What Is Science Journalism Worth? Part II

A small pile of $10 and $20 bills sits fanned out on a wooden surface, held down by a black pen.


Last week, we walked through the sad economic state of affairs in science journalism and the impact it has had on writers’ and editors’ ability to do our jobs.

It isn’t pretty. Freelance rates for science writing have not increased in the last three decades, and yet in 2014 it took $227.29 to purchase what cost $100 in 1984. And after examining your own year-end numbers for 2014, you might be in a post-holiday, pre-tax funk. But now, I’m offering some hope and empowerment for the New Year.

How can full-time freelance science writers—who, according to the most recent survey conducted by the National Association of Science Writers, comprise 22 percent of the organization’s members—pull our collective earnings out of the toilet?

The first step is getting some high-quality data on what science writers’ words are truly worth. Luckily, that’s already been partially tackled by the NASW Freelance Committee, which surveyed NASW members about their compensation in 2013. (Disclosure: I am co-chair of the committee and Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann, co-founders of The Open Notebook, are the previous co-chairs.)

The committee hired a scientifically trained surveyor, Gary Heebner of Cell Associates, to help design a survey that would return the kind of granular data many freelancers thirst for: What are the going rates for different types of science-writing assignments? We wanted breakdowns by the word, by the hour, and by gender.

The survey yielded responses from 618 currently employed NASW members, 55 percent of whom identified as freelance writers or editors and 42 percent of whom said they earned their income solely from freelancing. Two-thirds of the respondents had worked in science writing for 10 years or more. For each respondent, the survey only collected pay rate data about the top five types of assignments that made up the bulk of their income. In other words, pay rate numbers by and large came not from hobbyists or dabblers, but from journalists whose majority income flowed from freelance assignments.


A Line in the Sand

The survey results, described at the NASW website (but available to members only), provide a useful starting point for any science writer considering taking on a freelance assignment. For example, the 53 freelance writers who reported working regularly for the news sections of scientific journals reported that the median rate at such publications was $1.20 per word, and the range was $0.50–$2.00 per word.

Based on these data, I draw a hard line in the sand for myself. I don’t work for less than the median rate within a given marketplace because I feel doing so isn’t good for me or anyone else. Not only does doing so make it harder to claw your way up to better rates over time, but it also drags down the whole field’s pay rates. It can be easy to forget, but transforming complex concepts, discoveries, and scientific debates into engaging, readable, and accurate stories is a rare and valuable skill. (Remember, too, that freelance writers are a steal for publishers, who pay nothing toward the writers’ insurance, retirement benefits, self-employment taxes, IT support, equipment, or overhead on home office spaces.)

The median rates and ranges from the NASW survey are the best information our field has for what science writing is worth in today’s market. Editors’ note: In 2013, Rose Eveleth and Rachel Nuwer surveyed 142 science writers on their incomes and demographics. Their survey, although not a scientific one, yielded revealing results that complement the NASW survey results.) The best way to maintain and improve our pay rates as a field is to encourage all freelance writers to demand fair compensation for their work. Most experienced freelancers aim for a rock-bottom rate of $1.00 per word for magazine work and $0.50 per word for online or newspaper copy. Every freelancer is free to set their own rates, of course. You should decide where your line in the sand is, too.


Commanding More

Now that we have some data, the second step in freelancers’ improving our lot is recognizing that the responsibility for doing so rests squarely on our own shoulders. The NASW survey rate tables offer writers a defined starting point for negotiation—something that should happen with each new assignment. Do the simple math. When considering a project, a writer should estimate how many hours it is likely to take and calculate the per-hour rate. For some projects, $2 per word translates to little more than minimum wage. For others, $0.50 per word can be a fast, easy paycheck.

When warranted, always ask for more. In 11 years of freelancing for more than 24 publications and 46 editors, I have been given a pay-rate raise without my asking exactly one time. (Thanks A.W.!) I have learned to negotiate for more money up front. It is the only way freelancers can earn merit-based or cost-of-living raises. No one else will do it for you. It may even improve the editor’s opinion of you.

“Believe in your own worth and fight for it. If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” says Apoorva Mandavilli, editor-in-chief at Spectrum. The worst scenario is that the editor says it’s not possible. And, as long as the request is made politely, it’s never a reason to not work with a writer, says Mandavilli. “It’s absolutely okay, professional, and healthy to ask.”

Rosie Mestel, chief magazine editor at Nature, agrees, but she cautions writers not to overdo it—editors do curb the words assigned to writers who demand rates higher than the publication’s standard.

If the client does agree to increase your fee, it’s a personal stride that also benefits the entire community. Writers should also re-negotiate for more compensation when asked to do a rush job or whenever an assignment requires more labor than the original agreement.

