'Knock off an article for chicken feed'

Like our MPs, journalists notoriously insist ‘I never got into it for the money,’ particularly when their fingerprints are found all over claim forms for dodgy expenses.

But last week, the two best-known politicians who freelance as commentators for our national press revealed that they were doing really rather well from journalism.

First, there was the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, who admitted he spent just “an hour or so” writing his weekly column for The Times, for which he is paid £1,250 a time.

Later, and almost not to be outdone, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, described the £250,000 he is paid each year for his column in the Daily Telegraph as “chicken feed,” twice.

Bean-counters over at The Independent rightly say that once holidays are factored in, his fee per comment, which he claimed he found relaxing to pen, equates to well above £5,000.

Both Mr Gove’s and Mr Johnson’s declaration seem to render the familiar line ‘not in it for the money’ as almost obsolete if either are called to defend their activities, in the press at least.

However freelance writers contacted by FreelanceUK said that each politician’s freelance writing gig reminded them more of another old adage: ‘nice work if you can get it.’

For not only is the irrepressible Mayor’s rate for his column more than a premium, particularly in the current jobs market, but he also puts the piece to bed in a flash.

“I happen to write extremely fast,” Boris told the BBC’s Hard Talk programme. “I see absolutely no reason why on a Sunday morning I shouldn’t knock off an article.”

Tony Greenway, a veteran freelance features writer for national newspapers and magazines, signalled that he could think of a few. Due diligence and quality for starters.

“In my experience as an editor, any article which has been ‘knocked off’ often looks that way when it lands on the sub-editors’ desk,” the Freelance Alliance member said, responding to questions yesterday.

“I rather doubt that I would be happy filing any copy which had taken just an hour to compose.

“I have written and do write columns, mainly for regional magazines; but for me to be absolutely happy with my work takes a good four or five hours of writing and subbing.”

Richard Willis, a freelance contributor to The Times Educational Supplement, History Today and the Middle East Times, said he generally allocated at least two hours to write an article.

Another freelance journalist, William Knight, whose clients include the Financial Times, Computing and the Guardian, said that, while every article is unique, he reserves two days for any feature longer than 1500 words.

“The actual writing might only take a morning, but the sourcing of commentators, interviews, transcribing and finding images, all takes time, and usually this is done beginning a week or two in advance,” he said.

“Giving two days on the calendar also provides a buffer should something go wrong; there's a margin in there for error or misunderstanding. This is important as requirements can, and do change, and interviews are cancelled at the last minute.”

All of the freelance journalists agreed that the longer, more challenging or more complex a story was, the greater the length of time that it warranted.

In particular, this is true of investigative features, Mr Greenway said, yet even then, “that time spent isn’t, sadly, reflected in the pay.”

What is commanding premium pay, however, in today’s market, while making hard-working journalists “mad,” is “celebrity status” or being a “TV regular.”

Of the pay rates facing those journalists, he reflected: “I have noticed ludicrously tiny amounts being offered for writing jobs on freelance websites, five pounds for 100 words…which writers are expected to bid for, unbelievably.”

Speaking from his central London office, Mr Willis testified that his payments per article seemed to be down compared with this time last year, though he has not needed to use bidding sites.

Growth in freelance pay rates for columnists is also non-existent in the IT, Computing and Business sectors, Mr Knight said, where most freelancers seem to be “earning less in real terms.”

And although his personal rate per feature or opinion-editorial has not dropped, he said that pay for freelance writers has “barely gone up.” He claimed this was true for this year and at any time since 2004.

“It makes you think the written word isn't as valued as it should be,” Mr Greenway reflected. “Unless you're Michael Gove or Boris Johnson.”

In his televised interview, the latter defended earning a quarter of a million pounds from the Telegraph, on top of his £140,000 salary as the London Mayor. An unapologetic Boris said: “If someone wants to pay me for an article, that’s their lookout.”



22nd July 2009

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