Saturday, February 13, 2010

Incredibly shrinking pay scales

Thirty-one years ago, a publication paid me $20 for 200 words on a ham glaze. I can’t say that first payment was particularly sweet because every assignment since has been honey poured on white sugar, right to this day. Every time I hit the SEND button on an invoice, it’s with a self-satisfying, “Holy shit, I’m a paid writer.”

Then the check comes. So much for the paid part.

With so many journalists on the bench, editors have dropped their freelance rates to pittances an inmate wouldn’t accept for working in the prison laundry.

More galling are the all-too-frequent suggestions that a byline is payment enough. You’re getting exposure, right?
Then there’s the contract-stretching. You agree on a certain amount of work for a certain payment. But by the time Accounting actually cuts the check, you’ve painfully learned how elastic a hard-and-fast agreement can be.

Recently, for instance, I agreed to do a feature for X dollars. I was told upfront that requesting photos from my sources would be part of the task.

Then the assignment memo came. The directive that I should solicit photos had morphed into a requirement that I secure more than a half-dozen pieces of art, ideally of an historic nature.

I discovered later that the illustrations were used for an online slideshow posted separately from my story. I’d provided material for two editorial pieces. Yet I’d only been paid for a story and some supporting photographs.

Similarly, I’d been asked to write a sidebar, for which I was promised a few more dollars. The assignment memo revealed that this “sidebar” was more of a second, albeit shorter feature—nearly one-third the length of the mainbar, focused on a topic different enough to merit considerably more research. For that effort, I’d be paid less than 20% of what I was making on the mainbar.

Sure, I should’ve nailed down all the variables, and I never did voice my objections. But how much negotiating power do you really have when an editor calls? The sub-text seems to be, Take it as we’re posing it or we’ll offer the assignment to any number of freelancers who’re baying for work.

Sadly, it looks as if the buyer’s market is going to persist for some time. But the day is going to come when we can say as often as we like, “For that money? No, I’m going to pass.”