Pay-By-The-Word Journalism is Ridiculous

money

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how little freelance writers are paid or are not even paid at all. It all got me thinking about one of the more common payment schemes for freelancers: pay-by-the-word.

For those of you who aren’t in this world—you lucky bastards—here’s how it works. I’ll pitch an idea to an editor. The editor will say, “Joe, your idea is brilliant. We accept. I can’t believe how lucky our publication is to have you. You’re so handsome.” Then we’ll agree on a word count, for example: 600 words. The editor might say, “OK, we pay 50 cents a word.” That means that for a 600-word article I’ll be paid $300.

If it’s a personal essay, I can probably knock it out in a day. Let’s say I spend an eight-hour workday on it—outlining, writing drafts, revising and so forth. Three hundred bucks divided by eight hours means I make $37.50 an hour.

But what if it’s not a personal essay? What if it’s a heavier story that requires—I’ll grab some numbers out of the air here—1 hour to write the pitch, 1 hour researching the story, 1 hour researching sources and reaching out to them, 3 hours conducting interviews, 3 hours transcribing interviews, 4 hours writing and 2 hours revising for the editor. You can quibble all you want with these numbers—oh, that’s too much time transcribing!—but the point is, a reported story will take more time. Three hundred bucks divided by 15 hours means I make $20 an hour on that story.

For writers, there are two problems with the pay-by-the-word scheme. The first is that it assumes all stories are created equal. This is problematic. As our example above shows, all stories are not created equal. Some can be written relatively quickly. Some take more time and effort. Can you spot the incentive?

The other problem is that pay-by-word assumes that all writers are created equal. If an editor is offering 50 cents a word to every writer, it means that the most talented writers who are earning those 50 cents a word are getting the same amount as their less-talented counterparts. So the best writers are penalized and the lesser writers are rewarded by this one-size-fits-all system.

What I prefer doing—and some publications are open to this—is simply quoting a rate. I calculate how many hours the story will take and multiply that number times my hourly fee. This is what other professionals do. They give an estimate and a rate. As far as I know, freelance writers are the only professionals who charge for their services so arbitrarily. It’s like paying a carpenter by the nail.

Pay-by-the-word persists, I think, for two reasons. Writers are terrible when it comes to talking about money. Many of them feel guilty or are afraid to negotiate for more money, which is insane, but true. Instead of telling an editor, “My time is worth $25 or $45 or $95 an hour or I can do this project for $700,” it’s easier to say, “I agree to write that piece for 75 cents a word.” It’s a negotiating dodge, and it lets everyone save face.

Editors prefer a blanket payment scheme because it’s one less decision to make, and it helps with budgeting. If a publication has a 5,000-word news hole every month, and it pays 75 cents per word to fill that hole, it can estimate how many stories it will need and how much they will cost before those stories are ever assigned.

Publications suffer under this rigid pay system as well. I’ve worked for pubs that overpaid because of pay-by-the-word. They pay the same for reported pieces as they do for TV show recaps or lists. They’re overpaying for those TV show recaps and lists because those are faster and easier to write than reported articles.

Pay-by-the-word discourages reporting, does not reward more talented writers and adds an invisible siphon to editorial budgets.

If there’s a logical defense for this pay scheme, I’d like to hear it.

Photo by Philip Taylor

UPDATE: Freelancer Erin Biba says pay-by-click is ridiculous, too.

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • After you talked about paying carpenters by the nail, I hate to use this metaphor, but you nailed it. Pay-by-the-word encourages quick and dirty work. Where’s my nail gun?

  • Slow clap…

  • Jenny Neill

    I, too, prefer a piece rate. With those, it is much easier for me to track my own pace against the fee I’ve agreed to. It makes it easier for me to determine whether it’s worth my time to continue a relationship with an editor.

    I’m seeing fewer “by-the-word” opportunities these days. And, when I do, they are for those “front of the publication” or “we know we need to fill XX amount of space” sections. I think the model works fine for those spots in print. Beyond that, there’s no justification I can see. Especially because so many of those sections get written by interns or staffers rather than freelancers.

