Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelance pay

Where I am right now

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Published on Monday, December 7, in The Independent, p. 23.

After four weeks in Yunnan, I am back in Beijing. Before I fly back to England for Christmas I am staying on a friend’s couch in Beijing.

Recently, I was published for a piece analyzing international affairs. It was my first time writing such a piece for a national newspaper. I asked the editor for advice on tone, to which he replied: “It’s supposed to be written in an authoritative manner, by you, our correspondent, who knows about China’s approach to climate change”.

The pressure was on. Certainly I did not want to write an article with my name on it, and my picture, a first for me, that had holes in it — or a poorly researched piece that could make me look like a fool in the printed paper, and online, for an audience of millions.

But the piece was well received by the editor and appeared in Monday’s issue of the paper. As a foreign correspondent I have made progress since August, when I received a phone call from London, from the foreign editor of The Independent, asking me if I was available to write a story.

The call came around 6pm my time, which is about 9am in the UK, and of course I said “yes”. The editor knew me because I had, some months ago, Tweeted him on Twitter asking if I could contribute to his paper. We exchanged messages but nothing came of it. As no-else was available at that time, that day in August, he suddenly remembered me and gave me a call.

That evening, I rushed around Beijing, doing interviews, calling people, and wrote up my story in a Starbucks. The story I wrote impressed the editor and was printed the following day. From then on I got more work with The Independent.

A couple of things to note, especially for any budding freelancers out there. While I was on the phone to the foreign editor, even though it was my first ever time speaking to him proper, I still asked him if I could have a higher fee for the article I had not yet written. He said “yes”– he’d give me a bit of a higher rate (he didn’t have much of a choice) and so I established, from the beginning, a precedent for getting higher rates from them.

It’s important that freelancers do not price themselves out of their jobs, and importantly, price other freelancers out of their jobs.

It’s important that editors respect you, and that you respect yourself and your work. It is a question of confidence that you value yourself to a point where you feel you can ask for better payment. But it’s a good habit to have.

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Being a journalist and being rich has little to no connection

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I’ve been pondering something. The connection or correlation between how prestigious a publication is and how much that publication pays. When I first had the idea for this blog post, I had an alternate title:

“The Correlation Between a Publication’s Prestige and How Much It Pays”.

Journalists often develop an understanding of where publications stand in the hierarchy of prestige. That hierarchy may have individual quirks, dependent on your beat, but there will be some commonly held tacit acknowledgements.

That, for example, The New York Times is right up there, significantly above USA Today — even though USA Today has a higher circulation — and that “The Gray Lady”, on an international level at least, probably sits above The Wall Street Journal in terms of byline prestige.

Magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Esquire are many writers’ dream destinations in which to be published. They form the Royalty.

Next come the venerable Dukes of Journalism: The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Times (of London). Adjacent to these are The International Names of Standing — The BBC, CNN.com, Al Jazeera, The EconomistTime. 

And there are now digital titans who, like Knight errants, have a glamour of their own: VICE; BuzzFeed, disrupting things.  

And yet, often, when I tell people about some of the publications I’ve been published in, they expect an amount of money I should have been paid commensurate to that publication’s prestige.

When I tell them the amount that I am actually paid, they are shocked.

And appalled.

So why do it?

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Pitchable outlets #1: The Guardian

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This is the first in a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. If I have written for said publication then I will draw from my own experience. If I haven’t I will find other freelancers and ask them. Click on the Pitchable Outlets tag to follow this series as it continues.

Status: high / 1st tier

Reach: The Guardian is one of the most respected news organizations in the world. Its headquarters are in King’s Cross, London, and it has offices in the US and Australia as it seeks to transform itself into a “global newspaper”. It vies with The New York Times for the world’s second most popular English-language newspaper website (The Mail Online is the most popular).

Accessibility: For a freelancer, The Guardian is actually relatively accessible. Yes, you have a lot of competition, which is why some of the bylines I’ve gained have been in smaller sections such as the online-only Careers blog. I mostly write “around the sides” for The Guardian, although I plan to pitch more to the “World” section.

To reach or find an editor at The Guardian isn’t too difficult. If you pitch an idea to an editor, make sure you have the right section editor. For example, you might Google “guardian comment is free editor”. And then you’ll find some names. Twitter is your friend too. You only need the name as The Guardian follows a standard email format: firstname.lastname@theguardian.com.

Ease: I usually get a response from whichever editor I have pitched to, and they are kind and fair responses. Never expect an in-depth email about why they might not use your pitch. Editor emails tend to be on the terse side. The Guardian is a big name so there’s a lot of competition, and editors only have a limited budget for freelancers. So don’t take it personally, persevere.

Pay: The best rate I’ve received from The Guardian was actually for my first ever article for them, back in 2010. The published article was 311 words and I received £151.41, which works out to about 49p per word. This is a pretty good rate.

My most recent article for them came in May 2014. It was for the Careers Blog, so I doubt it appeared in the newspaper, just online only. The article was 649 words and I received £248.54, which works out to about 38p per word, which is still decent.

An update on North Korea: the costs of freelancing from the Hermit Kingdom

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So I traveled in late April to North Korea for a week. I wrote about it on this blog here. The trip, all inclusive, was through a Beijing-based tour company (tourism to NK is only permissible via these tour operators), and it cost me 1100 euros.

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

It was a significant outlay. 1100 euros (875 British pounds or 1448 US dollars)  is a lot of money and I dug into my overdraft to stump up the cash. Yes, I did want to go anyway, but I knew I would have to find ways to recoup the costs. How would I do that? By selling stories based on my trip of course. I am a freelance foreign correspondent after all.

However, at the time, I hadn’t been commissioned for anything. No editor at any newspaper, website or magazine was expecting Korea-related copy from me. This is, in short, not the way to do things.

A freelance should really have stories already booked in before s/he travels. And then he does more research and maybe pitches one or two more. After he comes back from said travel and has filed his commissioned stories, he digs around his head and thinks up further angles.

At the least, you should recoup what it cost; all the expenses that it took to go. For North Korea, I have not yet done that. I have in fact paid off 79% of the 1100 euros I spent.

This comes from three sources: a profile of a manager of one of these NK tour companies; an investigative feature on the growth of North Korean tourism; and a photo gallery.

The profile was published online by The Telegraph, and fetched me 150 pounds. Al Jazeera published both the feature and photo gallery, and the two together was worth $900 (both items each making up half that number).

The photo gallery was a useful reminder of how to diversify. If you have video or photos, it always pays to ask your editor if they want an edited together video or a photo gallery. Always ask if they’ll pay for it though – never believe your stuff should be free!

I haven’t yet pitched anything revolving around something like a travel narrative on my experiences traveling in North Korea, but that’s quite hard. It’s already been done quite a bit, so I’ll have to come up with a unique angle. But it’s good practice for next time, and for future trips. Travel + journalism is fun, yo.

Links:

Is North Korea On Your Tourism Bucket List? – Aljazeera  (includes photo gallery)

Bringing the world closer to North Korea – Telegraph

North Korea – a journey in 8 photos