Freelance Journalist

December 4, 2023 (Updated )

When widely-published freelance journalist Valentina Valentini was sent a job ad from a friend for a Newsweek freelance entertainment role, she “wasn’t shocked” to find out that it later demanded she do an unpaid test.

After applying for the role, she was told over the phone that she’d have to do a free assessment to score the job. “I was disappointed,” the London-based freelancer of 14 years, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, and The LA Times to name a few, told Journo Resources. She felt the pay for the gig was already too low, and an unpaid task felt like another way that her work and expertise were being undervalued.

“You can see that I can write, and in a different voice, because I have written for probably over 60 publications. And I knew that if I wanted to be considered for the gig, I had to do it,” Valentini explains. “I was proceeding with the application process [including the test] as I had to if I wanted to be considered for the job.” Valentini was told that after completing the test she could be offered a trial for some eight-hour shifts, each paying £125 and involving writing a minimum of three stories.

But she isn’t the only freelancer who’s faced this dilemma. A number of experienced journalists in the UK and elsewhere are being asked to do unpaid tests for freelance roles — before they even land the gigs. The time spent on this, they say, is amounting to days of unpaid labour.

Journo Resources
"It's rarer to find a publication that doesn't ask for one than one that does. I never felt like I had a choice to not do it. If it were a job I wanted, that was the only way to get it. I'm sure I'll do them in the future too."
Sonia Weiser, Freelance Journalist

Hundreds Of Publications Asking For Unpaid Tests

“Good morning to everyone but the 258 publications asking people to do unpaid tests as part of the application process,” Sonia Weiser, a New York-based freelance journalist who publishes the popular journalist’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. She posted a list on August 25, 2023 that she had started a month prior and invited fellow journalists to contribute to. It has since racked up 326 entries for publications that require unpaid writing tests as part of their hiring process, for both freelance and staff positions.

Journalists can add details of the free assignments that they have been asked to do, and publications can offer a comment on this. Outlets said to be asking freelancers to do unpaid tests include Bustle, Techilicious, BuzzFeed, Cultaholic, The Drift, HotNewHipHop, Michelin, and Bisnow. Between the publications, sources have referenced being asked to complete unpaid tasks including pitching multiple features, writing and fact-checking tests, two news mock-ups of 350 words each, a 2,000-word listicle, and contributing to existing content. Journalist Katherine Zoe said that she had missed out on days of paid work because of doing unpaid tests for companies on the list.

Weiser, whose newsletter has nearly 10,000 global subscribers, said that she wasn’t against editors asking journalists to do tests, but the problem was when they weren’t being compensated for these. She told Journo Resources that unpaid tests for freelancers have “been a thing for as long as I can remember” but couldn’t say whether they were on the increase. But “almost everyone” now asks for them, said Weiser. “As you can see…it’s rarer to find a publication that doesn’t ask for one than one that does.”

Weiser has completed these tasks “many times”. “I never felt like I had a choice to not do it,” she said. “If it were a job I wanted, that was the only way to get it. I’m sure I’ll do them in the future too.”

Quick Tips For Navigating Unpaid Tests

• Try your best to ensure that there is a paper trail referencing the request for an unpaid test – if something goes awry, you can always use it as evidence.

• Ask if the employer is open to considering some of your existing clips, especially if they are adjacent to their request for trial pieces – news pieces, for example, will easily demonstrate the same skillset regardless of the publication they were written for.

• If a company requests an unpaid test, this could be a red flag for conduct further down the line. Trust your gut and don’t be scared to ask any questions regarding payment policy during your hiring process.

• Ask yourself how much you want – or need – this particular job. If you feel like your needs are not being met by the prospective employer, consider if you still wish to stay in the running.

Some freelancers like Washington DC-based writer and editor Kaeli Conforti said that there was an upside to these tests. “I once thought a job was more creative, but the tests showed it was more about writing headlines than stories, so I backed out,” she said on X. “Still, they should pay for time spent.”

Writer Katie Hammel, a content marketing director at travel membership group Going, said in response to Weiser’s post that she was adding details into the spreadsheet on what they asked for in a skills assessment for every role in the company. “I actually do find them extremely helpful in the hiring process, but agree they should be paid,” she said.

Maia Nikitina, a Manchester-based writer and editor who primarily works on books, said that she’s “constantly” being asked to do unpaid tests inside and outside of the publishing industry. “Seems like it’s becoming a standard,” added Nikitina, whose fiction has been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and highly commended twice for the Manchester Fiction Prize. Recently, she was asked to edit 10,000 words by a small publisher. “I normally charge a small fee for that,” Nikitina told Journo Resources. “But [the recruiter] came back and said ‘this is part of the recruitment process, making it clear that it’s either this or nothing. I thought ‘well I’ve got no choice’.” In the end, she chose to edit 2,000 words but has yet to get any work from the company.

