Since the dawn of this blog, I’ve talked about knowing your worth as an entrepreneur, but today I’m going to step atop my pedestal once again and tell you this: stop working for free.
Yes, this means you. I see you. I feel you. I know it’s hard. But consider this your free therapy session and your road map to not working for free ever again.
This is a PSA not specific to journalists or content creators, bloggers or photographers. This goes for anyone: accountants, muralists, nonprofits, bakers, handymen. Your time, your experience and what it took to reach this point in your career are all valuable commodities, and you should be compensated accordingly.
In the past week, this has been a hot topic of debate online after travel journalist Victoria Walker quit her job and went on vacation—but not before hopping on Twitter to share advice for those applying for her former gig at The Points Guy.
Her tips? Ask for no less than a $115,000 salary, a signing bonus and a relocation fee for those not already based in New York City; she also disclosed that her salary for the same position had been $107,000.
“I believe being transparent is one way to achieve equity in media,” she wrote.
But how do you accomplish this? I’ve got you covered.
Ask peers for input on pay
Like Victoria, I’ve always believed in transparency in the media, which is why anytime a blogger or journalist reaches out to me to ask how I would price a project, I reply and give them as much detail as possible for establishing or negotiating their rate. Better pay for my peers means better pay for all in the media or tourism marketing world, and it also means that these companies will eventually have to stop exploiting creatives and compensate them adequately for their work if they want to continue attracting high-caliber talent.
When I started in journalism 20 years ago, the going average was $2 a word, but a decade prior it was as much as $4 a word for a feature story. Today’s wages are all over the map. The Internet and the fast churn of stories going live every hour (or minute) have turned outlets like Forbes, Huffington Post and Refinery 29 into content factories where they pay hungry writers a measly $75 to $150 for a reported piece.
Breaking down the cost of a story
For context, let’s break down what all that entails. Let’s say it takes a writer an hour to research your pitch, 30 minutes to write it up, another 30 to do negotiations and contract work with the company, then four hours to research, perform any required interviews and actually write the story. Then, there are edits and fact-check inquiries once the story is filed, so we’ll tack on another hour, and that doesn’t even account for invoicing nor the 60 days it usually takes to get paid (versus two weeks if you’re salaried).
That’s a very fast pace for a story to go to press—print stories take a lot longer—and would result in a fee of $12.50 an hour: For comparison’s sake, that’s minimum wage in New York state. Plus, if you’re self-employed, you also have to pay taxes on that. Not to mention, you’re also paying for your own equipment, office space (rent or mortgage), WiFi and more. So in a sense, you’re almost working for free at that rate.
Related Article: What It Costs to Run a Media Business
And yet writers with 20 years’ experience are taking these stories because they aren’t standing up for themselves, which further enables media companies to take advantage of professional journalists. Personally, I don’t write for less than $1 a word, and if it’s an hourly fee for editing or SEO work, that ranges based on the project and the amount of work it entails. I encourage all my fellow journalists to stick to similar standards.
If you don’t have peers in the industry, this Real Media Salaries spreadsheet will give you a good idea of what companies are paying.
Stop giving away work in interviews
In the journalism world, an edit test has long been de rigueur. It could consist of writing headlines, brainstorming package ideas, coming up with new verticals and marketing initiatives, writing or editing actual articles, you get the gist. When I interviewed at the paper of record 16 years ago, in addition to an interview with three separate editors, the process also comprised three hour-long tests that I had to sit for at the paper’s headquarters—that was time I had to take off from my job at Entertainment Weekly unpaid and knowledge I was giving away. Knowing what I know now, I would not have done this, as yes, I was working for free for a media giant.
Working for free in content production
Years ago, Google asked me to come on board as a content creator—a job I didn’t wind up getting by the way—and in the application process, I had to create destination profiles for popular cities like Paris and Rome. So again, I was working for free—and to add insult to injury, they put in the contract that they owned any content I submitted. So not only did I not get the gig nor did I get paid for the content I created, but Google profited off of my work. Again, we all learn the hard way.
Related Article: How to Say No to a Gig or Request
Luckily, the journalism world is starting to wake up, and mid- to senior-level editors are putting their foot down when it comes to edit tests—or requiring compensation for that time and knowledge. One hiring manager in the magazine world recently divulged that her clients are offering compensation for candidates who take edit tests—as they should.
Again, an edit test is taking time away from your current job, and usually there’s a lot of work involved, plus the media company then owns what you give them. It also bears noting that the edit test comes further on in the process once a pool of candidates have been narrowed down to the final few in consideration.
