As anyone who has walked the tightrope of self-employment knows, getting paid can be wildly difficult as a freelancer. Payment is slow, follow up emails and phone calls are routinely ignored, the process itself can be arduous. To date, in order to receive payment, I’ve offered a scan of my passport, redacted bank statements, filled in a tax questionnaire, and provided the number of whiskers belonging to the neighbour’s cat.
But there is something particularly grueling about being paid on publication (POP), the process by which a freelancer can only invoice once the copy/pictures/illustrations have been published. This may still include a 30-day payment policy from the media outlet and means that if they take weeks or months to publish, you are looking at a very serious cash flow issue. And what happens if they decide against the piece and it never runs?
Since May of this year, this has been the infuriating situation I have found myself in. On May 28th, BBC Three commissioned me to interview four women about their abortions, which I did, to deadline. I received edits and I made them. The editors decided they wanted an extra case study, which I found (for an additional fee). I got the right to reply from an abortion clinic. I spent time talking to young women who nervously offered up one of their most intimate experiences because they believed they could help others, including sharing details of sexual assault and a suicide attempt. Although fee was discussed up front, initiated by BBC Three, I failed to check the payment policy. I had worked for a different part of the BBC previously and payment had arrived promptly.
When I filed, I asked when the story would run. The case studies, some of whom had agreed to be named and pictured, were understandably keen to know. Since early June, I have been told the story will run three times, with three different dates. On the final occasion, I was even told I could inform the case studies the story was “definitely running”.
But I didn’t believe them. Because I have learned in this line of work to only believe something when I see it. The story didn’t run. Looking back now, asking these women to share their personal stories, some traumatic, now seems exceptionally unfair.
I also wanted to get paid. But I was informed I couldn’t get paid until it was published. After the second time I’d been told it would run and it hadn’t, I asked about a kill fee but, again, I was told the story would run. So, I was trapped, unpaid, in a catch-22: you can only get paid when it runs, it will run, but then it doesn’t run, but, I’m told, it will run. My commissioning editor was sympathetic and apologetic, and I fully understand that commissioning editors often bear the brunt, answering for systems they have no control over. (Another commissioning editor later told me anonymously over email: “If a writer has worked on a piece, they should clearly be reimbursed with a kill fee. Too often, though, I think editors and publications hope that writers will be too sheepish to really chase that up (and too embarrassed to complain on social media). It’s a mean-spirited, disempowering attitude but I think it’s commonplace.”
I decided, therefore, that the only way to resolve this issue would be to drag it into the light – and at this point desperation had eclipsed any remaining embarrassment. I pitched an article around the issue and put my story to the BBC. A spokesperson called to apologise, and ensured me that I will now be paid in 3-5 days (which I was). In a follow up email, I was told by the BBC “We’re aware that different parts of the BBC have had different approaches to when freelancers are paid for articles and as part of our work to make the BBC a simpler and more consistent place to work we are looking to ensure a consistent approach so people are paid promptly.”. Amazingly, when researching this article, I was informed by one journalist that some parts of the BBC pay on submission.
My next stop was Twitter – the natural habitat of the disgruntled freelancer, to see how others felt about POP more generally (not mentioning BBC 3) and my DMs quickly filled. Remarkably, the BBC’s own top money journalist Paul Lewis, host of BBC Radio 4’s Money Box responded, tweeting “It is an appalling business practice and typical how some publications exploit freelancers”.
Stories came thick and fast. Abby Beall, a science journalist told me regularly writes for a magazine that pays on publication, but they routinely take months to publish – and to pay. “I had to basically write the money off and have it as a bonus when it did come in”, she says. But what if Beall had been relying on that money? Surely we can’t be expected to view payment as a “bonus”?
Penny Wincer is a photographer, who shoots houses on spec with a writer/stylist and sells it as a package. “When an editor sees the pictures they make a decision as to whether they want to buy the story. If it’s a monthly publication, I then send hi-res images and my invoice, and it’s processed right away. A supplement that’s part of a newspaper only processes the invoice after publication. The work we do is seasonal, which means I might shoot a house during the summer and it’s not published until the following spring – nine months later. A monthly magazine pays right away, even if they’re holding the story until the following year. A weekly supplement does not. But in the meantime, it means no one else can publish or see those images, and it means I’m reluctant to sell stories to the weekly supplements. It’s an awful lot of work to wait six to nine months to get paid. Of course, during that time, they may change their mind too”
There were many more stories, like journalist Hollie Richardson, who said she waited six months for a kill fee, after she’d been promised payment on publication but the story never ran. “I’d like to think that if I went back to freelancing I wouldn’t take on POP work” she says “but that was a commission and I didn’t want to turn down work”.