Journo Resources

The publisher that Nikitina did the unpaid test for was a hybrid one based in the UK. But the practice is happening all over. Trudie McConnochie is a freelance writer based in Australia and with more than 20 years’ experience under her belt, writing for publications such as Australian Women’s Weekly, Cleo, and Women’s Health. Recently, she declined to do an unpaid 90-minute writing test. It was for a freelance gig advertised on a jobs board for a community of writers.

“I feel that my experience should speak for itself,” said McConnochie. “But the easiest way to find out is either talk to my referees, which I’m happy to supply the names of, or give me a couple of hours of work and pay me for it.”

After two interviews, and waiting for the instructions to complete the unpaid Newsweek test, Valentini still hasn’t heard back about the job and assumes she’s not in the running any more. But she questioned why outlets couldn’t and wouldn’t just pay a freelancer for doing these evaluations.

“Even if it was £50, at least they’re paying something for your time and effort,” said Valentini, who has in the meantime been commissioned by another editor at Newsweek for a paid one-off assignment.

Journo Resources reached out twice to Newsweek via email for a comment but received no reply. We also contacted Bustle, Techilicious, BuzzFeed, Cultaholic, The Drift, HotNewHipHop, and Michelin.

‘This Is Just Another Form Of Unpaid Work’

Josh Kirschner, founder and CEO of New York-based Techlicious said in an email on September 21 that they had recently asked some new freelancers to do tests. He said that all assignments were paid, with rates, article lengths and topics agreed to in advance, but with summer vacations, extra workload from new writers, and other business, they’d gotten behind on one payment. “Our editor will reach back out to the freelancer and ensure her payment is submitted,” said Kirschner. “As a small publisher, we believe that offering fair payment terms for our authors is an important way we can support them.”

Adam Pacitti is managing director of Cultaholic, a site run out of Newcastle upon Tyne which covers news on worldwide wrestling among other sports. “I can confirm that we recently changed our freelance writer hiring policy so that applicants are able to send examples of previous work, upon which a paid trial will be offered to selected candidates,” he said in an email on September 21.

Fred Hicks, senior policy adviser at IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed), told Journo Resources that it was a bad practice for hirers to expect freelancers to complete onerous and unnecessary tests for a run-of-the-mill gig. He said that freelancers can’t even currently guarantee that they’ll be paid for the eventual job; almost a third (31 per cent) of freelancers have done work they were never paid for, IPSE research has found.

“Whilst there may be a rationale for it in some cases, a lot of the time this is just another form of unpaid work and another piece of the freelance payment problem,” said Hicks.

While securing work can be difficult, so can getting paid on time. According to the IPSE data, almost a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) were forced to use their credit card or overdraft facility after being paid late, while 21 per cent said that they used up all or most of their savings. Hicks said that before completing a writing test, freelancers should weigh up whether the time, effort and value added by doing it is proportionate to the potential reward offered.

Journo Resources
“I feel that my experience should speak for itself; either talk to my referees, or give me a couple of hours of work and pay me for it.”
Trudie McConnochie, Freelance Writer and Sub-Editor

Lily Canter, co-director of Freelancing for Journalists, said that she could understand publications asking for freelance applicants to do tests “to a certain extent”, such as using a short test, given the increase in competition in the market.

“Sometimes it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak,” said Canter. “But I do think there are other ways of freelancers being able to demonstrate their skills.” She said that a portfolio of work should speak for itself, particularly if a journalist has had repeat commissions from an outlet.

“If you’re being asked to do an unpaid test, the first thing that should be a bit of a red flag is that this organisation perhaps doesn’t treat its workers fairly,” said Canter. “Actually, you would be better off spending that time pitching and building contacts, a portfolio, getting a really good website together, than doing these tests which may result in nothing.”

Weiser’s advice for freelancers who are asked to do these tests is not to bother with them if they don’t care that much whether or not they’ll get the job, but she advises those that go ahead with them to have some proof in writing, even if only an email.

“Just make sure you have some paper trail so if they publish something without your permission or they steal your work in some way, you can point to this for whatever good it’ll do,” said Weiser.

Amy Fallon
Amy Fallon

Amy Fallon is an Australian journalist who has lived in and reported from Australia, the UK, Africa, Asia, and Canada over 20 years. Her work has published everywhere from The Guardian to NPR to The Sydney Morning Herald.