Why Knowing Your Worth Isn’t Always Enough
When I get to know industry professionals well enough, we feel comfortable enough to discuss what’s happening in journalism and our individual careers. If we’re fairly close, the conversation may veer into personal finances. During my (short) time in journalism, I’ve had multiple conversations with fellow freelance and staff reporters in which someone tells me that they have been or suspect that they are being underpaid for their work.
These conversations typically start off the same way. Things aren’t perfect with our current situation, but we want to do good work. At some point, we realize for certain or suspect for some reason that we’ve been underpaid for our work. Maybe we’ve heard whisperings of a co-workers’ salary. Perhaps we learned that a fellow freelancer was paid double for a feature of the same length.
At some point, our talk reaches the same point. We question our negotiation skills. We wonder why someone doing similar work was paid much more. Though it’s business, it is personal. Journalists put so much energy into their work. Our point of view informs the stories we pitch. We put in the research. We craft pitches we hope will captivate editors. We cultivate the best sources we can find. We spend hours conducting interviews, agonizing over the perfect draft only to realize that our drafts are far from perfect once we get our edits back… only to discover later that our $500 article could’ve brought $1,000 to $2,000… You start to question yourself. Am I not good enough to earn that much?
I won’t go into deciding what to charge, because I’ve already discussed that here. I won’t talk about why women sometimes don’t get the wages they want or why they take longer to get paid, because I’ve already gone over that, too. I won’t blame creatives for accepting low rates.
I am comforted by fellow freelancers speaking out about the issues we are facing in the industry. Just this week, freelancers have spoken out about non-compete clauses and Vox’s contract payment non-disclosure clauses.
Freelance journalism makes it difficult to separate your earnings from your worth, which I think what makes being underpaid so personally disheartening. Yes, we can research rates on sites like Contently and Who Pays Writers. Yes, we can talk with other freelancers and form collectives. Yes, we can ask for more every time we get an initial offer. However, what has come to light in recent weeks is that there are systemic issues in place that are keeping marginalized freelancers in particular from succeeding, people of color, with disabilities, with varying gender identities and sexualities…
As an independent journalist, you can only do so much. You can research and share information and haggle. But if you emerge with less money than the next person, it’s not on you. Without a frame of reference, otherwise known as information asymmetry, you cannot know what “low” is. Understanding that frees you from feeling like you’re not “worth” as much as the next creative. Though your work matters, there are systems in place to make sure that some independent workers are underpaid. It’s not you, it’s them.
Have you found out that you were underpaid? How did you handle it? Share your advice in the comments or email me at email@example.com.