  • “It makes it easier for me to determine whether it’s worth my time to continue a relationship with an editor.” Exactly, Jenny.

  • Brandi Andres

    Thank you for outlining so honestly and accurately the pay rate burdens of writers! Another addition to the “pay-by-the-word” rate is when online publications will only “pay-by-the-piece” at, say, $100 for a 300-600 word article. The same rules apply, only in many cases, the outcome is worse.

    Your post brought back memories of times when I’ve wanted to say this straight out to editors, but feared losing the job (hence, the income to pay my bills) altogether…and then when I became an editor, I felt awful being forced by my publication to ask writers to work for as little as they were being offered. It’s a sad, unfortunate spiral, one that I hope will see a gleaming, promising light at some point in the near future. These sentiments expand out not only for the benefits of writers, but also for the readers who actually appreciate good writing.

  • Brandi – thanks for the honest response yourself. I didn’t include the reader in this piece, but you’re absolutely right. A more honest system is to their benefit as well.

  • This may be a theoretical discussion in a market where nobody has a choice between methods. But pay by the word has always worked out pretty well for me. That’s for print pubs, where space is limited, and valued highly enough to support a word rate of $2-$3. Shorter items, such as a graf explaining a pic or a data entry, can be as high as $4 because they require more work per word.

    At a pay rate like that for a longer piece plus sidebar(s), editors and I have no problem with all of the back-and-forth required. Anybody who doesn’t pay for fact-checking anymore feels they are getting a bargain.

    Besides, it’s often impossible to foresee how long a given piece will take. You always want to give yourself the incentive to over-deliver; it’s hard to see how that’s makes sense when you’re tracking profitability on an per hour basis. Billing per hour, I’ve found not just in journalism but in advertising and PR as well, shifts the balance of power to the client because they always think they know how long a certain project ought to take and build that assumption into your rate.

    One problem with a word rate is the disincentive it produces to generate graphics that might deliver a substantial amount of information with only a few words. But it’s often possible to compensate for that by calculating how many words would be required to fill up that amount of space and billing accordingly.

    Best is a flat rate, perhaps per page. That’s what I did when I was an editor, to encourage people to find different kinds of information and write sidebars with good heds on their discretion. This also made it easier for me to pay, because I would have a check cut for the exact amount when making the assignment. That way the check would sit in my locked desk drawer until I was happy with the story — worked wonders for deadline compliance!

    My only real problem with pay per word came in with the Internet, when some publishers decided to pay print writers, where space is a premium, the same as online where space costs nothing. These rates are so low that you have to minimize reporting and fact-checking, making for bad blood all around. Such clients don’t last long.

    Perhaps this explains the ascent of the essay market, where it’s all so much more under control. The rates may be way low, but when you’re just spewing out your thoughts it’s all a matter of how fast you can type.

  • Donald — I sincerely thank you for providing another point of view. Your points are well-made, and I especially like your idea of a flat rate per page. I hope everyone who reads my post also takes the time to read Donald’s full response.

  • I prefer flat rates, too. One of the big advantages is that if you turn in a 1,000-word article and the editor decides to cut it down to 800 words, your pay doesn’t drop in the process! (On the other hand, if you turn in the agreed-upon 1,000 words and the editor asks for another 500 and isn’t flexible on upping the agreed-upon pay, your pay effectively goes down!)

  • Good points, John. This definitely happens if the word count is in flux and not fixed. Thanks for sharing.

  • SaMoDodger

    Publications pay by the word because they have space to fill, and budgets to spend. Let’s say a publication has a $10,000 budget and needs to fill 10,000 words of space. That works out to $1/word. But if an editor pays you $2 a word for a 1,000-word reported piece, he or she has only $8,000 left to pay for 9,000 words. That comes out to less than $1/hour.

    Magazines commonly do bump up the pay of writers they know well because they’re confident of receiving a well-written piece that needs little editing, isn’t plagiarized, and gets the voice and tone of the publication right. That means less work for the editor. But every extra dollar they pay Peter has to come from some Paul.

