Cash-flow is king

There is a relatively straight-forward three-step process for a freelance journalist looking to get a print commission. In better times it would go as follows:

  • First, the writer does the difficult part of devising a viable pitch; something fresh, relevant and also do-able.
  • Second, the writer identifies the publications which would be interested in the piece, as certain topics are better suited to certain media outlets.
  • Finally (as this is the real world) the writer identifies the newspaper from within that whittled-down group that is going to pay best for the finished product.

This is a simplified process, of course. Journalists may also, for example, decide against pitching to certain publications because they disagree with their ethics, politics or something else. They may also favour pitching to a publication with a higher profile in a certain area, even if they do not pay the best (although there is usually a correlation between reputation and pay-rate).

However in the last year or so the final step has been amended significantly for me. Where in the past, for very simple reasons of self-preservation, the only financial factor I had was how much people paid it is now primarily a question of how quickly they will do so.

As we hear time and again from small and medium businesses, cash-flow is a major problem in the current climate and for self-employed workers like freelancer journalists this is no different.

Up until recently, in my experience at least, payment cycles were generally uniform across the industry. You might wait a month, at a stretch two, but generally you would get paid for a printed piece within a reasonable time frame. Some small-time publication houses were far more erratic than this, paying people whenever they could, but most had a set process that was somewhat reliable.

Since the recession started to bite, this has changed in some places (though it should be said, not in others).

For example:

A certain Irish newspaper was previously a very reliable payer, doing so less than 10 days after the month of an article’s publication. This meant that, at the very most, you would be waiting 6 weeks from publication to payment but possibly as little as 2 weeks. Most importantly the system had reliability – you were always safe in the knowledge that a cheque would come in the letter box on week X no matter what. This is an invaluable comfort to have in such an unreliable profession.

Late last year I found out, after pestering their admin staff for a missing payment, that this system had changed. Now freelance writers must wait 90 days after the month of publication for their cheque, meaning there could be as much as a 4 month gap between publication and payment.

Any of the publication’s editorial staff I’ve spoken to on the matter agree that it’s a badly thought-out move and one that I understand many in there argued against. However, the business decision was made and that’s the end of it.

Now I understand that this industry is in a bad state and even the biggest companies are struggling to make ends meet. However making freelancers wait obscene amounts of time is little more than a safety-pin solution to the cash-flow problem that the company itself is no doubt suffering from too. It is also one that only serves to alienate some of these “suppliers” of what is a critical feature of the product itself (if you want to talk about this in business terms).

What it means for me as a freelancer is that this newspaper has suddenly fallen way down the ‘pitchable’ ladder. Not because I do not like the newspaper, its staff, its focus or even its rate of pay – all of those things are reasons why I would have gone to them in the past. It has fallen down because it has a far longer payment cycle than other newspapers who might take similar pitches, so these alternatives get pitched to first.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the case that I’d work for a pittance as long as I was paid it in advance. Nor is it the case that I have disregarded this publication altogether; far from it. But if the pay date of two competing publications is wildly different but the rate is not logic alone dictates my preference. At the moment I, and many like me, cannot afford for to do otherwise.

What publishers need to ask themselves is how much damage they are doing to their product by bringing in these (and many, many other) anti-writer policies in the name of the bottom line. The survival of these publications is obviously in everyone’s interest but I disagree profoundly with the implication that this can only happen at the cost of writers’ ability to make a living.

I mean, maybe I’m being naive but surely I’m not the first, last or only writer to change my preference away from those that take their time when it comes to paying?


  1. I’ve yet to cut someone out of the loop of potential clients because they’re late in paying. Some are slow, some prompt, and although I’ve noticed a few timelines getting longer, its predictable enough that I can plan for it.

    What I have done is not bother pitching some contacts any more because I know that even if they do say yes, the amount they pay will be so small its not worth my time – indeed I’d end up making a loss to do the piece.

    My main problem at the moment is generating new areas of work. I tend to get pigeon holed, and that in turns limits what I’m known for. Working on it.


  2. Nor have I but in my experience there’s even less predictability now than there was before, which is what really hurts you when you’ve bills to pay.

    I have in the past written off a publication because they do not pay well enough to make writing for them a profitable enterprise. Though it’s been a while since I’ve done that, largely because I’m now writing for the same circle of publications (though it’s a bigger one than it would have been in the past).

    As for new areas of work, I’m completely feeling the same on that. In the last year or so I’ve found myself squarely in ‘tech’, which I’m happy with. But I would like to write in other areas too; for example I’ve let my media writing go out the window.

    I’d love to do some more general features too but truth be told the ideas just aren’t coming to me.

    The fact that I’m kept busying doing what I’m known for means that’s not a big deal, so it’s kind of a cycle.


  3. Adam,

    Great blog – and this is coming from someone who has had to cut a client out of the loop for the very reasons you cite (and another even more important reason: actually getting paid at all).

    I’m pretty sure that the ‘certain Irish newspaper’ you refer to is the one I have in mind when I say that some formerly reliable outlets have basically stopped paying – and that it is time freelancers named and shamed it (OK I’m not doing so here but I will elsewhere).

    I have written c. 15 features for this Irish national daily over the past 18 months and, to date, have only been paid for six of them. One of the out standing invoices dates all the way back to Jan 2009.

    I’ve found that editors in this paper were once sympathetic to this issue but, for obvious reasons, now ignore invoice-related emails (but still commissioned my pitches).

    Obviously I’ve stopped writing for this paper but getting money I’m owed is proving nigh-on impossible. This is an awful way to treat freelance staff, it would be great if, as a group, freelancers could agree not to work for non-paying clients (I know from an insider that I’m not the only freelancer not getting paid in full).


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