Why—and When—I Write for Low-Paying Markets

Laura Laing

For the first half of 2007, I spent much of my time in a dingy dive bar on the corner of Park Avenue and Tyson Street in Baltimore. Leon’s had a cameo in HBO’s The Wire, was host to Mama Cass Elliot before she moved west, and inadvertently became a front line of one of the biggest American epidemics before COVID. At 50 years old, it was also the oldest gay bar in the city and one of the oldest in the country.

In June, I published a 5000-word piece about Leon’s in Baltimore’s alt-weekly, City Paper. The following year, it was awarded an honorable mention in the AD Emmart awards for Maryland journalists. I had been a reporter for only seven years and freelancing full time for only two.

I was paid $0.25 per word for six months of work. It was worth every second.

Not only is this perhaps my favorite story I’ve ever written, but reporting it was an incredible rush. I cannot count the number of quirky sources I met, from bartenders to patrons. Each interview was like an Easter egg hunt, with too many fantastic quotes to include in the final piece.

I freelanced for City Paper for at least three years, reporting and writing seven longform cover stories, along with a dozen or more shorter pieces. I worked closely with the editors but never had to submit a full pitch. After I filed a piece, a team of college students fact-checked each line. My stories were entered into contests, and I was sometimes asked by other media outlets to comment on topics I wrote about.

At the same time, I grew my freelancing career, making twice as much as I had earned in my previous job as a staff writer for a weekly business publication. I broke into Parade, The Advocate, USA Today, and several national parenting publications. I branched out into content marketing, writing for AAA, Southwest, and Wells Fargo. I landed assignments with trade publications, writing about running a chiropractic practice, gym equipment and pet supplies. Eventually I used my math degree, writing math lessons for curriculum development companies.

I enjoyed most of these assignments, but it was those City Paper cover stories that kept my blood pumping. For every CEO profile I wrote, I spent a few hours sitting at the bar at Leon’s or tracked down a priest who argued against restoring an old Polish Catholic church in Fells Point or spoke to a police officer about why meth wasn’t a problem in Maryland like in surrounding areas. These longform assignments didn’t pay much, but they fed my curiosities and introduced me to the city I had just moved to.

Early in my freelance career, I learned that to make it, I would need to reach for high-paying assignments. Soon after that, I learned that the high paying assignments weren’t always as interesting to me. I would have given anything to write longform for The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, but more than that, I wanted to write about my city, and these publications just weren’t interested. Luckily, my freelance mentors taught me how to diversify my client base so that I could make money and follow my curiosities.

ASJA is committed to helping its members find assignments with respectable rates. Our Client Networking teams work hard to connect high-paying clients to members who can deliver the goods. Our educational programming has offered virtual and in-person sessions about diversifying client lists, breaking into new markets, and even earning six figures.

At the same time, there’s no question that the publishing landscape has changed dramatically. Freelance budgets have shrunk, and it’s become harder and harder to land a juicy assignment for a well-paying market. (The decline or stagnation of the per-word rate is well documented, and I’m not going to rehash it here.) In short, freelancers who only do journalism have a hard time making a living, even when they only accept $1 per word assignments.

At around the same time that I intentionally branched out into content marketing, ASJA began accepting content marketing writers into its membership. According to our latest membership survey (which is not scientific), 36% of the respondents do content marketing writing, along with journalism and authoring books. Our members have requested and signed up for resources on how to add content marketing writing to their careers as journalists and authors. That’s because content marketing gigs offer higher rates.

I’ve heard the argument that if we simply refuse assignments that pay less than $1 per word, we could force the industry to up its rates. In a perfect system, that could definitely work. But outside of ASJA, there is a growing field of new freelancers who are accepting rates far lower than $0.25 per word. I dare say that few of them have the chops for reporting complex, longform pieces. But there’s more to it than that: many outlets pay less but offer other benefits, including platform building, the opportunity to write a piece that cannot be placed elsewhere, and the ability to simply write—without pitching or going through rounds of edits by a committee.

I stopped thinking about per-word rates sometime around 2010 (maybe earlier). I was happy to write for lower paying markets, if the conditions were right. So, I turned to per-hour rates and turned that figure into a per-project rate. As long as I’m earning on average at least $100 per hour, I’m happy with my choices. A low per-word rate might actually be a high-per hour assignment, especially if I don’t have to find sources or go through lots of edits. Doing that math helped me see that I can actually make more money even if the per-word rate is less than $1.

City Paper was never one of those publications for me. Although I didn’t have to spend a lot of time pre-reporting for a detailed pitch, I worked my tail off to find the right sources and then to weave long hours of reporting into solid writing. But I could support my longform narrative habit with other assignments that made up the difference, pay-wise. Thanks to a spectacular editing team and endlessly interesting subject matter, I was thrilled to report for City Paper, even for a quarter of what I should have been earning.

Everyone will feel differently about this balancing act. If you’re only happy with assignments that pay at least $1 per word, that’s great. If you have found a way to make lower-paying markets work for you, I’m all for it. As freelancers, we get to pick and choose our way through this wonderful career—that’s what puts the “free” in “freelancer.” As an organization, ASJA will favor higher per-word markets, but we won’t ignore the possibility that our members want to hear about and work for great markets that happen to have lower budgets.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash