By Calli McMurray
A freelance journalism career can be very fulfilling, giving writers and editors a chance to explore different story topics and storytelling mediums. But plateauing per-word rates aren’t always enough to pay the bills.
That means thinking outside the reporting box. “It is possible to cobble together some good income from a variety of places,” said Lauren Gravitz. Journalists can earn extra income from editing, consulting, coaching, public speaking, and fact-checking.
Trade publications, nonprofits, and universities often have higher per-word rates than traditional news outlets. “You can do writing for nonprofits, including medical centers and other orgs. The important part is drawing a bright dividing line,” Bryn Nelson said.
To avoid potential conflicts of interest, Nelson never writes about scientists or doctors from the medical centers he writes for. He also sets clear boundaries with his editors: His job is to report and write, not to send PR pitches to other journalists.
Once a journalist builds up expertise in a beat, they can venture into paid public speaking jobs. Janine Latus has built a career speaking about domestic violence. “Any story you're working on can turn into a speaking opportunity if you figure out who wants to hear what you have to say,” she said.
Not all freelance assignments are created equal, and per-word rates aren’t always an accurate measure of an assignment’s value. “It can take a lot more effort to get a $2 word than it does to get an 80-cent word,” Emily Paulsen said. To calculate a fair hourly rate, she tracks how long an assignment takes. A news brief paying 50 cents a word will often have a much higher hourly rate than a feature paying $1.50 a word.
Finally, it’s important to set clear work boundaries with editors, since time spent in meetings and responding to emails is not paid for freelancers as it is for salaried staff writers, Lisa Rapaport said. “Filtering out the time-suck stuff really does a lot to boost your hourly [rate] so you can make a better living.”
Calli McMurray is an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. She was a 2023 AHCJ-Academic Health Journalism Fellow.