The Freelance Life: Pushing a Rock Uphill, But the Slope Seems To Be Ever Shallower

Let me preface this by saying that I'm extremely happy and grateful with all the interesting and varied work I've been getting; that word rates and effective hourly rates for flat fees are up substantially for outlets to which I contribute (old and new) over 2013/2014; and that I love what I do.

With that out of the way…

I've been writing for hire since 1994, and writing for anyone who would publish me since I was a wee child in elementary school. I wrote for mimeograph, photocopier, offset press; I became a typesetter (paid!) for my high school newspaper because I had a high typing rate and was technical. This pulled me into very early desktop publishing in 1985 in school, and themes of programming (as typesetting then was a form of coding, like HTML), graphic design, and journalism have remained at the core of what I've done in the intervening three decades, through college and into my dotage here in middle age.

I experienced the crazy time in the late 1990s up until the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 where magazines were absolutely bursting with ads. Publications like Industry Standard and Business 2.0 (the original, pre-Time acquisition) had to increase their publishing frequency in order to hold all the ads and yet remain of a size that could be produced and mailed. Under periodical mailing rates in the US, a publication must have at least 25 percent nonadvertising matter to get the lowest rate; above that, and it's a form of circular.

Because of the vast amount of venture capital and IPO money flooding dotcoms, which transmuted it into advertising in print, which was still the dominant method to reach people even in 2001 (and a way to show that a company had money to throw around), publications were having actual problems keeping at least 25-percent editorial content. Nuts, I know.

During that time, words rates crept up. In the late 1990s, the New York Times was paying me 50¢ a word, but they were a newspaper, which typically paid worse. Much of what I wrote was for print magazines and appeared online with some exceptions. I often got $1 a word or more, because word rates were tied to print advertising. For comparison, writers might have been paid $1 a word in the 1970s (according to some colleagues) and much more even earlier in dollars of those days. For context, a $1 in 1970 would have been about $4.50 in 2001 and over $6 today.

As publications bulged, rates climbed because writers were in actual short supply. Publications hired like mad, and this was in advance of the true collapse of newspaper newsrooms. Most newspaper reporters of the time weren't versed enough in the Internet yet, and thus weren't always candidates for fast turn-around writing. My rates crept up above $1, and at the height, I was under a contract at about $2.50 per word to write more or less continuously. Good times, yes.

Then the bottom fell out, online advertising started killing print revenue, and newsrooms hemorrhaged staff as profit margins fell. Profits didn't disappear for a long time; newspapers and magazines were used to enormous returns, and many truly thought the Internet a fad for many years, and thus trimmed expenses as what they thought were temporary measures to maintain high profits, rather than using the profits to invest ahead of the technology curve. Many, many Cassandras were ignored. One was Ken Doctor, who was at a major chain, and now writes brilliantly under the rubric "newsonomics." He just penned a piece at the Nieman Lab about the continuing woes of newspapers relative to their advertising revenue.

We know the toll in newsroom jobs — about 20,000 lost in a little under a decade — and the fact that the industry as a whole took in about $26 billion less in 2014 than it did a decade earlier.

Ken then goes on to explain how newspapers' growth in online advertising revenue has stalled even as overall digital revenue continues to climb steadily.

Though digital advertising — the number one source of advertising in the U.S. — is expected to reach $52.8 billion this year, still growing 13 percent annually, newspaper publishers’ share of it drops markedly each year.

The money is shifting to Facebook and Google but also in proportionately large amounts — proportionate to the scale of costs and hiring needs — to born-digital competitors that had no legacy newsrooms (and no unions to contend with over work rules and firing), no presses to feed, and no outdated views about where the hockey puck was going to wind up.

This seems to be equating in 2014 and a bit before to a lot of hiring in specific fields through startup or expanded news operations. In the tech world, you have Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg decamping their tech coverage from the Wall Street Journal to form re/code, where they took some staff and hired more (and continue to hire). The Journal had to repopulate its staff. David Pogue went to Yahoo News, where he built his own operation, leaving spaces at the New York Times. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, where he's spending money on staff in all areas. Quartz, a project from the Atlantic, has been growing quite steadily and hiring like mad. Buzzfeed's news operation has become enormous; they just launched a five-person science and health desk. I'm not even mentioning all the sports and political expansions, as well as earlier tech launches, like the Verge.

These hundreds of jobs don't replace the 20,000 lost, of course, though some jobs might have been lost even if profits had remained magically high, as there is more efficiency in information gathering of news, especially sports and business, that required more staff.

