Trainee Journalist

February 12, 2022 (Updated )

Getting paid as a freelance journalist shouldn’t be that hard, at least in theory. You carry out a service at an agreed price and then submit an invoice to be paid within thirty days. It isn’t typically huge amounts of money and many freelancers work with the same few publications on a regular basis. 

Yet, within that theoretically simple payment process, things get complicated. Payments are delayed, late fees ignored, and contracts are broken – or not written up at all. The journalists we spoke to told similar stories of a freelance industry that has failed to adapt to modern payment systems, often at the expense of freelancers.

Hugh Morris is a freelance music and culture journalist who has written for a range of different publications including the New York Times and The Guardian. He also freelances as a musician and copywriter, the latter of which he says actually pays the bills. “I have experienced lots of late payments,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a massive task to pay people within thirty days. It’s not a huge amount of money, it’s not a massive task.”

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Hugh Morris (L) and Michele Theil (R) have both struggled to get paid.

Hugh explains that frequent late payments mean that he has to sacrifice creative autonomy in picking which publications he writes for because some just won’t pay on time. “If you have a quiet month, it doesn’t affect you now,” he says. “But you know the next month is going to be really crap.”

These are issues familiar to Michele Theil who has been freelancing full-time since May last year. She is a trained investigative journalist and now writes long-form features. “It’s been really varied: I’ve had amazing places that have paid within two days or a week of invoicing, but then, [at] a lot of places, I had to wait two or three months to get paid – definitely longer than the thirty day policy that should be there,” Michele says.

Often, it’s the smaller publications which consistently pay on time because there is less of a divide between the editorial and financial wings of the publication. Zesha Saleem, who freelances alongside studying at university, highlights Aurelia Magazine and Gal-dem as positive examples. “[Aurelia] paid me literally the next day or the day after my piece was published,” Zesha says.

Journo Resources
"I have used late fees before: some of them don't pay them, some of them do."
Michele Theil, Freelance Journalist

There are mechanisms through which freelance journalists can receive compensation for late payments. Hugh includes an extract from the 1998 Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act on all his invoices, which spells out the terms of his late fees and the interest on top of that. But, at least according to the freelancers we spoke to, late fees are routinely ignored.

“I have used late fees before: some of them don’t pay them, some of them do,” Michele says. “I had a publication last year, I filed and submitted my invoice in June and didn’t get paid until October. I filed two late fees and then they just paid me [the original fee] but did not pay the late fees.”

Part of the reason why publications and companies feel confident enough to break the law by not paying late fees is because of the insecurity of the industry. “It’s sometimes more worth it in the long run not to chase those £300 payments than to force it and ruin the relationships [with editors],” Michele says. “Which is wrong because that shouldn’t ruin a relationship with an editor or with a publication because you did that work and therefore you deserve to be paid on time.”

Paydesk Guarantees Payment For Freelance Work Booked Through The Platform

This content is editorially independent, but was supported and made possible by paydesk.

Set up by former journalist Henry Peirse, the platform will guarantee your payment for any work booked on the platform comes through on time. Every freelancer booked also benefits from free insurance while they’re on the job.

Broadcasters, print journalists, and researchers all use paydesk to connect them with publishers around the world looking for the right contributor for both one-off jobs and long-term engagements. Publishers include VOA, Euronews, and The Sunday Times.

Sign-up here to reach a global client list.

There are many causes of late payments: bureaucracy, cash flow problems, ineptitude, lost paperwork. These are symptoms of an industry which is struggling financially across the board. Neil Todd is an employment lawyer at Thompsons Solicitors and works with the National Union of Journalists. “It seems to not be a particularly well paid industry, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly secure industry,” he says. “We see a lot of redundancy exercises among paid staff.”

“It’s an industry where there are a lot of people working on different arrangements […] and that is akin to the gig economy type model that we see. Obviously, very different from the more stable employment-based models that we see in the public sector, for instance,” he says.

The failure to pay freelance journalists on time is often compared to other professions like builders or accountants. The argument goes that you wouldn’t tell your builder that funds are a bit low at the moment so could they just come back in a couple of weeks? There is some merit in this argument, but there are much more alike industries that we can compare freelance journalism to.

