Based in Chicago, Illinois, The Freelance Beat is a blog exploring the triumphs and challenges that freelance journalists encounter in their early and mid-careers.

A Rates Race to the Bottom

A Rates Race to the Bottom

I never expected anything I’ve ever to go viral, but lo and behold, it sort of did. (I consider a viral tweet to be 100k+ retweets). More than 5,800 retweets later, I realized I touched a nerve.

The tweet was in response to a broader discussion about unpaid internships, which I’m mostly against. The discourse—kicked off by Adam Grandmaison (also known as Adam22)—spanned across various industries including journalism.

I, a black woman and first-generation college student from a low-income, single parent household, had to repeatedly turn down unpaid internships, because I couldn’t afford it. Oddly enough, I was vetted during interviews for similar qualifications on both unpaid and paid internships. But, as labor law dictates, internships are supposed to be beneficial to the company, teach skills similar to what a student may learn in the classroom and cannot displace paid labor. However, statistics show that paid interns are more likely to receive job offers and are paid more than their counterparts with an unpaid internship or no internship at all. And for students who don’t have the financial aid to cover unpaid internships, colleges often charge a tuition fee to accept the “college credit” benefit, hitting the student with a double whammy of no wages and a steep tuition bill.

Now, what does this all have to do with freelancing? For one thing, I think unpaid internships set the tone for up-and-coming creatives. They, along with high tuition rates to attend, are among the first instances when students learn to sacrifice their financial well-being in hopes of making the connections that will catapult their careers.

As I saw the replies to my tweet, I realized that some people either expressed regret for having taken a low-paying gig or the actually felt like $10 was a good pay for a short piece. Prompting these responses:

Now to be clear, I don’t ever mean to “rate shame,” or make people feel guilty for working for low rates. It took me awhile to learn not to work for $50 per story or less and not work for clients who didn’t pay on time or in full. It took me a while to factor all the things that go into a reported story or blog post. Research, phone calls, emails, travel, transcription, the portion of my rent that goes toward my home office space, photography equipment... Not to mention time spent drafting and editing copy and shooting and editing photos. 

It also took me awhile to understand that pay well will give you the best exposure. You don’t need to sell yourself short to get exposure. In fact, the folks who often use that line are just using it as a way to exploit low-cost labor.

Business is like any other relationship. People will treat you the way you allow them to treat you. If clients are flocking to your $5 rate, it’s because you’ve advertised a really attractive rate for them. But you’ll need to either raise your rate or do tons of work for a low fee, lowering the time (and presumably quality) you put into the gig. This, unintentionally I’m sure, makes it difficult across the board for freelancers who charge market rates.

On the other hand, I don’t tsk-tsk at people who offer these low rates. They may be early in their careers, based in a country where $5 is reasonable, are passionate about a topic or have a financially stable job that allows for this rate to not be a hindrance. My frustration lies with the companies who think that $5 per post, graphic design, etc. is a reasonable rate. I’m specifically skeptical of companies with the budgets to pay creatives a fair wage but choose to find someone who will do the work for next to nothing.

Exploitation is rampant in every industry, but it’s especially so in the creative industries. For writers, designers, photographers, videographers and the like, working for free or little compensation is expected in order to get their foot in the door. But this has to stop. Creative work is valuable. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.

As more people become freelancers, we need to stick together. Whether it’s through joining co-ops and groups dedicated to protecting and supporting freelancers, we have to look out for each other. Tell people if they’re being underpaid (via a whisper network or Who Pays Writers, whichever is more comfortable for you). If you have a client lead that you can’t get to, ask if you can share the lead with people within your network and then share the lead. If you need extra help from a creative friend, pay him or her for their work.

I love freelancing, but it is hard. If you choose this life—whether it’s full-time or on the side—get paid what you’re worth. You don’t have to put up with low-paying clients, clients that don’t pay on-time or not at all. If no one else told you this, I’m telling you now: your time, skills, expertise and passion matter. You deserve to make a living wage

Have you accepted low rates? What came out the experience? Tell me in the comments or email me at

Yes, you need to take a break

Yes, you need to take a break

The least expected place to find higher rates

The least expected place to find higher rates