In December, freelance writers took to Twitter, like they often do at the end of the year, to share their biggest accomplishments and best pieces. This year, however, not only did they share links to their stories but also what they got paid to write them.
Seattle-based writer Wudan Yan was one of those freelancers.
2. I paid a visit to Bangladesh this spring to report on the #Rohingya refugee crisis. It’s turned into and continues to be an ecological disaster. This is my dispatch for @HuffPost / $1570 https://t.co/KFZHYNlTGI
— Wudan Yan (@wudanyan) December 11, 2018
Freelancing, Yan said, is a business as much as it is the art of writing and telling a story. And running a business means knowing how to negotiate for adequate compensation. “[Rate transparency] will help us make informed decisions on whether or not a byline is worth it, or, for instance, what outlets can pay a fair and living wage if investigative work is involved,” she told me.
December’s transparency trend traced back to media freelance collective Study Hall. Prompted by massive layoffs at outlets like Mic, The Outline, Vox Media, and Refinery29, the organization invited media workers to tweet about their experiences and share their pay
“As outlets and publications across the industry continue to downsize their editorial teams and newsrooms, they must increasingly rely on freelance writers for content,” said Crystal Stella Becerril, community organizer for Study Hall. “By sharing our rates and experiences with the broader writing community, we are standing in solidarity with each other, helping expose egregious labor practices and demanding greater media transparency.”
Study Hall credited Brooklyn-based freelance writer Rahel Aima for prompting the #MediaTransparency campaign. Aima not only shared her year-end recap with rates on Twitter, but also compiled a list on Medium of other writers who had done the same. “There’s been a lot of talk, statements, etc., about freelancer solidarity lately,” she said. “But solidarity without vulnerability—without any real stakes, or for that matter the accountability of non-anonymity—feels like little more than brand building.”
But, wait, shouldn’t freelancers support publications outsourcing work? Not so much. Layoffs do not occur in a vacuum. Freelance budgets often get slashed during restructuring, and even if they remain intact, many of us lose the editors who hired and championed us within the organization. I experienced this in 2018, when my income dropped by a third after two major publications laid off much of their editorial staff, including all the editors who used to hire me.
Then there’s the mental and emotional turmoil that layoffs inflict upon an industry. Freelancing centers on editorial relationships. In the increasingly precarious culture of media acquisitions and layoffs, it feels like we’re playing a game of Jenga. The competition is fierce, and just like that, publications that were once reliable anchor clients are suddenly out of reach.
That’s why rate transparency matters, and if publishers won’t open up, then freelancers must. When rates are a secret, freelancers may end up accepting lower compensation for their work or not pitching at all if they fear the compensation they need is too high.
“The industry has long relied on the isolated nature of our work to breed secrecy and competition among writers and media workers,” Becerril said. “But by sharing this information with each other, we are empowering ourselves as individuals and as a community, now and in the long term.”
There are avenues out there for rates sharing. I’ve benefitted from anonymous forums in private writing groups and on rate collection hubs like Contently’s Freelance Rate Database and Who Pays Writers, which have enabled me to negotiate better rates for my work—in some cases, as much as 40 percent more than what I was initially offered. I would never have had the courage to counter that high had I not been privy to what others had been paid for similar work.
In a perfect world, freelancers wouldn’t need rate calculators and databases, because publications would offer fair rates that were public knowledge. Until then, it will be up to us to level the playing field.