Today’s freelance investigative journalists face unworkable economics, survey says

Pay and resources for freelance investigative journalists appears to be dwindling, often forcing them to abandon public-interest stories in an evermore competitive and shrinking news economy. Unsustainable economics was at the top of numerous findings from a survey of more than 250 freelance investigative journalists published in February.

“Untold Stories”—a Project Word survey—is the first of its kind to provide some anecdotal and quantifiable insight into the working conditions of those doing investigative journalism. Project Word is a fiscally sponsored project of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

The survey highlighted a number of challenges freelancers have faced in the past five years, including unworkable economics and inadequate reporting tools. But the damage extends beyond the income of freelancers.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.15.18 AM

According to the survey, there is a connection between compensation and public-interest journalism in general. Some 81 percent of freelancers who participated in the survey said that lack of resources has forced them to pass on “otherwise viable and important public-interest reports.”

“Local publications have eliminated so many beat reporters and no longer have staffers to sit through City Council meetings or School Board Meetings etc., which means that these organizations go unmonitored. Thus the potential for abuse and corruptions have multiplied. It is hard for freelancers to dedicate the necessary time given what they are paid for articles,” said one of many respondents who submitted comments and chose not to be identified.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.08.21 AM

Other more notable findings of the survey include:

  • Some 85 percent of respondents said they used their own money to produce investigative stories.
  • Nearly one-third of respondents said they shell out more than $5,000 out of their own pocket each year to this kind of work
  • About 14 percent didn’t get any compensation for their work.
  • Forty-three percent spent more time in maintaining their business as freelancers rather than reporting.
  • When asked about their “most lucrative investigative report,” about 40 percent of them said they got paid less than $1 per word.

“Even places that will pay $1/word, plus expenses, still amount to $3,000-6,000 at most, which is a pretty small amount for a story that can take upwards of a year to report and write. Not to mention that you get paid on publication, so what are you supposed to eat during the year of reporting and writing?” another unidentified respondent said.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.12.24 AMWhile the survey offers candid admissions about the lesser known side of investigative journalism, the report says it offers no solutions to the challenges of the market.

Instead, respondents were asked to offer possible ways to address those challenges. They suggested that freelancers need to seek “viable economic arrangements” such as newsroom collaborations, improve relationships between editors and foundations, standardize fair contracts, and improve legal and research services.

The full report can be read here.