But I can see in the freelance rates and demand that the hiring makes a difference. Editors are always very good about wanting to pay writers more, and I've often worked out package arrangements or negotiated expenses that let me dig into something and have it be financially sensible for my time. But editors rarely control the purse strings. The pull of people being hired full time and the concomitant reduction in freelance availability must have percolated up, because there's no reason at all from a functional standpoint for a publication to increase its rates unless it cannot find enough supply at the level of quality that it wants. Writers aren't interchangeable cogs, but given enough reporters, you can usually find what you want. If you stop finding writers and are scrambling, then the business side and editorial side negotiate rate increases that increase supply.

Call it surge pricing for writers?

I saw this even at the scale of The Magazine, where I was hiring the talent of between 8 and 15 writers a month. From October 2012 to December 2014, with the rate I was able to pay — roughly in the 30¢ to 50¢ range, and occasionally kicking in a little for expenses — I found the supply of writers drying up. Writers I love to work with, and who were eager to work with me, became less available. They got book contracts; they were hired into full-time reporting, editing, or corporate writing jobs; they found more lucrative work, and I always said: if you can get paid more than I can for the same work take the higher wage with my blessing. (On a couple of occasions, I helped shop writers' work around when I couldn't afford the scope of what they did or it wasn't a close enough fit.)

All that said, I find myself in a bit of a difficult position: the pay is good, I have outlets who want me, and I like working with them all. But there's a mechanical issue that I'm facing related to being a freelancer.

I have to pitch way too much.

That sounds like I'm being snotty and complaining. I don't mind developing stories, pitching them, and working with editors. Routinely, my editors help shape a pitch into something far better than my original scope. Take the two-page piece on default encryption that ran in the Economist last November. My original pitch was much more modest. I wound up working with three editors (due to vacation schedules) to expand the scope and develop what ran. It was wonderful, and typical of my experience with that "newspaper."

The trouble is, given the current pay rate and word length of what most publications for which I have the write expertise to produce work I'm confident in, I need to write about five stories a week (250 a year) to support my family fully as a writer. Most of my writing is online; I appear almost exclusively in print in the Economist, and typically in its Technology Quarterly section. Online rates have leapt, and they run from roughly 33¢ to $1 a word now, which is lagging far behind 2001 with inflation (as do print rates), but which represent a three- to five-fold improvement in some cases.

I might be paid anything from $100 to $800 an item, ranging from a few hundred to 1,500 words. Most of what I write gets paid in the $300 to $500 range without an exact correspondence to word count. (I am told by others, by the way, that some publications routinely pay $1.50 to $2 or more a word, but I have yet to break into these, and am not sure which they are.)

Of the five freelance stories I should ostensibly write each week, one is taken care of: I have a recurring column for Macworld on security and privacy, and I have a broad purview there. The other four, I'm constantly looking for stories in my wheelhouse of the intersection of technology, science, and culture that are just off the beaten track or that deal with areas that I have deep expertise in (wireless tech, nanosatellites, space probes, encryption).

My colleague Farhad Manjoo, a swell fellow at the New York Times who took over from Pogue, tweeted in response to some discussion about pitching:

This is absolutely good advice and well meant. However, most publications to which I contribute have staff that already have beats or areas of interest. (Quartz calls its foci "obsessions," which is also good.) As a result, not only do I need to watch for stories, I need to find ones that I don't think play into the areas of coverage of existing staffers at a publication for which a pitch might fit, and be ready that they might either not be interested in the pitch, be full up with assigned stories, or a staffer or other freelancer might already have dibs.

As a result, I am running down hundreds of potential stories a month, only a fraction of which I pitch, although because of my planning, a fairly large fraction (well over 50%) turn into an assignment, work out when researched, and are published.

I do love all this, or I wouldn't do it. But it's an odd place to be where the money relative to hours worked is not bad —and I have every expectation that online rate will continue to improve — but the amount of work to keep the plates spinning is so high.

The one-time advantage of print was typically that you either received high compensation or could write longer stories. Thus, at a buck or two a word, pitching a feature that resulted in a 2,000-word assignment took the place of several individual shorter stories — and the research and pitching that was required. The overhead was so much lower.

I'm still working out how to get into this new rhythm, and I've only been back at it essentially full-time for several weeks, as The Magazine moved towards and then did cease publication. Regular columns are good; beats are good; longer features are good; and diversifying income is good. I have an ebook that I've been revising to publish myself on a technical topic. I have plans for between three and six podcasts, none of which individually will likely generate excessive amounts of cash, but podcasting remains an intense interest, and a few hours of podcasting could replace a few articles a month.

What I'm most excited about is that even with the continued difficulties of print periodicals, there are many bright spots and high points. The layoffs at IDG, which focused most prominently on Macworld employees, were rough. Most of the people I know who were laid off in that or a previous round have found new jobs, including at born-native publications, or have launched new careers on their own or moving into new fields about which they're excited.

I'm hopeful about the future of publications in general, print and online, no matter their heritage. And I hope to sort out how I'll find my way to a living in yet another set of changes to a world I thought I already knew.