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).
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?