The rate for the job: how cuts hit freelances

Commentary by Steven Downes
Are sports journalists now expected to work for the minimum wage?

Improbable, surely, that after a several years of training and experience, honing your contacts book and developing your writing skills so that you are able to deliver that world exclusive right on deadline, that you are being paid at the same rate as a three-star employee at McDonald’s?

But that seems to be the way things are going, with The Sun paying as little as £20 for some of its stories as from this month. £5.73 per hour? We’d be so lucky.

I have now been passed a copy of the memo that has gone out to all freelance contributors at The Times and Sunday Times, where a cut in freelance fees of around 10 per cent has been made to “ensure that we remain competitive in the current economic climate”. Jobs are going, too, of course. Straitened times indeed.

Similar moves have been brought in at the News of the World, and it is not just Wapping, either. There is a reported 5 per cent cut in story and picture fees at The Guardian and Observer.

For all the litany of job cuts that has become familiar over recent months, elsewhere there has also been an almost unnoticed, but nevertheless very real, erosion in working conditions for freelancers. Casual shifts on desks have been cut drastically, with some “enlightened” managements offering freelancers shorter hours in return for the less pay on offer (that said, shift rates for casuals at The Times have gone up recently, in line with the pay rise agreed for permanent staff).

But out of the offices, things is grim. At News International titles, for – say – covering a football or rugby match on a Saturday, a reporter can now expect to be paid the same fee that they would have received in 1989. Is there any other profession where people are expected to work at rates as if the 1990s had never happened?

NI is by no means the worst – they still meet a reporter’s travel and other expenses, and they also pay promptly. Some of the horror stories that have come my way recently from long-standing contributors to other papers would be laughable if they did not demonstrate quite how badly our work is being de-valued. Such as the £20 offer from one national title towards the £60 cost of a return rail ticket to get to a game: “What do you want me to do, just go one-third of the way there?”.

Then there was the request from a leading regional title for someone to go on a trip of more than 100 miles to a game, file a 750-word match report on the whistle, plus re-write with quotes, with team details and full stats. All for the princely sum of £45.

“I’ve been doing this business for 30 years,” one not-so-grizzled veteran confided last week, “and have worked through two previous recessions, but I don’t remember things being as bad as this ever before.

“It’s not just that the payments coming through, when they eventually arrive – and I am suspicious about some of the delays in payments by some newspapers – are less now than they were for an equivalent job 10 or 15 years ago.

“If you are offering coverage of a sport that isn’t football, you might as well forget it. A lot of the time now, sports desks are just not commissioning stringers – if they can’t staff a match, they’ll take it off TV or cut and paste from a website.

The message is clear: not just cheaper, but more homgenisation of coverage.

It’s not just reporters who are getting squeezed. A photographer recently alerted me to the double-page spread of pictures – more than two days’ work in setting up, travel and the shoot – which a monthly, glossy sports magazine (cover price £4.50, circulation 50,000+, 55 pages of ads in its 120 pages) had paid him £140. “I was told basically to be bloody grateful – if you don’t want it we won’t use it. No wonder why so many are going into the social wedding and portrait business.”

The SJA’s Sports Journalism Awards, being staged in London on March 9, have had record entries this year from freelances – we reckon a direct consequence of the number of staff journalists having their jobs cut. If companies continue to reduce their freelance payment rates, the fear must be that there will be no freelancers left in work to enter the competition in a year or so.

What we would like you to do is to spread the information on payments – who are the good payers? Do they pay below the rate for the job (the NUJ freelance website offers a useful guide)? Are they just slow payers? Or do they somehow believe that you should be underwriting the expenses of running their (usually) still-profitable business?

We will need full details. Here’s a handful of examples to get you started. We will not identify contributors (not unless you ask us to), but we ought to name the publication, provide details of the job involved, and the fee. We have coded each entry: * is acceptable; + is a yellow card; +++ is a red card:

□ Reuters pays £150 for a 650-word feature-interview. *

□ The Singapore evening paper, called The New Paper, pays £80 for 800 words. +

â–¡ Football matches for The Independent on Sunday and The Independent on Boxing Day. Not yet paid. ++

â–¡ Feature-preview of the F1 season for American Express magazines – 1200 words for £600. **

â–¡ The Daily Telegraph: a round-up of data, dates and background for their 2009 Sports Calendar. Around seven or eight hours’ work spread over a couple of days. £50. +++

â–¡ 200-word contribution to Charlie Sale’s diary in the Daily Mail: £80. *

Send your examples of contributions payments – whether good, bad or indifferent – by emailing here. Please put “Rate for the job” in the subject field.

â–¡ The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not represent the official policy of the SJA.

Sports desk job cuts:

NI job cuts begin to bite on sports desks

All Herald staff made redundant

Chadband among casualties in Derry Street

Martin Johnson latest to leave the Telegraph

Express to cut more than 70 jobs

Sports desk at centre of Telegraph concern

Brighton’s weekly sports paper to close

NUJ chapel protest at Independent‘s sports cuts

Click here to see a timeline of journalism job losses

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