The website Who Pays Writers? was founded in 2012 as a public, anonymous forum for freelancers to share their experiences working for publications. It collects data like pay, details of relationships with editors, and contract information. Its goal is to increase transparency and help writers negotiate for better rights and wages. With more than 3000 submissions, covering over 1000 publications, it is now the largest dataset of its kind and a consistent go-to resource for journalists.
Until now, nobody had studied the site’s treasure-trove of raw data, spanning six years. So I gathered it at the end of 2018. An analysis confirmed some of our presumptions about freelancing—it can be hard to make a living simply writing—but it also revealed that pay is going up at a greater rate than inflation, that the publications with the biggest names don’t always treat their freelancers the best, and that contracts, in a multi-platform era, are getting a lot more complex.
As we wade into the data, it’s also important to keep in mind the website’s not-so-subtle disclaimer: “Who Pays Writers? makes no claim to the veracity or accuracy of the information published on this website.”
Freelancers have always been integral to helping publications diversify their coverage. And, following rounds of media layoffs, there have perhaps never been more than there are now fighting for fair pay. Hopefully, armed with more information, they can waste less time, build better relationships with editors, and earn better wages.
Who gets paid what?
The typical freelancer will take home around $200 per article at 20 cents per word. In other words, to make the federal minimum wage, the typical freelancer would have to write about six articles per month. Things do look like they are getting better, at least in the past few years. The median pay per article has gone up around $50, and rates have increased about 5 cents per word from 2012 to 2018. (The cumulative rate of inflation in that period was 9.4 percent.)
(The outer lines in the boxplots above mark the range, and the boxes mark the 25th to 75th percentile. The line in the box is the median—the 50th percentile. The mean of the distribution is the triangle. I’ve dropped the outliers.)
If you are a freelancer who wants as much money per word as possible, consider focusing on writing front-of-book pieces for magazines—granted, that’s easier said than done. Articles written for print typically earn 50 percent more than their digital counterparts. But if one doesn’t have a pitch worthy of The Atlantic, news and profiles typically pay better than opinion and criticism.
The data also suggests that there is no dramatic advantage to having a good relationship with an editor. Although some freelancers enjoy higher pay from having an ongoing relationship, the typical freelancer is paid the same regardless of whether or not they make a cold pitch. Interestingly, however, freelancers earn some of their highest pay when they are recommended to an editor through some intermediary. And as one might expect, there is a bump in pay when an editor approaches a journalist with an assignment or asks them to pitch a story.
Seventy-three percent of the submissions report that they had to wait four weeks or more to receive payment. And freelancers approached with an assignment, though they make more money, are more likely to have trouble getting paid. About a quarter of these freelancers rated their experience as “a huge hassle” or “impossible” on WPW’s payment difficulty scale, and nearly 10 percent wait more than three months to get a check.
Contract and Rights
About half of the submissions report that a formal contract was required. WPW doesn’t seem to have collected information on contracts and rights until 2013, but nevertheless, this smaller dataset reveals a stark trend. After 2015, there is a spike in freelancers accepting unconventional contracts, or at least not fully understanding their rights. Since then, there has been a steady increase of journalists claiming that they are unaware of their rights or entering into otherwise convoluted deals.
The best (and worst) publications as rated by WPW submissions
There are a lot of ways to rank the various publications that are found on WPW, and since many publications have only one or two survey entries, it’s difficult to get a clear picture for many. But if we consider only publications with at least than 8 survey entries, and treat total pay, dollar per word, payment difficulty, and “days to be paid” equally, we can begin to rank the remaining 80 publications most popular with freelancers.
- The Economist
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Walrus
- New York Magazine
- Undark Magazine
- The New York Times
- Village Voice
Though this ranking can be misleading: publications with more print submissions could have an advantage. The Economist has only one submission for 2018 and none for 2017. To be published as a paid contributor on Medium, you often need to be approached by one of its few editors. Racked and Village Voice are no longer publishing. But all things equal, over the past six years, these publications seem to treat their freelancers the best. If given the opportunity to write for them, take it.
Of the 80 publications ranked, some notable publications in the lower half include The Atlantic (#60), Vice (#62), Rolling Stone (#63), and the Los Angeles Review of Books (#68). The full list of rankings are available at this CSV.
Use this database
The dataset is available here. For the data-minded, it can be an incredibly useful resource, that allows more complex questions than the website can answer. If you’re looking to pitch in the near future, for example, you may consider filtering the dataset by publications that have more than three submissions in the past year. If your priority is being paid quickly, you can filter by publications that have the shortest average wait times (Atlas Obscura comes highly recommended).
UPDATE: This post has been changed to remove a link to some Who Pays Writers data.