Most freelance journalists have a love/hate relationship with the job. They trade the freedom to pitch pieces and determine their own schedule for the price of dealing with slow responses from editors and delayed payments.
Plus, rates are often lousy, and work is less plentiful these days in a news industry with a grim outlook. Many stringers have to prop up their journalistic work with “custom content” and other writing projects. “These days I find that I’m getting paid more for a sponsored tweet or Instagram post that takes less than a minute, than I do for actual journalism,” multimedia freelancer David Leavitt, who has written for CBS Local and AXS.com, tells CJR by email.
But there are good gigs, too. CJR asked more than two dozen freelancers about their experiences, with the goal of recognizing publications that value freelancers. We focused on pay, the editing process, turnaround time, and the ability to maintain a relationship with the publication.
We want this to be an ongoing project, so we encourage those with positive freelancing experiences to contact Carlett Spike at [email protected]. We’ll update the piece with your feedback.
Here are six news outlets that won endorsements from multiple freelancers:
What it is: The LA-based publication aimed at men focuses on culture and lifestyle topics including health, sex, and relationships. Launched by Dollar Shave Club in 2015, some of its recent content includes training advice for men who don’t have free time, and a case against those who mock the font Comic Sans. Mel Magazine has a detailed outline on how to pitch them, along with contact information.
What they pay: According to Who Pays Writers, a website where writers can anonymously report rates, the only reported rate for the publication is 50-cents per word for a 3,000-word, heavily reported piece.
What freelancers say: The editors are truly invested in making stories the best they can be, Tonya Riley tells CJR. “[Executive Editor Zak Stone] has been really good at helping me reframe my stories,” she says. Now working on her 10th story for Mel, Riley (bylines include Mic and Fusion) says her editor takes the time to work through stories with her–taking them from the idea stage to the bigger picture.
For Riley, good pay and great editing are top priorities, so she says freelancers should keep that in mind when weighing the benefits of an opportunity. “People shouldn’t be discouraged from working with them just because they are a smaller name because you really get quality editing, and also the pay is very above average for most digital rates.”
Elon Green, who also has freelanced for CJR, and writer Devon Maloney credited Mel with taking on ambitious stories, regardless of whether they have a timely news peg. “I was given a lot of freedom to explore topics other outlets might not have taken a risk on,” says Maloney.
Related: The Washington Post’s secret weapon
What it is: Created and owned by the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy, Pacific Standard sets out to dive into some of the problems plaguing society while highlighting the people who have offered solutions. The publication is based in Santa Barbara, California. Pacific Standard Editor in Chief Nicholas Jackson prides himself on having a good relationship with freelancers. He tweeted earlier this month about the importance of paying promptly and valuing writers. Pacific Standard posts guidelines for writers on its website.
What they pay: Average rate is 50 cents per word, with one person reporting making $1.33 per word, according to Who Pays Writers.
What freelancers say: Alissa Greenberg, a freelancer who has written for The Atlantic, Time, and Roads and Kingdoms, tells CJR that Pacific Standard was her best overall experience. Greenberg worked with culture editor Katie Kilkenny on a piece about the history of the Black West—which will appear in the March/April issue. Greenberg says Kilkenny was always responsive and available to offer feedback along the way. “It was very collaborative in a way that made me feel like I had the power to shape the story, but I was supported if I was unsure which way to go,” she says. “I understood why my editor was making the changes that she was making and there was room for me to push back and explain this is why I think we should save this or keep it this way.”
It's important to me that we pay fast and fair (& don't ask freelancers to invoice us). & that the editor-writer relationship is a good one.
— Nicholas Jackson (@nbj914) January 5, 2017
What it is: The daily newspaper of Southern California has 1.4 million print readers daily, and 39 million monthly web visitors. As a newspaper that has science, auto, travel, and opinion sections, there are a wide range of possibilities for the types of stories freelancers could pitch the paper. Contact information for all the staff is available on The LA Times’ directory page, along with a few guidelines on how to pitch the paper for certain sections, such as travel.
What they pay: Twenty cents per word for an opinion piece in 2015 is the last reported figure for the newspaper. A review of other years suggests the paper pays a higher word rate for stories that require reporting. In 2014, a freelancer received 53 cents per word for a roughly 1,500-word profile.
What freelancers say: Mythili Sampathkumar, who focuses on science reporting, worked as a stringer for the paper while she was at the United Nations climate talks in Morocco. Sampathkumar (bylines include ThinkProgress and The UN Dispatch) says she most valued the feedback she received and the respect editors gave her. “Alex Zavis (a foreign desk editor) really helped me to write for more of a general audience and was always available to answer questions, but understood that I had some expertise too.”
What it is: Created in 2012, the digital only outlet has a stated goal of shaping content for apps, mobile, and tablets, often featuring quirky stories including theories on what the next Star Wars movie title means and Snapchat’s struggle with fake news. “The Complete guide to writing for Quartz Ideas” is available on its website.
What they pay: Rates ranged from seven cents to 33-cents per word, with most reporting they received payment in one month’s time.
What freelancers say: Freelancers who spoke with CJR most appreciated the responsiveness of Quartz’s editors. It made the editing smoother and the overall process much faster. “It was the kind of feedback I like to receive, which is first more general notes from an editor, and then a chance for me to alter the story to be more along the lines of what they are asking for, rather than an editor going in there and just hacking away at it,” one freelancer tells CJR. Another writer, Lydia Namubiru, agrees that the editors made the experience worthwhile. Namubiru, a journalist based in Uganda, says Quartz’s Africa Editor, Yinka Adegoke, is wonderful to work with. “He’s invested in the story and he wants it to come out right. His editing is very detailed and also he’s hands off,” she says. “He tries to make me do the story that I say I will do, and he trusts me to know what’s going on.”
What it is: The Guardian is considered a global publication with verticals specific to the UK, US, and Australia. US features editor Jessica Reed wrote a post on what she looks for in pitches, and there is a separate writeup available for those interested in pitching the opinion section.
What they pay: Who Pays Writers pegs the average pay rate at 38 cents per word.
What freelancers say: Freelancers say there are two main reasons they enjoy working with The Guardian. The first is the editing experience. Second is exposure. The Guardian US attracts about 120 million page views per month. Green notes that writers have to weigh the overall benefits they will get out of the experience. “There is always a calculation that everybody makes—well at least I make it—and I think either you are writing a piece because you love the publication, or you love the editor, or the money is really good,” says Green.“There are publications that don’t pay a lot of money and have flat rates for everybody on the web, but those could be the few publications that I’d still write for because the editing is so good or because it’s a very big platform.”
The New Yorker
What it is: The New Yorker is often thought of as the creme of the crop among magazines. Google “How to freelance for the New Yorker,” and there are a handful of articles offering advice and personal stories on what worked. Here’s a rundown of how to contact various sections of the magazine.
What they pay: As far as rates go, most freelancers turn to The New Yorker for the byline than the money. Rates of 17 to 20 cents per word for pieces 1,500 words or longer were reported in 2016.
What freelancers say: Despite The New Yorker’s long history, freelancers appreciated the fact their unique voice was never lost in the editing process. Additionally, those who wrote for print or web respect the attention and engagement they received from editors. Jacob Kushner, who has freelanced for 10 years with a focus on human rights (bylines include include Pacific Standard and Vice magazine), says engagement with the editor is his highest priority when freelancing. “It’s not just about having good editors, there are good editors everywhere. But often you have editors that just don’t have time,” says Kushner. “If your editor can’t give you the time of day, much less improve your reporting and writing, you’re not going to get better.”
Related: What kind of journalist are you?