Emily Jones is a graphic designer who started freelancing just over five years ago and has her own design agency Two Shoes Creatives. She does a mix of graphic design project work and contracting for corporates. Like in journalism, Emily says that small businesses run by one person are usually the best at paying. “However, the longer I work with people, the more they tend to start to pay late as they get to know you more,” she says.

Journo Resources
"If a company doesn't want to pay on time, they won't. Even with contracts and written agreements. They rely on us not taking things to court."
Emily Jones, Graphic Designer

“Big corporations are the worst, hands down,” Emily says. “There are so many processes they neglect to tell you upfront that always take ages – finding the right email to send the invoice, raising PO numbers, timesheet approvals – which always ends up with late payments.”

“If a company doesn’t want to pay on time, they won’t,” she says. “Even with contracts and written agreements. They rely on us not taking things to court.”

Clearly journalism and the creative industries more broadly need to change and there are practical steps they could take. The Guardian’s payment system, for example, is automated meaning that the freelancer just has to submit their payment details once and the fee will be paid within a certain time period. This removes the back-and-forth between finance departments and editors and ensures freelancers can pay their bills on time. This feels like a very simple system bigger organisations could implement immediately.

Others include intermediaries. Henry Peirse was once a freelance journalist and is now the founder of paydesk, a service that provides structure to the relationship between freelancers and editors. It automates the payment fee and guarantees that you’ll get paid on time. While they charge a service fee, this isn’t deducted from a freelancer’s earnings, but instead charged to the publisher. Henry personally encourages organisations to embrace this just like other areas of the service economy.

They also provide a level of insurance to freelancers. “I’ve decided that freelance journalists need insurance for every day that they work,” he says. “If you’re a freelancer hired by most organisations, you are not covered, whereas if it’s booked through paydesk we’ll cover you for at least some of that.”

How To Protect Yourself As A Freelancer

• Always agree the terms of your freelance work in writing, whether that be through a contract or email.

• Establish which employment status you are agreeing to, such as self-employed, worker or employee.

• Talk to other freelancers and use your networks. Have others had problems with a certain publication or editor?

• For each gig, estimate how many hours it will take you to complete the commission and calculate your hourly pay.

• If you need to, your union can help. Both the National Union of Journalists and the British Association of Journalists offer legal support. IPSE also offers comprehensive support for freelancers.

Hugh says that another practical solution would be to abolish the practice of payment-on-publication, a system where freelancers don’t get paid on submission, but when the work is published. “It completely messes up your timetable, the thing that you’ve actually written isn’t going to be out for another month and a half and you’d like the money now.”

In 2019, the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign demanded an end to payment-on-publication, signed by 250 freelance journalists. Yet while it brought fresh attention to the issue, the practice still remains widespread.

Late payments, ignored fees and insecurity should not just be accepted as parts of freelancing that are tolerated. Whilst there are ways for freelancers to protect themselves such as making sure agreements are in writing and including the 1998 legislation, ultimately it’s the industry that needs to change.

There are simple, practical solutions that publications and editors can carry out to make the system fairer. Editors and staff journalists should advocate more for freelancers, especially considering they have a regular salary coming in. “If you’re in a position of power in your publication, make sure your freelancers are getting paid on time,” Michele says. Even if you’re not part of the finance department, your chasing can make all the difference.

Neil argues that the government should legislate more clearly around employment status so that employers can’t exploit loopholes. “Legislation could implement a more secure working arrangement,” he says. In the creative industries more broadly, it’s clear that employment legislation and payment processes haven’t modernised fast enough, leaving freelancers in the lurch.

Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor

Tom joined the Journo Resources team in mid-2021 as a trainee, and will focus on writing original features and content during his time at Journo Resources. Tom also takes the lead on our Twitter account, as well as keeping our resources and jobs board up to date.

Based in Manchester, Tom is also the editor of Salt Magazine, and independent magazine sharing arts, music, and culture across Greater Manchester.