Dear News Organizations: Stop Being Deadbeats

If you’ve promised to pay your freelancers, do it

If I paid my bills as slowly as many news organizations pay their freelancers, I’d be homeless, have a deactivated cell phone, and carry a credit score of about three. Many news organizations are quick to snatch up good freelance news items but often negligently slow to pay the promised fee.

A newspaper in Abu Dhabi recently took over four months to settle the balances it owed me. Four. Freaking. Months. And I’m not talking about a $25 blogging fee here. They owed me five hundred bucks, and one of the pieces I filed for this publication I put together in about five hours. I got the newspaper a story in half a day, and it took them a football season to pay up. One magazine in Amman, Jordan took so long to pay me I had completely forgotten they owed me money. When I finally got paid, it was a Christmas-like experience, like finding $20 in a pair of slacks.

In my experience, U.S. news organizations aren’t any better at paying writers on time than publications abroad—even those in developing countries. I can’t remember exactly how many weeks one large national magazine based in Washington, D.C. took to pay me for a piece I wrote in 2010, but let’s just say it’s a good thing I wasn’t pressed to settle any gambling debts.

I know my experience is not every journalist’s, but I’ve freelanced for over forty publications over the last seven years, and what I’ve seen is that, more often than not, weeks after my work is published I have to contact the editor I worked with and ask where my money is. Then, I typically wait anywhere from four more weeks to three and a half months to get paid. As I write this, three news organizations owe me a total of $770, payments which are weeks to four months late.

I have a journalist friend who was laid off in 2008 from her job as an editor at a prominent magazine in New York, and picked up some freelance work to try and keep fiscal body and soul together. Ha. One well known national magazine took thirteen months to pay her, and she received the money long after she’d secured a new full time gig.

I won’t name the publications that have taken ages to pay me, as my point here isn’t to bite the hands that feed me four months late, but rather to highlight an injustice that self-proclaimed defenders of justice commit on a regular basis.

If I wait three months after the deadline to pay my subscription fee for Time magazine, it stops showing up. Likewise, publishers shouldn’t take liberty withholding money they owe freelancers. I’m frequently reluctant to pitch story ideas to publications that I have to fight with for payment and to whom paying me isn’t a priority, and I know other freelancers who feel the same. The magazine that took thirteen months to pay my journo friend will never see my work.

I know that most editors are viciously overworked, and slowness in paying contributors is very often unintentional. I can sympathize with this. News organizations need clear guidelines and time frames for processing freelance payments after publication. I’ve heard speculation, though, that some financially pressed publications deliberately withhold freelancers’ payments until they complain, like health insurance companies praying patients will forget to submit claims. Man, would I love a leaked reference to this policy in a careless publisher’s e-mail.

Journalism is a business of deadlines, and news organizations should pay workers on time so they can meet their financial deadlines, too. A few publications have paid me on time and deserve recognition. The Christian Science Monitor has been pretty good, and for a handful of dispatches I filed for GlobalPost, I was usually paid in the same month. (What celerity!). CJR pays me for each bundle of five or so columns I write, but they’re consistent and it works fine.

If you’re reading this and you’ve done any journalistic freelancing, post a note below on your experiences with remuneration. If you’ve had similar trouble, let’s commiserate. If you’ve ever been paid on time, give a nod to the outfit that got things right. And if you’re a publisher or producer with access to purse strings, try not to completely screw the moonlighters that enrich your product.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,