EDIT: Since this appears to be getting read internationally, I should say that I’m based in Vietnam and this took place in Southeast Asia.
I’ve noticed an important (though still small) trend of freelance journalists publicly sharing experiences involving extremely slow pay, poor treatment and other issues related to this line of work. In that spirit, I’m recounting the excessively lengthy editing process I recently went through with a major global digital news outlet — one that ultimately resulted in my story not even being published.
I’m leaving names out, and this certainly isn’t indicative of every freelance experience, but it’s an example of what can happen.
June 16: I emailed a pitch for a fairly straightforward business story to an editor at said news outlet.
June 18: Got a reply from a different editor accepting the pitch and asking for 1,100 words, plus a few photos if possible. I immediately contact the PR office of the corporation which the story will focus on and send questions.
July 6: Receive answers to my questions — unsurprisingly it took a while. While waiting to hear back from them, I had conducted all of the other necessary reporting.
July 10: I submit the first draft of my article, along with several photos that I took, to the editor. Later that day, he replies and asks for extensive reworking of the story.
July 12: I send over the revised feature.
July 16: I follow-up after not getting a reply. The editor says he will get to it soon.
July 23: I follow-up once more as I haven’t gotten any feedback, and again he says he will look shortly.
July 26: New data relevant to the story is released, so I ask if I should add it — the editor says yes, though he still hasn’t read the updated piece.
July 29: I send over the article with data added.
July 31: Having not gotten a reply, I check in. The editor apologizes for the delay, adding that he still hasn’t looked at my story and is also going on holiday from August 2–22. I ask if another editor can take over, as I’m concerned that further delays may leave the story outdated.
August 1: The editor calls me and requests another major reworking, while also asking me to include issues that were not part of the accepted pitch (one of which didn’t exist when I pitched, given how much time has now passed). This is known as ‘scope creep.’ He says to send it back once he returns from holiday.
August 23: I submit the third version of the story and also ask for a higher pay rate considering how long this has taken and the extensive revisions/follow-up reporting I’ve had to do, plus the scope creep.
August 27: I follow-up after not getting a reply. He says he will look soon, and also says no to a higher rate.
August 28: The editor emails me saying he will read the story within that day.
August 30: I ask for a status update as I hadn’t heard anything. He replies and says the story looks good, and he’ll make final edits and aim to publish the following week (it’s a Friday). Later that day, he emails again asking for further info. I reply immediately with what he asked for.
September 3: I follow-up after not hearing anything since the 30th.
September 5: With no response, I send another email asking for an update. He replies and thanks me for the extra work I’ve done, but adds that he needs to extensively rewrite it and isn’t sure when he’ll have a “sufficiently wide window” to do it. I respond to make sure I can see the changes before anything is published, and also offer to make further revisions where he sees fit (after all, it is my byline). He says of course I’ll get a readback, but gives no explanation of where the problems are, so I have no choice but to wait.
September 13: The company covered by my story has released new products and other services relevant to the topic, so I email the editor asking if it should be updated (I haven’t heard from him since the 5th). He replies right away saying yes to an update and that he hopes to edit the story over the weekend so it can be published the following week (it’s Friday). I put that together and send it back.
September 17: I check to see if the update is ok since I haven’t gotten a response.
September 20: Still no reply, so I follow-up yet again. He responds saying he understands my frustration but when a story “requires a lot of extra work” it gets pushed down his queue. This is the fourth version of the story, and I’m not a novice writer. Like the previous two Fridays, he says he hopes to get to it over the weekend. I don’t reply.
September 27: It’s another Friday, and there has been no word of progress on my story, so I ask if the editor still plans to publish it, as I will pitch it elsewhere if not.
October 1: I follow-up after not getting a reply. He answers and apologizes for not getting to the article, and that he “felt it still needed a lot of work to get it to a level [he’d] be comfortable with,” while adding that I should pitch elsewhere. This is 105 days and over 60 emails after he accepted the pitch and had me revise it multiple times. I had lost interest in the story at this point, so I just posted it on Medium independently. (I was able to use some of the reporting in a separate article for the South China Morning Post, which took about two weeks from pitch to publish date, so at least it wasn’t a total financial wash.)
UPDATE: The outlet has agreed to pay me a US$150 kill fee. The pay rate for the article would’ve been US$350 if published.
Again, this isn’t a normal experience — in fact this was the longest editing process I’ve had the displeasure of going through, and the first time a commissioned story hasn’t been run — but it highlights just how much freelance journalists are taken for granted. At times I felt like I was being treated like a staff reporter, but without any salary and no power to ask for more money or resources. The editor certainly ensured that I will never work with him again or recommend that anyone else do so. I hope this gives people outside the industry an idea of what we sometimes have to put up with — and if you’re a freelancer who wants more details so you know who to avoid, get in touch (email@example.com).