Issues facing freelance writers in 2021: Contract standards

Some issues that freelancers face are universal — things like getting paid on time, navigating taxes and managing your career. Freelance writing comes with its own challenges, from copyright and contract considerations to libel and slander claims. That’s why our team at Dinghy, together with Freelancers Union, recently brought together a panel of industry leaders to offer freelance writers key advice for running their businesses.

If you missed the event, don’t sweat. This blog is the third in a series recapping our panelists’ key insights. (Also check out our first post-event blog on rates and negotiating and our second on copyright protection.)

Ryan Goldberg, Freelance Journalist and Organizing Committee Member of the Freelance Solidarity Project

A freelance journalist since 2008, Ryan Goldberg has primarily served as an investigative reporter for print and digital outlets but has also written for TV, film and documentaries. Through his varied experience, he’s seen good freelance practices in place in other industries and is now working to improve practices within the media industry through the Freelance Solidarity Project.

A division of the National Writers Union, the Freelance Solidarity Project was started by a group of digital media workers in spring 2018, and Ryan joined soon after. The founders were a part of the wave of unionization taking place in digital media newsrooms and felt strongly that freelancers shouldn’t be left out of the equation.

“They recognized…that the media industry is incredibly volatile…and it’s also an industry that has been declining,” says Ryan. “It’s really important to band together and recognize the challenges we’re all facing.”

One of the biggest challenges for freelance writers centers on contracts and terms of work. What a standard contract can and should look like for freelancers is an important piece missing for many people because freelancers are siloed. That’s why one of the Freelance Solidarity Project’s major initiatives is encouraging publications to use standard letters of agreement and publicize standards for freelancers. The Freelance Solidarity Project has a gold standard agreement, which several publications have already requested.

Vital Contract Considerations

When negotiating their own agreements, Ryan advises freelance writers to pay particular attention to three key terms: indemnity, graduated payment and copyright.

  • Indemnity

“Most contracts say that you will indemnify the publication, when of course it should be the other way around. Especially when it’s reporting that’s going to ruffle some feathers, it should be the publication that’s agreeing to indemnify you and pay your legal bills and support you under their liability insurance.”

  • Graduated Payment

Don’t settle for only being paid when your story is published. “You could take an assignment and maybe it’s six months or a year before it comes out. And you won’t even get paid then. You will get paid 30 days or 60 days from when that story comes out. How can you do this as a career if that’s how long you need to wait to get paid for the work you do?”

  • Copyright

“The third [consideration] is really around intellectual property and copyright — and making sure these agreements hand over the copyright to the contributor instead of [publications] keeping it for themselves.”

Contract Red Flags

Similarly, Ryan also warns about a few important red flags that freelance writers should be on the lookout for when reviewing agreements.

  • Work for Hire

Seeing “work for hire” in a contract is the #1 red flag and is becoming more prevalent. It means that instead of you (the author) keeping the copyrights, the copyright and publishing rights will belong to the publication. “If you don’t own the right that you’re pitching to the publication…if they are holding your work forever, you may miss out on the opportunity to option your work for something else, or even report about the same thing again. If you specialize in a certain subject area, to give that up would be madness.”

  • No Kill Fees

A contract without language around kill fees is another red flag. With a kill fee in place, “if a publication decides not to publish your work after you’ve done the work, you will be paid a certain amount for the work you’ve already done.” Without a kill fee in place, you get paid nothing.

Ryan shares that many publications do have good contract language but are hesitant to give it to you right way — so you need to ask for it. “It often may take just one simple question like, ‘Can you do better on this indemnification language?’ or ‘Can you do better on this copyright language?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, we have another contract for that. We’ll send that one to you.’ It does help to know what you want to counter with. If you know it doesn’t look good, be able to say, ‘Can you do better or can you do this? Instead of work for hire, how about we do three-month first right exclusive window?’ In terms of indemnification language, do your due diligence to know what language you’d want to insert.”

When it comes to indemnity and media liability, it’s just as important to have insurance to protect yourself as it is to ensure your contracts have the right language in place. This is especially true when the publisher is asking you to indemnify them. In this case, insurance is a must.

Even when indemnification is held by the publisher and you have negotiated the “perfect” contract, you can still be subject to insurance claims. For instance, if you miss a deadline and end up delaying a launch, you could cause a financial loss to your publisher, who may file a claim against you.  

The good news is that freelance writer insurance — brought to you by Freelancers Union in partnership with Dinghy and NSM Insurance Group — provides the professional liability coverage you need, and it starts at less than $1/day. Learn more and get a free quote online in minutes.

About Ryan Goldberg
An award-winning journalist, Ryan Goldberg has written for The Intercept, Vice, Defector, Texas Monthly, Deadspin, The New York Times, Village Voice, ProPublica and more than a dozen other publications. His investigative reporting and feature writing have been highlighted by Longform, Longreads and the Sunday Long Read.

To hear more from Ryan and our other panelists — which include Wudan Yan, Independent Journalist and Co-founder of The Writers’ Co-op; Umair Kazi, Director of Advocacy and Policy at The Authors Guild; and Robert Hartley, Co-Founder of Dinghy, offering first-of-its-kind freelance writer insurance — view the recorded event. Plus, stay tuned for insights from our final panelist coming soon.

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