And that’s the crux of the issue. If I’d asked BBC Three about their payment policy, I’m not sure I would have turned down the work either. I needed the money, I wanted the byline and the contact, it was a story I wanted to cover. All of the journalists I’ve spoken to have told me their experiences of payment on publication at newspapers, supplements and monthly magazines but not one is willing to name which titles on the record.
Freelance journalism is a tough market, arguably increasingly so, with ever-decreasing fees and closing titles, and nobody feels they can jeopardize the relationships they have, which are so crucial to keeping afloat. This power imbalance allows payment on publication to continue, despite being a totally unjust business model. What other sector would expect all services and goods, with no down payment or deposit, and no guarantee of when payment will arrive?
If the media had a Latin motto inscribed on the tall iron entrance gates it would be: “You’re lucky to be here”. With freelancers, it goes one step further: “You’re lucky we’ve emailed you back”. Or so it can often feel. And this feeling was compounded by trying to get publishers to talk about me about the issue. I reached out to The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, Condé Nast and Hearst, asking if they pay on publication, and if they would ever consider paying freelancers half their fee up front – one of the demands of Anna Codrea-Rado’s #FairPayForFreelancers campaign.
The Guardian were the only organization to respond email, not actually answering my question. A spokesperson emailed pointing out their 30 days terms and saying “The Guardian has consistently led the way in operating to high standards based on fairness and transparency in our freelance relations. In 1999 we created a Freelance Charter following extensive discussions with writer unions. The charter governs the majority of freelance engagements and is regularly updated to reflect changes in our business”
I also tried the government. Kelly Tolhust MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility) wouldn’t comment but her office pointed me towards information on the government website on the issue of late payments. The NJU sent me a link to their campaign “to encourage amateurs to understand the value of the photographs and videos they provide to news organisations”. I reiterated my request – and that I wasn’t an amateur or a photographer – and eventually received the following: “Payment on publication can often impoverish hard-working journalists and the union continues to campaign for culture change”.
Chasing publishers was a familiar feeling, but getting people to address POP is, it seems, almost as tricky as getting your money.
Others have more urgent ideas about resolving the situation. Former Take a Break journalist, Punteha van Terheyden is launching an online magazine called Lacuna, that will pay writers on submission and promises to publish within three months, calling POP “unethical”.
Nastasha Foster is COO of Paid, a platform that relaunched in September, still in beta with a waiting list, that attempts to take the payment process off freelancers entirely, essentially buying the invoice off you and then dealing directly with the commissioners. It sounds like a dream, but, however, it comes at a fixed fee of 7.5%, although, as Foster points out, this also acts as insurance, as they will take the full hit if something goes wrong.
And Foster told me that “in time”, reliably good creditors could bring the price down, meaning you pay as little as 2%.They are also working the other end, with big businesses, to help the process of paying freelancers, and mentioned they are talking to media companies.
Most freelancers, she said, “start with the invoice and that’s too late”. Instead, she says, “you have to start with an agreement”. This would demand a huge cultural shift from newspapers and magazines, and it will be interesting to see if it is one outlets are prepared to make. I’m also guessing most freelancers would jump at the chance of someone dealing with this perpetual headache, but can they afford it?
With all the hurdles of getting paid as a freelancer, POP seems to be the most unjust and unprofessional, and from where I’m standing, those with any power seem overwhelmingly unbothered by this and their part in it. While I understand it is an issue that only impacts journalists, photographers and illustrators, it is still a bad workplace policy that, I believe, needs exposing.
But what can we do? We need big name journalists, with clout, to refuse to write for places on POP. We need editors, accounts teams, MPs and the wider industry to engage with the issue. We need a radical overhaul of how freelancers, their worth and time, is perceived. We also need to support the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign when and how we can. We need to be informed about payment policy to know what we’re getting into. Perhaps we need to be better at calling out the practise when we see it.
But what is troubling is how unremarkable so many freelancers see this practise. Clearly it is so common and has been happening for so long that many have come to accept it. Yet as the industry is in flux, old media is being replaced with new, publishing is morphing and transforming, surely now is the time to leave behind unnecessary and unfair policy. And as long as we permit bad practise, true respect for freelancers will remain to be seen. And as I said, whatever statements are made, I’ll only believe something when I see it.
Marisa Bate is a freelance journalist. She has written for the Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, Grazia and Vogue.co.uk, amongst others. She is also the author of The Periodic Table of Feminism. She’s written for us before on her experience with The Pool, a magazine for women that shut down last year without paying their freelancers.
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