Combating Journalism Scope Creep
If you listen to freelancers in other industries long enough, you’ll hear their horror stories about demanding clients. Graphic designers, copywriters and any other creative consultant will have at least one horror story where a project dragged on way longer than they expected.
But there’s a key difference between those freelancers and media freelancers. Freelancers in other fields routinely add a contractual clause dictating the number of drafts provided to the client. So, if a client wants to tweak a design for the fourth time, they’ll have to do it in house if the contract restricts the client to getting three drafts. This critical time-saving clause enables freelancers to get paid for their services without going on forever and ever and ever.
This concept doesn’t quite exist in journalism, especially now that magazines are shifting from print to digital. In the days when print dominated, magazines had defined print schedules, leaving less time to knitpick at copy edits or demand massive structural changes. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect draft, but, as Julissa Treviño described in the Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalists are often caught in the trap of seemingly endless edits.
Scope creep in journalism is very real. And, in my view, publications who do not compensate reporters for extra time spent on stories are participating in a subtle form of wage theft. Think about it. For staffers, depending on their industry and role, they’re entitled to overtime for extra hours spent on work. Though it doesn’t always happen, it’s only fair that freelance journalists get paid for their extra work spent on this article.
When I’m dealing with clients, here are some of the strategies I use to minimize scope creep:
Ask as many questions as possible in the beginning.
Nail down your word count, deadline, potential sources and overall direction of the piece from the beginning. Take notes during phone conversations, get as many directions as possible in writing and clarify anything that sounds vague. This sounds super basic, but it’s important to get the legwork done upfront to make sure you and your editor are on the same page from the beginning.
State your terms.
Short pieces, ideally, should stay short, but you’re within your right to ask for more money if the pieces grow. For feature or investigative stories that can fluctuate in length, talk to your editor about a fee bump before your piece grows beyond the original word count. If your editor is unwilling to budge, take that into consideration before starting the piece.
Check in with your editor along the way.
As problems arise or developments occur, keep your editor informed along the way. If major changes come up, let them know. That way, you both can come up with a solution. (Ideally, you can propose a solution that works for your workload while putting out the fire.)
Be ready to walk away.
One thing I say to my friends is the clients who pay you less cost you more. I find that clients who underpay but expect high quality work have no clue just how much money it costs to produce that work. But you do. In my mind, it helps to have a number beneath which you cannot accept. Whether it’s $100, $500 or $2,000, having a bottom number will help you weed out low-paying work. As is typically the case with a lot of scope creep, you go into the piece with a sense of how much it’s going to take, but the execution of the story is longer than more intensive than expected. If your editor is not willing to go up on a the rate after significant revisions, additional interviews, more multimedia work, etc., you’re within your right to walk away. Be prepared, however, to lose not only the kill fee for the story but also damage to your reputation. My gut instinct is to see stories through until the end, but some publications push and push for more to the point where the piece is no longer worth the effort, especially for flat rate stories. In this situation, it’s important to have other, consistent clients to help buoy you while you find more work.
As freelancers, we rely so much on our portfolio, reputation and relationships with editors in order to feed ourselves. Because of that, scope creep is particularly in insidious due to the power dynamic between steadily paid staff editors and the freelancers who often have to follow-up repeatedly for their wages. As a woman of color, I feel this pressure. You don’t want to be ungrateful. You don’t want to be combative or difficult. In my case, a first-generation college grad with student debt, I don’t want my financial life to grind to a halt.
I do, however, take comfort in my freelance networks. Freelancers will tell each other who pays poorly, who rips stories apart, who takes forever to respond to payment or edit inquiries, who treats editors with disrespect, who adds inaccurate information into stories, etc. As more freelancers are willing to collaborate with each other, it’s clear that publications’ reputation among freelancers could lure or cost them great talent and great stories.
As a business journalist, this isn’t surprising. Of course, companies care about their clients, but treating their workers well is a huge part of making sure customers have the best products and services. One day, I hope the journalism understands the importance of fair pay.
How do you prevent scope creep? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.