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Freelance journalism 101
Dollars and sense

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

“How much money can I make?” is one of the first questions new freelancers ask, and there really is no easy answer. The question from experienced freelancers, “How much more money can I make?” is no easier to answer.

One thing is certain: The amount is largely within our control. Why? Because freelancers choose whom to work for, how often they work and how much they get paid. Although contractors can’t control the budgets of the media organizations employing them, they have the power to refuse work that doesn’t pay enough, choosing instead to spend their time on more fruitful pursuits. Sometimes freelancers can work around media budgets by planning accordingly, and by managing time and cash flow efficiently.

Full-time freelancers can make up to six-figure salaries, while part-time freelancers’ earnings depend largely on the amount of time they work. Regardless, it’s possible to make a living as a freelancer and do as well as, if not better than, a journalist who works for a single news organization.

Pay structures

In many cases, the client dictates pay in one of four structures:

   •  By the word
   •  By the page
   •  Flat rate (by the assignment or project)
   •  Hourly

Most traditional publications and their electronic spawn pay by the word. This method can be tricky to estimate because the fee probably will be based on the word count of the edited and published work, not the original submission. Established freelancers working for big-name media (mostly national magazines, in print and online) sometimes make more than $3 per word. Publishers sometimes pay less — as little as half, in some cases — for short “front of the book” or “back of the book” material like columns and departments than for longer features and cover stories.

For reporters on assignment, the freelance rate typically is set per piece. Long, complicated articles normally merit higher rates, but that, too, will depend on the news organization. Editors and publishers paying flat rates generally have a word range in mind and base the rate loosely on the range — for example, a 1,000-word assignment might pay $700 even if it ends up at 950 or 1,100 words, and a 500-word blog post might pay $200 no matter how long it actually runs. Assignments to write “white papers,” special reports and special sections also typically pay flat rates.

Freelance editing often is paid by the page or the hour, and sometimes the page rate is based on the edited version, not the submitted version. Other editing assignments, particularly those with regular schedules or workloads, pay by the hour. This is true even for some media clients who hire freelancers as independent contractors. In some cases, however, the editor works as a part-time employee and has employment taxes withheld from each paycheck.

Experienced freelance editors, and publishers who hire them regularly, have different rates for different levels of editing — basic copy editing, structural or developmental editing, and substantive “line” editing are some common terms. Rates can range from $20 per hour for basic editing to $85 for line editing in specialized fields.

Whether writing, editing or proofreading, if you’re offered a project that pays by the page, be sure to define “page” before saying yes to a rate or fee. The standard page is 250 words.


There are three likely schedules on which news organizations will pay freelancers:

   •  On submission;
   •  On acceptance, after the editing and fact-checking are complete; or
   •  On (after) publication.

Most freelancers prefer to be paid on submission, but they don’t generally get to choose. Many news organizations that hire freelancers regularly have set policies for when they pay for material they run. Even payments on submission can be delayed as the check request works its way through a publisher’s accounting process.

Freelance writers’ traditional reluctance to be paid on publication stems from a history of drawn-out print production schedules, with deadlines for feature articles set many months before the cover date and even departments and columns due as much as two months in advance. As more freelance journalists provide copy for online publications, the problem of waiting six or more months for a paycheck may arise less frequently. Be aware, however, that a print publication that buys all rights might post your work on the web a short time after acceptance and wait until the magazine comes out to pay your invoice.

As more media outlets contracting with independent journalists are digital-only and new sites crop up all the time, many freelancers are accepting assignments from editors and publishers who don’t have set policies for when invoices are paid. In the current climate, there’s no reason not to ask whether payment terms can be negotiated. The client isn’t going to offer, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask.

The most important thing a freelancer can do is to understand payment terms before accepting any assignment. Be diligent not just about the kinds of assignments, approximate word counts and due dates, but also about the financial details that go with them.

Retainers and draws

Many news outlets know they will need a certain amount of work from freelancers each month even though the work isn’t assigned until needed. Some of them will agree to pay a writer or editor a retainer to make sure they have the talent they need when the work comes in.

Retainers typically are paid or invoiced at the beginning of the month. They can be based on hourly, word or page rates, and sometimes the retainer agreement includes a set amount per word, page or hour for additional services if the freelancer works more than the retainer provides. Some clients treat the retainer as a “draw,” carrying unused amounts forward to reduce the next month’s advance payment.

In addition to getting paid in advance, or at least sooner than you otherwise might, retainer agreements offer a level of certainty because they are always written agreements. Be sure to read the agreement carefully and confirm with the news organization, particularly the editor, that you understand the terms.

Several professional organizations provide surveys of their members’ rates.

Contributors: Dana Neuts, Hazel Becker, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter


Last updated: June 2018

Copyright © 2012-2018 by Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

Questions or comments? Please email fcguide@spj.org. We@#146;ll answer as soon as we can!


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