By Vivienne Pearson

Why I’m shifting from writing for media to copywriting

Ironically, it was an accountant rather than a writer or editor who succinctly summed up my dilemma.

“There seems to be a disconnect between your bylines and your income,” she said, after looking at my website showing my writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Guardian and more.

Since her comment, nearly a year ago, I’ve deliberately sought more content and copywriting work – that is, writing for business and organisations – to supplement what I love best, which is freelance writing for mainstream media.

I was reminded of her comment a couple of weeks ago, when working on two different pieces of writing. One was an article for an online media publication. The other was a piece of content writing for a business. This gave me a valuable opportunity to ‘compare the pair’.

The byline for the feature article would look good in my portfolio, and the pay rate looked okay too: 70 cents per word.

While this is less than the 93c per word recommended by MEAA (Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Australia’s media union), from my experience, any offer by traditional media that’s over 50 cents a word is worth considering.

The trouble was, this per-word rate didn’t translate to a decent hourly rate, for several reasons.

Firstly, by the time the article was commissioned, I had already put in a couple of hours of research and pitch crafting.

Then, the editor asked for only 500 words, meaning a payment of only $350 for the story. A small word count might sound like it would involve less work but, in my experience, this involves far more work, in rewriting and editing, than a longer piece.

Also, the article was a ‘list piece’ (also known as a ‘listicle’). So, instead of writing 500 words on one topic, I needed to cover five, with sufficient research and interviewing to do each justice. Sure, I could have done ‘desktop’ research but, I wasn’t comfortable with risking errors, incompleteness or disrespect to the people I was writing about.

Though the byline is a strong one and I am happy to have written this story, calculated against time, the $350 payment was paltry.

So, in summary, though the byline is a strong one and I am happy to have written this story, calculated against time, the $350 payment was paltry.

That same week, I worked on a piece of content for a business. It involved getting my head around an unfamiliar topic then writing an engaging summary of the issues.

The per-word pay rate was almost identical: 75 cents. Yet, the piece was to be 800 words, which means a per-article payment of $600.

The work was intense but was done in around five hours (four hours for the initial research and draft, then another for minor edits and communication). I had pitched for this job via an agency, but this process only took around 15 minutes and, significantly,  didn’t require any original ideas.

So, that week, I earned over $100 per hour for my content writing work, and perhaps $25 per hour for my original-idea bylined media listicle.

Is it any wonder that freelance writers are ditching media outlets to move to content and copywriting?

Is it any wonder that freelance writers are ditching media outlets to move to content and copywriting?

Sure, these are only two examples and cannot be taken as representative of all work. Not all feature stories work out to such a low per-hour rate of pay, and there certainly are businesses looking to pay far (far, far) less than $600 for an 800 word article.

Yet, from my six years of experience, this ‘compare the pair’ is indicative of the issues facing freelance writers.

There are other differences too – those of power and respect.

In my content and copywriting work, I am far more able to set terms, negotiate deadlines, dictate pay rates and be in control of processes. It is standard practice to be paid 50 per cent of a fee before starting work – a huge boon for a freelancer’s cash flow.

In writing freelance for media, there is a strong push, even for assertive writers, to largely acquiesce to editor demands and to put up with slow and incomplete communication.

Again, this is a generalisation. I have no intention to ‘editor-bash’ and I have some inkling of just how busy and full-on their roles are. I know that uncertainty is an inherent part of freelance life and that only some of the ideas we pitch will make it to publication. Also, I know there are editors who are excellent communicators, and content writers always need to be on guard for ‘PITA’ clients (Google it!).

On its Freelance Charge-Out Rates page, MEAA says: “We encourage freelancers to prioritise publishers who pay well.”

I would add: “And treat freelancers well.”

The accountant followed up her observation with a suggestion: “Can you see feature writing as a marketing activity for your brand and then do more jobs that pay well?”

I admire her business-focussed, savvy thinking and I know other writers who have embraced this idea more fully than I. But it feels like an indictment on our media landscape that talented writers with big bylines need to see media writing as a ‘marketing activity’.  

What I’d love to see is a situation where, when I have an original idea that a newspaper or magazine editor feels will contribute to a conversation, that I will be rewarded with the pay and respect that my creativity, skill and work deserves.

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer whose writing lives at viviennepearson.com. She joined MEAA’s Freelance Committee in the hope of seeing pay and conditions improve for media freelancers.

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