Freelance journalists sometimes struggle to sell their articles — and when they do, many of them agree to work conditions and fees they are not always comfortable with.
In an industry where competition is so hard, creating good working conditions can be daring. Will the editors end up refusing a story because it is too expensive? How about reputation? Will they be wary of working with a journalist who tried to negotiate his or her contract?
Veteran journalist Alison Motluk has been freelancing for 18 years for publications like The Economist, The New Scientist and the Globe and Mail. Through colleagues, journalists unions and experience, she has learned the importance of insisting upon good working conditions.
“There’s nothing shameful about negotiating your fee or contract details and in fact, I would say it’s probably even good for your relationship with the editors,” she says. “For them to know you know your worth […], I think that actually improves your reputation with them if it’s fair and reasonable.”
Here is some of her advice:
Read your contract carefully
Journalists should be aware of what is in their contract. Some clauses might be worth refusing or improving, especially in the cases of long stories.
Motluk advises journalists to pay special attention to several clauses:
Kill fees were generally used when a journalist had to stop working on a story at the beginning of the process for example because the story was too weak. However, it now happens that editors kill a story after most or all of the work has been completed.
When it’s a long story, Motluk asks for a 75 percent kill fee if the full story as requested has been submitted and a 100 percent kill fee for after the story has been edited.
“I would encourage all writers to think if you have someone come into your home and renovate your bathroom and then you decided you didn’t like it or didn’t need it, you can’t not pay the person,” she says. “There’s no other industry where you get all the work done perfectly and then [the person who requested the work] changes his mind and doesn’t pay the full fee.”
Motluk now changes payment details after having — like many freelancers — waited for money for months, or sometimes never even seeing it.
She likes to ask for a deadline for the payment, like “within 30 days of completion,” for example. Lately, she has also thought about adding a line such as “if you don’t [pay on time], I will charge you 5 percent interest per month from the time owing,” to make the contract clearer.
This clause says that if someone sued the publication or journalist, the latter would have to pay for the legal cost of the publication regardless of whether the court has found any wrongdoing. This means the journalist has little control over what he will have to pay.
Motluk never signs those. Not all publications include them in their contract. Some make it clear the journalist would only be charged if a court of law found that he had contravened something.
Adapt your negotiation to the type of story
If the story is a long piece and there might be legal concerns, Motluk advises to get a contract. But for short piece when you’re sure they’re going to publish it, it should be okay with emails.
Keep your emails as records
“I think emails for freelancers is the best thing ever invented,” says Motluk.
She uses them in case of a disagreement over something already solved by email. She also always follows up every phone call with an email summing up what was said to make sure she has a written record.
Don’t hesitate to ask for more
Motluk now always asks for more money and says half the time, the publication agrees to it.
She advises to know the minimum amount you’re willing to sell the story for.
“[Publications] usually try to bid it down, but the worse thing that’s going to happen is they are going to offer you what they offered in the first place so you can still agree to it,” she says.
Join a union or discuss with your peers
Motluk started her career in England where she was part of the National Union of Journalists and where her colleagues were very aware of their rights. She is now a member of the Canadian Media Guild and believes unions are “source of a great deal of information and support.”
She also shares and discusses with her peers about complicated or successful experiences.
However, despite her experience, she still worries about negotiating.
“Every time I’m negotiating, I’m worried about it but I also feel that it’s a hopeless downward spiral if we don’t protect our rights or don’t fight for good kill fees, for good payment details,” she says. “But it still happens that people are angry or my contract negotiation lasts so long I lose so much money just negotiating.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via 24oranges.nl.