Advice - General / What freelances need to charge and why

Non-journalists may think that some of the numbers in this guide represent a lot of money for what sometimes seems from outside like little work. Staff journalists often look at freelance day rates, divide their salary by 365 and mutter about "freelances having it easy". No, we do not. That arithmetic is wrong and entirely misunderstands the economics.

Charging for shifts

The simplest point to make is this: the total direct cost to a company of employing someone, not counting office costs, is about one-and-a-half times their gross salary. The company has to pay employer's National Insurance contributions and pension contributions. Other incidental costs of employment mount up. (We did not believe how much they did either, until we did the accounts for a charity - and re-did them in disbelief.)

And that's before you include the cost of providing an employee with a desk and a piece of floor to put it on; or the sheer convenience to a company of engaging a freelance, who is only there when they are needed. Sometimes it seems to freelances that companies think that, when they cannot see us, we exist in a state of suspended animation, waking for five seconds every hour to check for email from them. This is not the case. Even a freelance who is doing five sub-editing shifts this week must budget to be able to eat next week, when some (or all) of those shifts may have ceased. They would be foolish to budget for more than 180 paid days per year.

Out of their fees, freelances have to pay tax and two chunks of National Insurance, and arrange their own pension. These days, even those who mostly do shifts in clients' offices must maintain a computer and internet connection, if only to find out about those shifts.

The point freelances make to staff journalists, as economic beings and as trades unionists, is this: if you engage a freelance at less than 160 per cent of the equivalent staffer's daily gross pay, then you are undercutting a staff job. Unfortunately, even some of the suggested rates in this Guide do undercut staff in this way, since they spring from reports of actual market rates. That does not mean that the NUJ condones this practice.

Charging for writing and reporting

To non-journalists we say this: the high rates you have heard about (up to hundreds of thousands a year!) are paid to columnists and presenters for major papers and channels. Those rates are agreed by hard-headed publishers' and broadcasters' accountants on the basis of their expected contribution to profits. They are in effect part of the marketing budget.

Journalists who produce news and features have to work harder - for considerably less money. The agreed minimum rates at the Guardian represent an hourly less than the UK minimum wage for a 500-word story that takes 50 hours to produce. Not all stories take that long, of course. But really interesting stories - the ones that justify this whole journalism business - can easily take much longer.

At these rates it is simply uneconomic for a freelance to do intensive, investigative, independent reporting - again, the kind that makes the whole business worthwhile and is supposed to be what freelances are for. A diet of fluff is the inevitable result of the way that bean-counters are exercising their control over the publishing and broadcasting industries.


On top of all these arguments, photographers face huge equipment costs and need to charge £100 a day or more before they receive any actual income at all. See the link below.

What your client saves by engaging a freelance

NUJ member Andrew Bibby has produced a ready reckoner that works out the daily rate equivalent to the total cost of employing someone on a given salary. It does not suggest that these rates are attainable right now. It should be a powerful negotiating tool, especially when - as usual - you can point out to a staff member commissioning you how much the rate they're offering you is undercutting their own job.

More advice and links...
* Rates for the Job good, bad and ugly
* Join the NUJ to get individual advice & representation

Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to please. You may find the glossary helpful.

The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.

Suggestions apply to contracts governed by UK law only. In any event, nothing here should be construed as legal advice.