    My advice: try to be Peter and not Paul.

  • Thanks. I actually addressed that in the piece. “Editors prefer a blanket payment scheme because it’s one less decision to make, and it helps with budgeting. If a publication has a 5,000-word news hole every month, and it pays 75 cents per word to fill that hole, it can estimate how many stories it will need and how much they will cost before those stories are ever assigned.”

    Yes, you’re right, not all pay-by-the-word schemes are completely static. Some writers make more than others. As they should. But I don’t think the Peter-Paul analogy is correct, because Peter does not get paid with Paul’s money. Peter is paid with the publication’s money. That money does not belong to Paul. It does not “come from” him.

    Some people are Peter, and they’re really good writers, and they’re paid as such, and some people are Paul, they’re decent writers, but they’re not as talented, and they’re paid less.

    Companies do this all they time — they pay Employee 1 more than Employee 2 because Employee 1 is more valuable. I wouldn’t call that a Peter-Paul scenario.

  • Joel Keller

    Joe, you hit exactly on the reasons why I’ve been more per-hour motivated in
    my career, something that was taught very early on to me by the folks on the Freelance Success board. You don’t even mention those $2/word articles
    that go through multiple rounds of questions and revisions, which knock
    down your per-hour rate even more. Then there’s actually the time you
    take to chase down the check, which most people don’t factor into the
    per-hour number.

    It’s why I’m willing to do a commentary piece for an online outlet for
    $100 (it takes me 2-3 hours to do it, translating to $33-50/hr. Not a
    great rate, but OK for what it is). Even $50 blog posts can work if they
    take you an hour or less to do.

    What I can’t abide by anymore, however, are $150 Q&As. For some reason,
    editors rate them at a lower value than features. I’m not sure why;
    maybe they think there’s less writing and storytelling involved. But
    transcribing interviews or getting them transcribed costs either money
    or time, and then there’s the time you need to go through the transcript
    to edit it down and make it coherent. Not to mention the time it takes
    to procure the interview in the first place. It could potentially take
    10 hours to get a Q&A in shape, which means you’re getting paid slightly
    better than a Starbucks barista. Not good.

  • You’re right, Joel. I didn’t mention those high-paying pieces that can turn into low-paying pieces thanks to revision after revision. At some point, writers should negotiate those revisions, but sometimes there’s just no money left in the editor’s budget, and you as a writer still want the piece to get published and look great, so you do the work anyway and yeah, it’s like minimum wage. I have been guilty of this.

  • SaMoDodger

    Companies do this all the time with their staff because they have the same players from month to month. But it’s harder with a freelance budget because for every birdie you need a bogie just to stay on par. I’m not defending the process, just explaining it. Budgets are budgets and editors have to follow them or lose their jobs.

    The per-word scheme isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to follow. And it’s a whole lot better than what is gradually replacing it: the $0/per word that most websites and blogs pay.

  • It’s tough because I can see both sides of the story. Having spent the better part of the last decade writing for consumer pubs, I ran into the things Joel describes a lot. And many times, you’d go through the whole pitching-writing-interviewing-revising-chasing checks rigamarole, and then for whatever reason, the piece would never get published. You’d be forced to take a kill fee and on top of that, never get to see the thing in print and never get the benefit of the clip.

    Now I’m mostly on the other side of the fence, managing a team of writers on my own site. This side of the fence is fraught with peril, too, and when you factor in things like keywords, meta data, advertising, link quality, google algorithms, yada yada, you really have to focus to remember why you’re doing this in the first place — to publish quality writing that tells a story in the writer’s own voice.

    Anyway, veering off track here. For the type of site we run — which publishes a variety of entertainment stories — the pay-per-word model doesn’t work that well. It’s better to separate the categories out and pay per category: TV recaps, movie reviews, narrative interviews, Q&As, op-eds, features, red carpet fashion, etc. Most stories in those categories run about the same word length, so the rates are fairly consistent within each category.

