When Jacob Baynham pitched a story to a travel magazine and received an offer for $1,000 in return for writing about his experience traveling on horseback through Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, he thought he had landed his first big break in freelance journalism.
When Baynham sent in photos, the magazine used them in advertisements to boost subscriptions. When he submitted his feature, the magazine “forgot” his byline.
And when he asked for his $1,000 paycheck, the editor reassured Baynham money would come. It never did. Shortly after, the publisher went bankrupt.
“I don’t know the rules of bankruptcy or whether he had to pay me, so he didn’t,” said Baynham, now a freelancer living in Polson, Montana. He has published stories in magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal.
“The editor kept toying with me, saying, ‘Oh we’ll pay you.’ Eventually I had to walk away from it to stay sane because I’m a very tenacious person, especially when it comes to getting paid for something that you’ve done.”
Almost a decade has passed since Baynham was first burned. Since then, he has slowly built up a solid portfolio and relationships mostly through the traditional route of sending in story pitches to editors.
Baynham’s experience isn’t unique and exploitation of writers isn’t new. Across the U.S., media organizations capitalize on freelancers, who often lack the business skills necessary to negotiate for fair pay.
Unstable financial models and the constant push to create more content faster—a result of the move toward mobile and online-first publishing—make it difficult for a freelancer committed to producing well-reported stories to earn a middle-class salary.
But in the same digital environment that shook the news industry and pillaged staff jobs, there are a few leaders driving the conversation of fair pay for independent journalists. These voices are creating their own communities to act as buffers between freelance journalists and publications.
Scott Carney is helping turn the tide in writers’ favor by building a community based on shared knowledge, a “Yelp” for writers.
Carney, an investigative journalist who’s written long features for magazines such as Wired, believes there’s money in publishing, if journalists negotiate. But they’re scared.
“It really comes down to a sense of writers feeling inferior, feeling like they’re replaceable, like you feel like if you don’t take this offer right now they’re going to go to some other writer,” Carney said.
Last spring, Carney published an open-source Google Doc with a range of rates that magazines paid freelance writers. It became so popular that it led him to start a Kickstarter campaign for a website that allows writers to review editors, post the rate they were paid and compare contracts.
Another facet of the website, WordRates, which launched October 19, 2015, pairs journalists with story ideas with an experienced mentor to sell the pitch to a magazine. It’s the same system as in book publishing. The website and mentors split a 15-percent commission, with the goal of getting writers more money through negotiation by a third party that isn’t emotionally invested in the story.
“Call me a revolutionary, I think writing contributes more than 10 percent of the value to a magazine,” Carney said. “And right now magazines only pay about one percent of their advertising revenues to writers. So I want to fix that. I want to correct a great injustice that has been lumped on writers’ heads.”
Carney admits that PitchLab, a section of the website, will be selective. Mentors will be looking for ideas that have strong potential beyond print magazine stories, which still provide freelancers with the largest paychecks, and could be turned into documentaries and movies.
It’s true that writers can get a paycheck by churning out a high volume of stories per year, but Carney said this is more difficult and doesn’t make as much financial sense as trying to find a unique story and selling it at a higher rate.
“My feeling is that if I’m a creative person I want to create the best possible thing that I can and I want it to go as far as it possibly can,” Carney said. “Why would I waste my energy writing something that’s going to get a couple views and then be forgotten in a couple days?”
DARE AND DELIVER
Brooklyn freelancer Noah Davis understands the struggle of piecing together shorter stories to earn a living. With the competitive and limited nature of print magazine work, Davis and other freelancers target online publications as a way to make money, but often this doesn’t add up to a livable wage.
In 2013, Davis reported a story about the economics of freelance publishing online for a small online-only magazine, the Awl. What was unusual about Davis’s piece was his transparency; he recounted the rates magazines paid him for stories and admitted he was a poor negotiator.
Then, in September 2015, Davis decided to follow up on his first piece for the Awl to show how the industry had changed. His story, “If you don’t click on this story I won’t get paid,” showed the instability of online publishing ad models and how most stories don’t actually make the publication break even.
After interviewing several sources in the industry, Davis found that rates had generally improved since his story from 2013, thanks in large part to new online-only outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed that look to compete with traditional powerhouse magazines.
