Setting a pay-rate

I know a lot of journalists who work very hard but don’t seem to reap the financial rewards for their effort. The write thousands of words per week but barely manage a subsistence salary, struggling to make rent or mortgage payments. My observation from discussions with journalists is that there are a number of contributing factors to this.

Many writers are under the mistaken apprehension that their work is not of a high enough value to charge a higher rate. As a consequence, they take whatever work comes their way at whatever rate the client deems to pay. The problem is that clients always want to pay the minimum possible.

Contributing to this, many writers don’t really understand how to calculate the pay rate they need in order to get by. Here’s one way to calculate that.
In Australia, the average annual, pre-tax salary is around $60,000 per year. That equates to about $1154 per week, Just to make the maths easier I’ll round that up to $1200 per week, assuming you work for all 52 weeks of the year. However, I suspect that you’d like a few days off. Under Australian law, employees are entitled to four weeks of annual leave. Oh, and there’s the 10 days of public holidays and weekends. If you take all of that and calculate it into a pay rate per day you end up with just 221 working days in the year. Realistically, you’ll lose about 20% of those days on administration (doing taxes, travelling, pitching stories and so forth). That leaves you with about 177 days to make your $60,000.

Once you break that down, you get to an hourly rate of about $42.
The question is – how many words can you write in an hour? You need to know this because editors and publishers work to a totally different set of rules. For the print media, editors and publishers know exactly what it costs to produce a page. Their’s is an old business so there are accurate models that cover the cost of paper, ink, layout, distribution and all the other things that are needed to get a magazine onto the shelves.

That means that when choosing the work you’re going to take on – for freelancers like me this is one of the great attractions of the job – you need to be able to work out whether a job is worth taking or whether you’re better off putting the time into pitching a different story to an editor or increasing the size of your business in some other way.

There’s a long running debate as to what word-rates journalists should be paid. I take jobs that pay anywhere from $0.20 to $0.80 per word. If a 1000 word story paying $0.20 per word job is going to take an hour as it’s on a subject I know well or I get to re-use research from a previous story, then I’ll take it. The effective payrate for me is actually $200/hour. That means I can afford to have a slower day. If the same 1000 words was going to take two days I’d probably pass on the job unless it was going to satisfy a couple of other criteria.

The Optional Criteria

  1. This cheap job was going to give me a chance to fund some research that I could re-use for future stories.
  2. This job was an entry into a new client that could become lucrative in future

This is a topic that I suspect will continue to grow as I think more about it. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know.