Finally, do your due diligence. Check NASW’s Words’ Worth database (members only) or ask other writers to find out about pay rates and other contract terms at specific publications. Read the contract carefully. It should include a kill-fee clause with a minimum of a 25 percent payment of the fee if the article is deemed unacceptable. (Many of my own contracts have a 50 percent kill fee.) If an article is in acceptable condition and meets the original assignment, but the publisher decides not to run it for internal reasons, then the writer should be paid in full.

The contract should also clearly state the payment terms—ideally, payment upon acceptance (with “acceptance” defined) and payment made within 30 days. If either the conditions under which articles can be killed or the payment terms are not spelled out, consider asking to add such language to the agreement. NASW members can access sample contracts at NASW’s The Fine Print database (members only).

If a writer uses every resource at her disposal to negotiate the best possible compensation and terms up front, then she can give that assignment the attention it requires. After all, at the point you sign on the dotted line, you are agreeing to deliver a quality piece of writing within the allotted time. It’s a writer’s responsibility to know what is expected to go into the making of that piece—how many revisions will be expected and what annotation, fact-checking, or art-gathering duties it entails—and to have factored that into the negotiations.

“Realize the situation you are in and force yourself to do good work anyway,” says Dan Vergano, senior writer-editor at National Geographic. “You will become valuable.” (Try not to roll your eyes—he knows what he’s asking isn’t easy or even fair.)

He says one thing has not changed from the newsroom of 20 years ago. Writers who deliver good work on time and who are responsive to edits will be recognized by editors as “go-to” people when other projects, long-term contracts, or even the rare new staff position comes up.

“If you can be strategic in your thinking about how you do this, it will give you the chance to do quality work,” he says. That might mean having a conversation with an editor about what you need to make the relationship work. Or maybe it means diversifying your client list so that higher-paying, shorter gigs can subsidize longer, deeper passion projects. “I think balancing your portfolio is number one,” says Mandavilli, who also freelances. Her organization is one of a rare breed that still offers retainers—contracts that give writers a guaranteed base income, which can also help offset the time spent on passion projects.

“The world has shifted,” says Mestel. Her advice to freelancers is to write more short, newsy pieces and fewer labor-of-love, longer pieces. “It makes me sad to say that. I don’t think it would be that satisfying, nor would it serve the public as well.”

Mandavilli also says more writers should look more closely at niche publications—often backed by foundations, scientific societies, or patient-advocacy groups that remain hands-off editorially—because they can afford to pay better rates. “There are places that still pay well and do journalism, it’s just a different kind of journalism than what The Atlantic or The New Yorker is publishing.”

While the median rates in the NASW survey tables are pretty depressing, all is definitely not gloom and doom. More than half of full-time freelance writers reported making $50,000 a year or more, and 29 percent made $75,000 or more. The survey found no significant differences between the pay rates garnered by men and women. (One limitation of the NASW compensation survey is that it did not collect data on respondents’ race or ethnicity. See here for a survey that addresses questions of diversity in science writing, including income-related questions.)

And while the era of online uncertainty continues, it’s also a fertile ground for innovation, in both the presentation and the funding of journalism. In the past year, for example, some freelance science writers have formed cooperatives and joined new crowd-funding platforms such as Beacon to bring their work directly to readers, who receive subscriptions in exchange for their support. David Wolman curated 15 past articles and book excerpts into an online collection for subscribers using the Creativist platform. Emma Marris has used a campaign on Beacon to get her new book project on wolves off the ground. Another Beacon campaign, called Flux, was formed by six freelance environmental journalists who wanted to write stories about how the world is already bracing for the impact of climate change.

For me, these subscriptions are worthwhile: They deliver high-quality science news from trusted journalists right to my inbox. And other writers are calling for more radical changes to our business model. But these experiments are, well, experimental.

Whether such crowd-funding models of science journalism will be sustainable remains unknown. For now, more traditional models of publishing continue to predominate, and yet few would argue that that state of affairs is sustainable.

“My sense is that we’re doing less with less,” says Vergano. “Pieces could be a lot better if everyone had more time to think and talk. But the economics don’t allow it.”

Robin Marantz Henig laments that she made roughly the same annual income as a freelancer 30 years ago—about $50,000, give or take—as she makes today. “It does help to know what the industry-standard rates are to ensure that you get paid decently,” she says. But knowledge isn’t enough when the industry standards themselves remain stubbornly stagnant. In her NASW presidency, Henig has vowed to try to find organized ways for writers to join forces against low pay. “We need enough people who will say, ‘I can’t work for a place that treats writers the way you do.’”

Something will eventually give way. Until then, writers’ best—really only—option is to push back and stand firm whenever we can. Rigorously assess freelance pay rates and how they affect your bottom line, like you would any other dataset. Then ask both yourself and your editors the tough questions about compensation. You wouldn’t do any less for a story. Don’t shortchange your own value as a professional writer, either.


Kendall Powell
Kendall Powell Courtesy of Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell is a freelance science writer based in Lafayette, Colorado. She covers the realm of biology, from molecules to maternity, and is a contributor to the The Science Writers’ Handbook.

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