But, as Davis writes, “The question is, how long will the relative good times of getting paid to write on the web last? Even venture dollars are exhaustible. While a few sites will probably survive, the existing (and future) business models can’t support all the ones that are currently vying for writers and eyeballs.”
Davis believes fellow freelancers want to help each other out, but in an industry that has a broken revenue model, he questions if there is even enough money to make their efforts for fair pay and rights worth their time.
“It’s sort of a self-perpetuating thing. If it doesn’t succeed at first, then it’s not going to succeed,” Davis said of these communities. “What I’m trying to say is I think the jury is still out.”
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Even in a world that continues to see an increase in remote workers, physical location still presents its own unique challenges and advantages.
Montana, despite its large area, has always had a small media market. There are no large-circulation magazines like those found in New York. Being a journalist in the Treasure State most likely means working for a newspaper or a television station or going it alone.
Like in other states, staff jobs at Montana media organizations can be difficult to find and present conditions that are less than luxurious.
Because of this, storytellers like Erik Petersen are turning to freelance careers in order to pursue stories that may require more time than what’s afforded in a newsroom.
For 12 years, Petersen worked as a staff photographer for the Livingston Enterprise and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in southwestern Montana. As the newspapers’ ad revenue declined and other photographers lost their jobs, he found himself working to feed the daily grind. He felt unfulfilled. He needed to get out.
“I didn’t want to be the last man standing in a job that was once so fulfilling and amazing,” said Petersen, now a graduate student and adjunct instructor at the University of Montana School of Journalism. “I covered the Iditarod for [the Chronicle], I floated the length of the Yellowstone River from Gardiner to North Dakota… I had done some really amazing projects and we weren’t able to do those anymore because the staff was so thin.”
Being a staff photographer in a small Montana community where people recognized his face helped Petersen gain clients and make ends meet after leaving the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Another Montana-based writer, Colter Nuanez, also began work as a freelancer after leaving the Chronicle. The former sports editor joined a growing movement among freelancers to find their own independent outlets—an opportunity presented by the same digital age that cut so many jobs statewide.
During his six years in the newspaper industry, Nuanez watched talented reporters lose their jobs. Each time, management at the Chronicle made it clear to Nuanez that a raise wouldn’t be coming anytime soon, despite the increased workload.
“The corporation doesn’t really care about the quality of the content,” Nuanez said. “They would rather have a young ambitious person who will work for overtime without charging them, rather than someone who’s been around the business for a long time and has good credentials.”
So Nuanez started his own subscription-based blog. It has grown into Skyline Sports, a sports news website he runs with his brother, which covers Big Sky Conference sports with a special Montana focus.
Nuanez said he’s already received praise for his in-depth coverage, and that’s made the risk of freelancing worth it. He got tired of working overtime for a company that, in his opinion, “continues to digress instead of progress.”
“My advice to anyone is, can you reconcile within yourself to produce a product that benefits an overall entity? In other words, do you believe in the entity you work at enough to produce quality content for the benefit of that entity and not yourself? If the answer is yes, then by all means keep working for the magazine or newspaper that you work for. But if you find yourself wanting more reward in terms of self-satisfaction and financial gain, then freelancing is definitely the way to go,” Nuanez said.
RELY ON RELATIONSHIPS
Four hours from Bozeman, Polson-based Baynham isn’t a part of any freelance networks and like many independent writers, he usually doesn’t sign contracts when commissioned by an editor. But unlike his early days of freelancing, it’s a rare occasion when an editor won’t pay him for his work.
Financially, he’s not worried. Baynham has established enough relationships with editors and has found himself a niche in adventure and travel writing.
He targets print magazines because that’s where the money is. Call him old school, but he loves the sense of permanence that only ink can provide.
Sometimes Baynham takes on writing projects for marketing to fill in the gaps. But he still makes room for stories he’s passionate about, ones he feels no other storyteller can share in the same way.
“If you feel passionate about a story then it’s always worth writing the story, even if you’re not getting much money for it, and the reason that is, is because passion shows,” he said. “You can see passion. You can read passion. When someone sees that story, that could lead to future work.”
Austin Schempp is a recent graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has reported stories for Runner’s World, the Associated Press and most recently, The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon.