behind the news

New survey reveals everything you think about freelancing is true

Data from Project Word quantifies challenges of freelance investigative reporting
February 17, 2015

Freelance reporters face a double-edged sword. Media outlets’ massive staff cuts have led many to bemoan newsrooms’ reduced capacity for investigative journalism. Despite this perceived decrease in supply, it’s harder than ever for freelancers to fill that hole — or at least do so and make a living.

The upshot is that freelancers have abandoned at least several hundred investigations over the past five years due to a lack of resources, according to a new survey conducted by the advocacy group Project Word. The industry’s overcrowded labor market, coupled with economic changes wrought by the internet, have driven down wages to the point that independent reporters often subsidize their own investigations. Overworked editors and cash-strapped media outlets, meanwhile, face increasing difficulty in providing freelancers the editorial and legal support they need to effectively hold institutions accountable.

“This is a public good,” said Laird Townsend, a longtime freelance reporter who heads Project Word, which is sponsored by the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors. “If the market is not rewarding it, some other means have to emerge to support it. Or, everyone needs to make a conscious choice that this species, within this landscape, is not worthwhile. I disagree.”

Freelance reporters have a long history of uncovering wrongdoing, such as Seymour Hersh’s 1969 reporting on a US Army unit’s mass killing of civilians in My Lai, Vietnam. Still, a lack of data has made the challenges faced by this community hard to quantify. CJR has written about the myriad difficulties of freelancing, including the increased dangers faced by correspondents in conflict areas. A Pew Research Center study released this month, meanwhile, painted a startling portrait of threats to freelancers’ digital security.

Project Word’s findings confirm many other hunches within the industry, namely that investigative reporting is increasingly difficult for independent reporters. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they abandoned “otherwise viable and important public-interest reports” due to resource constraints over the past half-decade. These pieces, totaling between 560 to 1,150 stories, ranged from reports on Pentagon-provided healthcare to global reproductive rights.

The online survey polled more than 250 freelancers around the world, the vast majority of them identifying as former newsroom staffers. It’s an unscientific study, one whose results may suffer from self-selection bias. But the relatively small sample size suggests that potentially more stories are falling through the cracks. A smaller, parallel survey of staff editors confirmed many of the institutional challenges of publishing freelance investigations, including dwindling budgets and an editorial push toward bite-sized content tailored for the social Web.

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“The people who responded didn’t want to do listicles and fluff pieces; they wanted to do reporting that matters,” Townsend said. “They were intrepid, independent, accustomed to going deep into stories. But fewer outlets pay for the time it takes. So you hear the anguish: Serve the public good or stay solvent.”

Hundreds of comments published in an appendix to the survey illustrate a faction that feels punished for caring about accountability reporting. Among other initiatives to facilitate investigations, respondents called for more standardized freelance contracts, access to newsroom research tools such as LexisNexis, and legal aid ranging from sharing reporters’ liability to supporting their Freedom of Information requests.

Here are five more takeaways from the study:

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.15.00 AM.png Compensation is falling fast

Forty-four percent of survey respondents reported being paid less today than they were for an equivalent investigation five years ago, and nearly a quarter said compensation had halved during that time. The industry standards of paying either by the word or flat fees per article create additional financial strain during long projects.

“Even places that will pay $1/word, plus expenses, still amount to $3,000–$6,000 at most, which is a pretty small amount for a story that can take upwards of a year to report and write,” commented a print reporter who claimed 11 to 15 years of freelancing experience. “Not to mention that you get paid on publication, so what are you supposed to eat during the year of reporting and writing?”

Freelancers are paying to conduct investigations

While a majority of respondents said they subsidized their accountability reporting, 30 percent reportedly dip into their pockets for more than $5,000 a year. That helped create “anxiety on a daily/monthly basis regarding finances” among 92 percent of those surveyed.

“It’s often much more profitable to write fluffier stories for magazines,” said a print reporter with less than five years of freelance experience. “I recently spent several months chipping away at an investigative story and I was only paid $200 for it. Whereas if I write a piece for a special issue of a magazine, I can easily make $800 in a single week.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.00.25 AM.png

Most reporters spend a majority of their time on business

The legwork required to run a one-person business takes its toll on reporting, according to the survey, as only 34 percent of respondents spend more time pursuing stories than they do pursuing business or conducting other administrative duties. Writing grant proposals and obtaining health insurance, among other tasks, take up a majority of most respondents’ time.

“Every grant application is different,” wrote a multimedia reporter with six to 10 years experience freelancing. “Standardization of requirements would be a HUGE help (i.e., summary statement should be 50 words or less for ALL grant applications, not 50 for this one, 15 for that one, 300 for that one, etc.).” 

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.02.08 AM.png Grants fall short

Despite financial aid in the form of grants, the sums rarely support investigations in their entirety. The result is that freelancers often have to apply for multiple grants, taking time away from reporting and potentially creating conflicts between funders who want sole credit for stories.

“I am concerned about balkanization in the nonprofit journalism universe, with too many organizations handing out too many smallish grants that are just large enough to appeal to reporters or organizations, but not large enough to really support a project,” said a staff editor who said he or she works with freelancers at a national news organization. “There is too much organizational self-preservation, not enough eye on the broader mission.”

Editors need help, too

Freelancers said the second greatest challenge to investigative work, after financial strain, was working with staff editors who are likewise stretched thin. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed said they’d be interested in joining some sort of freelancer collective — such an organization could potentially help newsrooms vet freelancers for quality or experience. 

A respondent who identified as a former newspaper staffer added: “It would be helpful if there were a more developed relationship between outlets and foundations that fund freelance reporting, so that editors could be clued in to what money might be available to subsidize the reporting being done by the freelancer.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.