Freelance Work Worth Paying For

In this post, ASBPE award winning freelance writer Tam Harbert explains why even in the age of content farms and $15 fees for articles, trade publications get exactly what they pay for when it comes to hiring editorial talent.

Last year I was approached by a woman who was looking for freelancers for a new magazine. We talked at length about the magazine’s target reader and its editorial tone. I even ventured a couple of story ideas, which she liked. Then we finally got around to talking about money. She told me what she was paying and asked me if that was in my ballpark.

I was so surprised that I blurted out: “Not only is that not in my ballpark, it’s not even in my state!”

Needless to say, I never heard from her again.

Thanks to Demand Studios, Suite 101, Associated Content and their ilk, publishers think they can hire good freelancers for slave wages.  They look at and Media Bistro, and see these content farms offering $15 to $20 per article, if they pay anything at all. Increasingly, I get calls from people who believe that such nominal fees, along with maybe a few cents per page view, is the going rate for writers.

Apparently, it is the going rate for writers. The content farms don’t seem to have trouble finding people to work for them. But that’s only if you define “writer” as “someone who writes.” Most people can string words together. If you’re looking for a professional journalist, however, the equation changes.

Not Just Writers, But Excellent Writers. Most professional editors, particularly those in the business and trade press, want to hire professional journalists. They need not just writers, but excellent writers. They need pros who are able to follow specific directions. And sometimes they need writers who can do the opposite: work with vague, general assignments when editors don’t know exactly what they want or are not very good at articulating it. They need journalists with the background and experience to know how to report a story and to creatively shift gears (in consultation with the editor, of course) if the information doesn’t fit with the original assignment. They need someone who knows their industry and their readers. They need a journalist with critical thinking skills and judgment that comes from experience, someone who can push back on a source who’s offering nothing but marketing fluff, or at least know to leave that source out of the story. Finally, they need a professional who meets deadlines, takes criticism well and is willing and able to revise a story if it doesn’t hit the mark.

Editors that try to get by with paying the lowest fees won’t get all, or any, of the above. I’ve spent more than half of my career as an editor. I know how hard it is to find and hire good, reliable writers and yet stay within a limited (and these days continually shrinking) budget. I also know that 99 percent of the time you get what you pay for. Pay ridiculously low fees, and you will typically spend so much time trying to manage the writer and then editing, revising and even rewriting the article that it will end up costing you twice what it would have if you had paid a good writer a fair wage.

Fair and Reasonable Fee. The editors that I work with understand this. At the same time, their freelance budgets are under tremendous pressure, assuming they have any freelance budget left.  I was surprised when one of my editors – who works for a widely respected trade publication – told me that he gets pressured by the bean counters, who ask him why he can’t pay $15 an article like Demand Studios. Although he has bowed a bit to that pressure and lowered his pay rate from its peak of a couple a years ago, he still pays a fair and reasonable fee. Just as important, given the state of the economy, he offers me regular assignments. It’s an arrangement that works well for both of us. I get regular work. He gets high-quality stories. He’s usually pleased with my articles, both because they are appropriately tailored to his readership and because they require minimal editing. He gets brownie points in his job because these stories often rank highly in page views and are frequently “liked” and “recommended” by readers.

Even in these austere times, quality freelancers are worth paying for.  Pay a decent wage to a talented and reliable freelancer, and she will make your job easier and, perhaps, your work more noticed and appreciated. Last fall, a story I wrote for Computerworld won the publication a Digital Azbee Award.  It was a happy by-product of a good relationship nurtured over time between a talented editor and a talented freelancer. For the last three years, my editor has been giving me regular work, and with each story I’ve learned more about her publication and what her readers want. She, in turn, has learned what kind of stories I excel at. She recently assigned me a story specifically because it required my particular reporting and writing skills. That’s using her resources wisely.

Try doing that for $15 an article.

Tam Harbert, a freelance journalist specializing in technology, business and public policy, has won three Azbee Awards. She features her latest work and blogs about the freelance life at

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