All too often, young or new journalists set out, words-a-blazing, unconcerned or at least oblivious to the business realities that keep them afloat or force them underwater.
In 1987, when this examiner sold her first article (to Entrepreneur), times were different. A sale for $200 was a Big Deal, and the only question to ask really was what do you need and when do you want it?
Sadly, the upheaval in the journalism business, largely as a result of the Internet, forced well-meaning editors and hiring managers to start scraping as much as they could from every contractor. Seventeenth revision? – no problem. Working on a Saturday night? – you betcha! Invest $50 in phone calls to Romania before turning in a story for which you’ll be paid 75? – nicio problemă!
To help all of you out, here are a few things this fiftysomething scribe has learned, most of it the hard way. And please note: every day is another learning curve, an effort to put my business interests first, and passion for writing and reporting second. It’s a chore, but if you want to pay the rent, you must do it!
Author’s note: An earlier version of this story included an inappropriate photo under the final section. The author regrets the error. The final section was also lightly edited after its original posting.
May I get an assignment letter and a contract?
You should get a contract for every new publication you work for, and an assignment letter for each job you do. Sometimes editors will send you an e-mailed description of an assignment, but to protect yourself, press for a letter.
The assignment letter should include:
– Subject of article – including angle editor wants you to take
– Suggested types of sources – sometimes editors suggest names or even ask you to definitely contact an individual or two. The latter isn’t as critical as it is to ensure you’re interviewing the right types of sources.
– Miscellaneous issues – such as whether the subjects are known to be difficult to reach, whether there is an embargo on any information you might be given, whether this will be a scoop, whether the publication has covered the topic before (responsible editors will offer links), etc.
– And of course, expected delivery date, including time (especially for dailies or online reporting.)
The assignment letter should be part of a larger package that includes a contract and your W-9 for tax purposes. Don’t ever rush off and write without a contract!!!!
What’s my deadline?
This may seem obvious, but in the hurry to please editors a young writer or reporter can offer the moon, the stars and several nights’ lost sleep. Don’t fall into this trap. Find out ASAP not only what the deadline is but the intermediary deadlines: for example, do they need to see a draft first? This won’t be the case usually, but it could happen if you are very new and they haven’t tested or vetted you well yet. Make sure the deadline is spelled out in the contract. Make sure the time zone is clearly noted, a huge issue if you are writing for international publications or even opposite coast publications. Working with New York editors, you’ll be three hours behind them, Angelenos.
What will I be paid and what do I have to do to get paid?
This is such a big question, you have no idea. It may sound great to make $1,000 for an article, but let’s say you are asked to do seven revisions, interview 15 hard-to-get-sources, be available for midnight rewrites and then …. the editor, on a whim, decides to replace the article with a piece on puppies prancing around Prague? So you not only want to find out how much you will be paid, but:
– when you will be paid – make sure to find out the longest amount of time it can take and have this written in the contract!
– how many words/sources/etc. are expected for this payment (see assignment letter)
Then do a little work on your own, journos: editors will try and downplay how long something takes, so keep careful track of your hours. I like to write on a virtual post-it note on my computer. Don’t always remember, but it helps to keep a running tab. That way, when The New York Times comes a-callin’, it won’t be emotionaly wrenching to give up the $200 gig writing myself into an early grave.
On a side note: It’s also important to get details upfront as to who gets your invoices, and his or her email/phone number. Find out how the company or publication wants your invoices formatted, and quickly turn in your tax forms and anything else that is particular to this client. Review all contracts first before signing and make any suggested changes that you can’t live without. If your editor does not agree, work hard to strike a compromise.
How many revisions am I committing myself to, and on what schedule?
I’ll be honest: my favorite assignments are the ones I just work hard on, submit, and then never see again until they are published. I choose publications and editors I trust. I have been surprised a couple times, including once when a headline was changed to something borderline profane, but usually it works out. However, many editors, certainly in New York, ask that writers/reporters be available during the editing process. This is understandable and in the long run, your work will probably look a bit better. At the same time, it’s a time drain, and be aware that if you are on a 4 p.m. interview call for the next job, your freelance editor may still expect you to respond to his e-mail right away. Get these things squared in the contract. I need at least a day to get back to editors, though usually I’m far more obsessive than that and return e-mails within an hour.
What’s my ‘kill’ fee?
A “kill” fee protects writers and journalists in the event that our article isn’t published. This happens both when it’s our fault and the news outlet’s, or just because of bad luck. Sometimes bigger news trumps your news. This examiner wrote about singer Patti Page (“How Much is that Doggy in the Window?”) for Yankee magazine back in late 2003. It was thrilling to drive up to her New Hampshire home and meet her! But the article was killed – through no fault of the publication’s or mine. This is when a kill fee or even full payment is warranted. At the very least, make sure you get 25 percent, as written in your contract or writer’s agreement.