Working for free in education
A friend in education told me that the same goes for higher ed. “We’re often asked to do presentation and other projects in our interviews for no good reason at all,” she shared, pointing me toward this viral TikTok by a user named Jenna who is informing people why they should not give away intellectual property in an interview. Read the comments on her post; they are eye-opening.
“In student affairs, [interviewing] often translates to being asked to creating a presentation on a program or project one might implement in the role. Often candidates are asked to share materials as a part of this,” my friend told me. “Our interviews are full of anecdotal response questions and case study-style scenarios. It’s seldom that what we interview on is something we wind up tackling if we’re hired, but it’s not uncommon for ideas to be co-opted by interviewers in a sometimes even subconscious way.
“But it’s handy to have a copy of someone’s materials if/when that happens. This all happens during the course of what is generally an 8 hour interview day where panel interviews may have anywhere from 1 to 30 interviewers in a room and that is often preceded by a candidate dinner the night before and also takes place over breakfast and lunch the next day. It’s an exhausting process.”
Stop taking “free” trips where you’re essentially working for free
A gig for Marriott International has been all the talk in the travel community this past month. The global hotel giant that also owns such brands as the Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis and Westin currently is advertising a “contest” (i.e. free labor) in which three “winners” will be chosen to create TikTok content for 300 days at its various properties world wide. Here’s what the “winner” receives:
- 10 Marriott stays spread across up to four trips that must take place in the course of 300 days with a max stay of 14 days per trip
- Round-trip airfare and hotel for each stay
- $10,000 gift card for on-site meals, spa services and activities
- $15,000 paycheck
- Transportation vouchers and swag
“This travel experience is worth over $30,000 plus you will receive a $15,000 stipend,” Marriott claims.
I don’t know about you, but $15,000 for work spread out over 300 days is hardly a living wage, and the $30,000 are actually work expenses not compensation and should not be considered such. Not to mention, assuming the winner has a real job, who can take 56 days off of work to essentially work for free?
This whole contest is problematic for many different reasons. First, you must come up with a compelling marketing pitch to even be selected as one of the “winners.” That’s a lot of work and creative bandwidth toward an audition of sorts. Not to to mention, this is in the fine print for those who simply choose to apply:
“Each Entrant grants to Sponsor a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive right and license to copy, distribute, and display each submitted entry (and any content, defined below), in any media, and with right to use, copy, modify, edit, and create derivative works therefrom, and agrees to execute documents confirming such right and license at Sponsor’s reasonable request.”
Next, if you are chosen as a Marriott Bonvoy TikTok Correspondent, Marriott owns all your content. As a content creator, this is something no one in their right mind would surrender, as most of us photographers and videographers have licensing agreements that include both time and usage stipulations. Plus, I have some content creator peers who are making as much as $10,000 a TikTok video, so Marriott saw an opportunity to build up its marketing assets for essentially free. And many creators who are lured by these types of offerings neglect to read the fine print, which in this case states:
“Any content created by Marriott Bonvoy TikTok Correspondents in connection with the signed Agreement shall be either owned by Marriott, or licensed to Marriott, in their sole discretion … Marriott shall have the right, at its option, to cut, edit, add to, subtract from, arrange, rearrange, revise and/or republish the content in any manner.”
This $15,000 fee actually should be, at minimum, $150,000, but likely a whole lot more given that carte blanche licensing policy.
And perhaps equally as important: None of this includes taxes. Not only do you as a content creator have to pay your own taxes—and as someone who has worked for herself for 14 years, let me tell you that self-employment tax sucks if you’re not claiming a loss—but you also have to pay taxes on the stays and any “gifts.” Hardly so much of a “compensation” package anymore, is it?
Related Article: Tax Talk from an Accountant to Freelancers
I thought these “contests” evaporated after Australia’s Best Job in the World gig, in which a winner was actually compensated to be an island caretaker, and yet more than a decade later here we are, still using creatives to work for free for a global brand that has plenty of marketing dollars to compensate creators and influencers fairly. Be a part of the solution, not the problem, and do not apply to or support these exploitative programs.
Always negotiate, for a job or a contract
It’s hard talking about money—I get it; I feel the same way. But it’s been empowering for me these past few years to counter any initial offer that’s below my normal pay threshold by asking if there’s room for negotiation. And let it be said that you should never, ever state salary expectations when you’re interviewing for a full-time job, as you may well be biting yourself in the foot should the salary be much higher than you’d ask.
