited douchebaggery elsewhere.

I replied;

When journalists foolishly agree to bad rates (like you), they help to ruin the market for quality journalism. Maybe try PR work.

The response;

You can find my journalism here. I never had complaints about its quality. And I’m sorry, where have you been published again? Maybe try paparazzi work or mall portraits. Photos of McDonald’s signs and American flags aren’t in high demand these days.

I replied:

Keep agreeing to low pay and you won’t be a journalist much longer. Others who follow you will have less opportunities as well.

The response;

I think I’ll be just fine, but thanks for the unsolicited advice. I’d focus on my own career if I were you. Muting now.

So there you have it.

Somehow in a world filled with freelance journalists, getting a masters from Columbia University doesn’t come with basic business advice.

A journalist with over 49,000 followers on their verified Twitter and who claims to have been published in Atlantic, Nation, NBC, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Foreign Policy, Harpers, Esquire, VICE, The Village Voice, Vox, and has published a book is, what?

Is having such a hard time making a living that they are forced to accept terrible pay and is now a victim for making that poor business decisions?

Rather than winning the debate with a thoughtful and well reasoned argument for why they made the poor business decision, seeks to silence their critic by using the secondary sexual characteristics of that critic, against them?

Attacks the credibility of their critic by attempting to belittle their professional accomplishments?

This is what traditional media could do in the past, when it was a one-sided conversation and the only one talking was the man who owned the printing press and bought the ink. The standard procedure was to establish your superior credentials, belittle and blame others for your mistakes, take no responsibility for your actions, claim victimhood at the earliest opportunity, and if that doesn’t work, pretend that the criticism doesn’t exist.

I thought one of the biggest lessons learned (maybe they didn’t teach this at Columbia either) was that with social media, the new media, the internet, whatever you want to call it, media outlets depend on an exchange of ideas, a two-way street where the wise journalist interacts and respects the opinion of their readers.

Maybe the new boss really does share a lot of characteristics with the old one (as well as the current one).

The point is a simple one. If you don’t like the deal, walk away from it. If you take the deal, don’t complain afterwards.

If you do take that deal, that fact will be used as a weapon against other freelancers. It will be used by media managers to justify their low rates. It will be used against younger or less established freelancers to get them to accept low rates.

We get the media we deserve. Nature and advertisers abhor a vacuum. That space is going to be filled. Bad money forces good people out of the business. Making it easy for media outlets to pay that bad money accelerates the problem and further erodes the state of journalism.

Freelancers, I know it’s hard out there, but you need to say no. The business will not improve until you start doing so en masse. If someone with all these impressive bylines isn’t brave enough (or perhaps its a question of selfishness), can’t do it, find someone to emulate who will.