The value of a word ...

I recently read a blog entry that made me think.  A lot. It is, on its surface, about journalists, so is, perhaps fairly "narrow focus" for this vehicle, but it brought up so many other issues about the current value of work, that I decided that I'd do a The Job Stalker entry about it, rather than just ranting in my personal blog.

The piece Stop The Exploitation of Journalists appeared in Alan D. Mutter's Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, which had been shared by somebody I read on Twitter.  While, obviously, targeted to the news biz, the things discussed in the post can be applied more generally across other fields, especially as related to doing "freelance" assignments.

The key message in this is his urging journalists to insist on being paid what they're worth and, to help them determine this, Mutter worked up a little spreadsheet.  On this are various segments making assorted assumptions, the first of which is a base "hourly rate".  To get this he picked what he felt was a typical number out of the Newspaper Guild's wage listings, coming up with a figure which was almost exactly 4x the minimum wage for the state it came from.  He suggests that this could be used as a "rule of thumb" for a journalist's hourly wage expectation. Next is figuring out how much time is involved, as the project is not just getting words onto paper, but research and other legwork.  One key element he injects here is to add 20% for overhead as freelancers have many hidden costs that are part of the package in a regular job.  Once an hourly-plus-overhead figure is arrived at, one can determine a cost-per-word number.  More on this momentarily.  The grand total is then arrived at by adding in whatever expenses were incurred in the development of the piece, which in this illustration was $331.67 for a 600-word article, which involved six hours of professional services.

I think that anyone would agree that this is a fair price, with a both hourly and per-word rate that would provide a decent income to a reasonably busy freelance journalist.  

One thing that jumped out at me here was the per-word rate (comprising the hourly wage plus overhead, divided by article length), which was 35¢/word.  I ruefully looked at that, as it has been my experience that the "value of the written word" has been deeply depressed by a two-pronged attack of globalization and "black-hat" SEO operations.   In the course of my current unemployment, I have attempted to find work via some of the write-for-the-web services out there, and was shocked to find that the best rate I could get on a per-word basis was a measly 3¢/word.   Now, I can knock out 500 words in about an hour, so this would mean making about $15/hour writing, but those would be hours that were likely better spent in the job search.  I recently did a project for a local agency that needed to have a "consistent voice" applied to the informational pages on their web site.  For the scope of the project, I would have (were I set up as a "regular' freelancer) probably have asked $500-$600 to deliver it within the week.  I was offered $100 ... with the excuse being two-fold: one, that I would be working from existing copy so didn't have to "create" anything, and two that "this was pretty much the going rate these days".  As I didn't want to "sour" the connection with what could be a good contact for later employment or references, I took the project on at their rate, but was painfully aware that (on an hourly break-down) I probably wasn't doing any better than the 3¢/word assignments.

Why is "the going rate" for web copy so low, running 1/10th of what a "fair wage" would be by Mr. Mutter's determination?  I got some perspective in this last Fall when I attended a MeetUp of "affiliate marketers" who were, to a man, all "black-hat" SEO scammers.  The leader of the event bragged that he had a gal in south-east Asia who "was good enough" with English that she could write whatever he needed to pad with keywords.  He paid her well-under a penny per word, and then put the text she came up with into a "spinner" (a program that shuffles around text to make multiple variations) and these were then automatically posted to WordPress.  He was getting his web copy for almost nothing and simultaneously creating a market for very low-ball writing bids (another said for $2/hour he could get anything produced in India).  This is what I think I was up against when finding that "the going rate" was only a fraction of what I felt my work was worth!

Anyway, I wanted to share this piece with everybody, as the forces "exploiting journalists" are more and more common in driving down the value of all freelancers' work.  And, of course, as has been pointed in several of the books reviewed here, the prospective for the future is that almost ALL work will be done as independent contractors, so the same "exploitation" that Mutter looks at in terms of news writing will soon be hanging over all our heads ... and it's good to be armed with the advice he gives.

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