Scenario: an HR recruiter asks you for your salary expectations for a job
Your response: “What is the range of pay that an applicant should expect from this role?” I’ve had several people ask me what to do when that line is on a job application. If possible, I always leave it blank. If it’s required, I’d say something vague like “commensurate with experience and expectations.” It’s absolutely not fair of a potential employer to ask you to pluck some arbitrary number out of the air without knowing what that position typically pays or what the job entails.
Several friends who worked in corporate positions have shared stories of where they lowballed themselves at, say, $50,000 for an intro job, and a kind HR recruiter took pity on them saying, “OK, so I’m going to jot down that the lowest you’d be willing to go is $75,000.” Sometimes HR recruiters can be the actual mentors who shepherd you through the process and have your best interests at heart.
But not always, so it’s on you to lobby for yourself.
Another friend anonymously shared how when she went to work for Facebook (now Meta), she almost lowballed herself, but instead had a dream number in mind that was much loftier than she expected. However, she wasn’t forthcoming with her salary requirements, instead requesting the pay range for the position, which turned out to be $20,000 more than her dream number. So in her case, not stating a pay range upfront definitely worked to her advantage.
And if there’s absolutely no budging on the actual salary, this is when negotiate for added PTO, incentives such as a car or phone allowance or annual bonuses based on benchmarks.
Scenario: an editor or client comes to you with a lowball offer
Your response: “I would typically charge X for a project of this nature. Is there wiggle room in your budget?”
At least 80 percent of the time, in my experience, the editor has either come back to me saying she could meet my rate or offering something in the middle. At that point, it’s up to me to determine if the price is worth my time, but at least I haven’t undervalued myself by taking the initial offer if it’s well below my typical range. There’s nothing worse than taking a project for a fee far less than it’s worth and to resent that client and the accompanying work every step of the way.
What you don’t do is clap back and say “my time and experience is worth so much more. My last client paid double what you’re offering, blah blah blah.” Yes, we’d have people respond like this to projects we’ve pitched, and no, we would never work with or recommend those creatives again. It all comes down to respect and being kind and humble. If you can’t take a project, you can’t take a project, but at least decline it in a way that makes you look professional and leaves the door open for collaboration in the future should the potential client come back with another project that’s more aligned with your compensation goals.
Scenario: a potential client comes to you with a project idea and asks for a quote
Your response: “What’s your budget for this project? If you give me a range, I’ll be able to better tell you what I can do for that price.”
This allows me to not underquote myself if the budget was far higher than I would have guessed—and it also enables me to offer the client a range of services within different price points. For example, maybe I assumed that a client only had $3,000 and was going to price a project accordingly; if it turns out they have $10,000 instead, I can offer more of my time and greater deliverables knowing what they expect to pay for my work.
If the budget is much lower than I’d anticipated, I can alter my own offerings to fit it without outright turning it down. Since we work so much in rural America, this happens often: If a client wants to work with us but the budget doesn’t fit to match the ask, we always come back and say “here’s what we can do with that” and outline an alternate plan.
On the hiring side of the equation, for all of our projects where we hire a muralist, first we establish a budget based on a grant stipend or what a city can allot for a mural project, then back out the cost of the equipment and materials, travel and lodging, and any nonprofit admin fees; that leaves us with the artist fee, so when I approach a muralist with a project, I can give them a rate outright. This approach allows them the opportunity to take it if it’s worth it for them or to politely bail if it’s not. Either way, no respect is lost when using this method.
There are, of course, always exceptions
Now, there are always exceptions to any rule. For our nonprofit, we sometimes waive our own administrative fees to work on a cause we truly believe in. The same goes when I’m writing or collaborating on a passion project that I’m doing for the personal fulfillment rather than the money.
But in general, you should set your own internal goalposts, whatever they may be, and stick to them. Have a range you’d be willing to work for, start the negotiation process at your highest number and know internally what the lowest you’d be willing to work for is should it come to that.
Not only will your bank account be happier, but you’ll be more fulfilled knowing that you stood up for yourself and your clients or employer respect you enough to pay you what you’re worth.
Are you convinced to stop working for free? What additional tips would you offer?
For more career posts, start here:
- No, You Can’t Pick My Brain — And Here’s Why
- Want to Be More Hirable As an Influencer? Take These Tips to Heart
- 11 Lessons from 11 Years of Blogging
- So You Wanna Start a Blog? Here’s How
- Marketing in a Crisis: The Dos and Don’ts and How to Move Forward