In a follow-up to our piece about how much journalists earn at a number of mainstream media companies, Nicole Cohen takes a look at wages for freelance journalists, for whom the picture is not so rosy. She explains how the money breaks down and what initiatives are being taken in a sector of the industry where wages have been stagnant since the 1980s.
By Nicole Cohen
How much do freelance journalists earn? The answer, maddeningly, remains: it depends.
Freelancers’ incomes depend on a range of factors, including where they live, what publications they write for, if they have an agent, if they do corporate or other writing to supplement their journalism, how much work they take on, and their ability to negotiate. In Canada, there are no standard rates for magazine and newspaper writing and no standard contracts (although companies now impose standard contracts to lay out copyright demands).
The most recent comprehensive survey of Canadian freelance writers, published by the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 2006, reveals that freelance incomes, which have historically been low, are shrinking. The average yearly income among the 858 freelance writers PWAC surveyed was just over $24,000 before tax. Ten years earlier, writers’ incomes were higher, averaging $26,500 before tax. In 1979, freelancers’ average income was about $25,000, which means freelance writers’ earnings have been stagnant for over three decades.
For my doctoral research, I conducted an anonymous online survey of 200 self-identified freelance journalists across Canada, 71 percent of whom say that freelance writing is their main job. Forty-five per cent of respondents reported earning under $20,000 (before tax) from freelance writing in 2009. Eighteen per cent earned between $20,000 and $30,000, 12 per cent each between $30,000 and $40,000 and between $40,000 and $50,000. Two per cent said they earned $100,000 or more.
Earnings are also gendered. Women are the majority of respondents to both PWAC’s report and to my survey, yet women freelance writers are paid less than men. “Although the average lowest rates per word earned by men and women have increased overall,” the report notes, “the lowest rates are still consistently paid to women.” Of my survey respondents, women writers earn less than men in every income category. Just over 49 per cent of women surveyed earn under $20,000 versus 35.8 percent of men, while 1.9 per cent of men and 0.7 per cent of women were in the highest income category, earning $150,000 or more before tax.
Freelance writers’ incomes have dramatically decreased amidst rising costs of living and inflation and relatively high profits among the large corporations that publish the majority of newspapers and consumer magazines in Canada. As PWAC’s report notes, “independent writers in Canada have watched their standard of living drop by more than 60 percent in one generation.” Low pay is an issue of concern to 57 percent of the writers I surveyed and, more broadly, 45 per cent note that economic instability is a major issue. One writer says she is paid so little that her hourly pay works out to be less than minimum wage. In Respect and Remuneration a report that surveyed a range of Canadian magazine industry workers (including CEOs, publishers, editors, staff, photographers, and freelance writers), respondents listed “insufficient pay for freelance work” as a top issue of concern.
Freelancers’ earnings can’t be attributed to individual work habits and talent. Freelance rates have not increased since the 1980s, when experienced writers could earn one-dollar per word from the highest-paying consumer magazines. Today, the top rate most writers aspire to is one-dollar per word, but publications pay as little as 10 cents per word. According to PWAC’s report, most writers can earn 99 cents per word at the high end of the scale and 35 cents per word at the low end. When writing for media, freelancers are rarely able to determine how much they will be paid: only 20 per cent of writers I surveyed set their own rates of pay for most of their work.
Freelance rates remain low because of the power imbalance between writers and publishers, based on my research. Eighty-three percent of freelance writers I surveyed believe that freelance rates remain low because publishers can get away with keeping them low. Although writers are central to the production of magazines, according to Statistics Canada, freelancers constitute only about 18 per cent of the total labour costs of Canadian magazines, and a shockingly low 5 per cent of total operating costs.
Although the PWAC has payment guidelines for writers and publishers, these are only suggestions that the organization has no ability to enforce, and the glut of writers competing for work—what scholar Graham Murdock calls a “reserve army of cultural labour”—provides publishers with little incentive to raise fees. The rise of free as an acceptable business model for large media corporations like The Huffington Post and the spread of digital piecework and payment in “exposure” places downward pressure on all freelance rates. Critically, freelancers are proving to be the losers in the battle against publishers’ copyright grabs: large corporations are introducing increasingly restrictive contracts that demand “all rights” to writers’ works without adequate payment, including rights to translate, digitize, adapt, reprint, relicense, promote, and store articles, even in formats yet to be invented. (ed. note: Check out this profile of Heather Robertson, the journalist who spent 15 years fighting class-action lawsuits for freelance journalists who had their print work repurposed online without their knowledge or consent.)
Individual writers have little bargaining power to negotiate these contracts and demand higher rates. Unlike freelancers whose minimum wage scales are negotiated through collective bargaining, such as members of the Writers Guild of Canada and freelancers for the CBC, most freelance journalists must represent themselves in negotiations with editors. This is not an easy task for individuals for whom securing future work depends on a good reputation and good relationships with editors.
This is why organizations like the Canadian Freelance Union, PWAC, and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), in partnership with the Canadian Writers Group (CWG), are working to build collective power and improve rates of pay, contracts, and working conditions for freelance writers. Most recently, a coalition of members of the CMG, the CWG and PWAC has been negotiating with Torstar over freelance contracts at The Toronto Star and The Grid. These efforts demonstrate that freelancers’ fortunes aren’t going to change unless freelancers themselves push for change.
In a time when more media workers than ever before are trying to earn a living from freelance writing, the old joke that a freelance writer is someone who has a typewriter and a working mate is no longer funny.
Related story: How much do journalists make?
Nicole Cohen is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture at York University, where she is completing her dissertation on the labour conditions and collective organizing efforts of Canadian freelancer writers. She has worked as a freelance journalist and co-founded Shameless magazine.