  • “It’s better to separate the categories out and pay per category.” Smart, Jane. Makes sense.

  • beth4158

    Good piece. I was just talking about this, of a fashion, this morning. One of my friends, adorably, used to think that I was paid $4/word for my freelancing. Isn’t that quaint? Maybe if I wrote for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. But I don’t write for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. What came out of this morning’s conversation, though, ties into points Donald and SaMoDodger raise about paying rates that are abysmally low or, worse, expecting writers to work for free. “The world has become more casual,” is how I phrased it to my friend. With the proliferation of the Internet and – ack – texting, people seem less inclined to care about precise prose. And those of use who care about precision are left expecting to be paid what we’re worth in a world that has adopted an attitude that seems to be “What’s so hard about stringing a few words together? I can do that.” And, my personal favorite, the craigslist ads that offer no pay but “exposure,” as if anyone with an Internet connection can’t start a blog and get just as much exposure for themselves. The freelance job sites do us no favors either, especially those that pit writers against each other in bidding wars. Recently, I had a company offer me a writing gig with the expectation that I’d churn out 800-word articles with 3-5 sources per for $120 a pop. I turned them down. I keep telling writers to stop agreeing to insultingly low rates. It would have been hypocritical of me to accept. Stepping off my soapbox now. By the way, Joe, you’re so handsome.

  • Bud Wilkinson

    Writing for print these days is punishment in itself. The newspaper that I write for pays a flat $3.30 per inch and $20 per picture. The pay scale has been in place since at least 2008, and probably quite longer. There’s no gas allowance. You pay for your own notebooks and business cards. While the pay scale often works out OK on breaking news likes fire and accidents – sometimes $25 an hour – that’s not the case for stories that require any time-consuming reporting. The hourly rate plummets. I’ve done stories that worked out to $5 an hour, which is well below minimum wage. The fact that you’re only working when something’s happening makes the idea of working anywhere else increasingly appealing. What a payoff after more than 35 years in the business. I’m not bitter. Just poor.

  • LOL. Thanks, Beth. Busted! This entire blog post was conceived primarily to troll for compliments on my looks.

  • Michelle

    So true Beth,

    After one insulting job listing – I literally went through their application process just so I could write them a nasty note in the section to add a cover letter…yes, I used my real name and real contact info – I couldn’t help myself – Basically I said it seems from your listing you’re having trouble finding a good writer, maybe you’ve not heard the adage, you get what you pay for – In their case $15 – for a laugh see the ‘job listing’ below…seriously I’m so sick of this, no, really, how fuc’n dare they!

    This is a real job, freelance writing copy for major e-commerce sites.
    This freelance position requires precision and accuracy, and the ability
    to write in different styles to mimic our clients’ brand voices.
    Knowing something about SEO (search engine optimization) is a plus but
    not necessary. We provide training. You must be good at self-editing,
    turning in perfect or near-perfect copy every time. You must be
    independent and responsible as you will work from home from anywhere.
    You must be willing to learn a new way of writing using SEO. You must be
    smart and pick up on things quickly and be able to switch from one
    style of client to the next with ease.

    You MUST have experience
    as a professional writer who has met many deadlines and never gives
    excuses about the dog eating your work or the Internet going out or some
    other excuse for not meeting your deadline. Don’t bother applying if
    you don’t have at least three years of professional writing experience
    where you were paid to write on a daily basis. We have no time to train
    you on how to be a writer. We also have no time for drama.

    Starting pay will be $15 with raises and other opportunities for those
    who do a great job. Currently, we have a need for people who love to
    write about sportswear.

    To apply, send a resume, two samples of
    shorter pieces showing the range of your writing style and a cover
    letter that explains how your experience makes you right for this job.
    This is your chance to show you know how to write persuasive copy that
    fits the tone. For those who succeed at persuasion, there will be
    writing and style tests to further screen candidates.

    This is an ideal fit for someone who is a consummate professional who loves working from home and in a no-drama work zone.

  • Joe:

    Interesting discussion all around. Good thoughts in the article and the comments. I love this stuff.

    And I agree. Per-word rates make no sense whatever. For editor or writer. They are archaic, formulaic, and lazy. (“So whenever I type a word, I get a dollar? And whenever you cross out a word, you take off a dollar?”)

    Fact is, though, every ‘per-whatever’ freelance pricing scheme I have ever seen is just as illogical, just as arbitrary, just as inequitable. (How many hours did it take Picasso to paint “Guernica’? How many days did Director Ben Affleck spend on ‘Argo’? How many words in Gladwell’s ‘Outliers?’ Who even asks such a thing?) That’s another discussion entirely, though.

    Anyway, here’s what puzzles me.

    Forgive my naivete and lack of clue. Set me straight, please.

    Why is it, in the journalism world, the ‘client’ (editor/buyer) gets to set the rate, the price? And the freelancer either sucks up and accepts it, or not?

    The rest of the freelance world works the other way ’round. Over at thefreelancery.com, we’re mostly copywriters, designers, illustrators, PR specialists, editors, proofreaders, translators, programmers, all working on our own.

    A client calls and asks, “We need to build this website, create this infographic, write this speech. How much would it cost?”

    And we say how much (based on whatever illogical and ill-conceived scheme we’re using. Per hour, per day, per pound, per 250 words, per pulling a number out of our butts.)

    The client says yes, or no. Just like everywhere else in the world. You put a price tag on it. The customer buys, or doesn’t. Just like in a hardware store, on Amazon, or with a house painter.

    Why does the world of journalism work the other way? Who started that? Who walks into the supermarket and says, “I only pay 1.29 for eggs.”

    Please set me straight. I’m sure I’m missing some reality of the marketplace, or some longstanding tradition, or some nuance. I am on the marketing side of the fence after all.

    But what’s wrong with this:

    You send an email to an editor. You query an article on, oh, “Where do weathermen come from? Scientists or just pretty faces?” or . . . “Where has the neighborhood bakery gone?”‘ (I’m making this up. I’m no journalist.)

    And you say, I’m interviewing X, Y, Z, I’ll cover this, that, and have some background from A, B, and C. It’ll run $2400, plus about in 300 in expenses. Can deliver 1800 to 2000 words. About 30 days.”

    I’m sure there’s a flaw here, journalism-wise, but why can’t YOU set the price, and let the editor decide? Everything else works that way.

    What if every pitch, every query came with a price tag?

    Why is that wrong?

    Because it’s just not done? Because editors don’t have any money? Because no ever did it that way? Because we’re chicken?

    Again, I don’t know the protocol of journalism. So maybe this is dumb.

  • Walt — I appreciate your outsider’s perspective.

    I agree with your sentiments.

    To answer your question, I think it has something to do with the fact that so much journalism doesn’t have a definitive ROI. Editors and publishers come from an era when, thanks to lucrative subscriptions and ads, magazine and newspaper budgets were flush, and an editor could afford to assign a bunch of different pieces at a bunch of different prices to fill the news hole with no idea, really, which articles that were assigned were responsible for the publication’s popularity with readers (although I am sure there were crude metrics such as letters to the editor that could help one guess.)

    I’ve worked on the editing and publishing side in print and online, and I’ve never heard an editor say, “For an article to pay for itself it needs X unique page views.” I know there are publications where this happens, and it scares a lot of writers to hear such talk, but that’s the kind of hard data that can inform an editor or publisher whether or not they’re spending their money wisely.

    So to answer your question, I think it’s because publications used to spend funny money to pay for content ($4 a word — go for it, young writer!), which was often terrific for writers, but now that same nebulous model is being employed in an era in which funny money is rare, and a system that once worked in favor of writers has now tilted against them. Why more writers don’t speak up about this flawed system, I don’t know. Desperation? Tradition? Maybe both,

  • Oh, and I encourage everyone to subscribe to Walt’s website. It’s terrific.

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