Mark Loundy
Common Cents

A New York (Times)
State of Mind

I want to tell you about this new policy I have. When I ordered my new laptop computer I told the retailer that as of March 1, I would no longer pay for shipping. Right off the bat I saved 30 bucks on next-day Fed Ex. Hey, I'm thinking of telling my mechanic that I'm no longer going to pay for labor charges.

Ridiculous? Well that's what the New York Times is trying to impose on its freelance contributors. For years, the Times has paid a $100 digital transmission fee. As of March 1 they stopped paying the fee. No negotiation, they just stopped.

The transmission fee was instituted to help freelancers make the change to digital technology. The Times says that the fees "no longer serve their original purpose."

Sorry, I must have gotten fixer in my ear, could you repeat that? Digital cameras become obsolete in 12 to 18 months. It would take 59 NYT transmission fees to pay for a single D1x body.

The fact is the transmission fee helped offset what amounted to a steady drop in fees over the past 20 years. The Times has been paying most of its U.S. freelancers a $200 day rate. The basic day rate would have to be $367 just to keep up with inflation.

The Times effectively cut their day rate to $109 uninflated dollars simply by doing nothing for 20 years. For all intents and purposes, the fee elimination reduced the Times already low rates by more than a third. How would you like your paycheck chopped by 33%?

Meanwhile, Wall Street has rewarded the Times with a 1,600% increase in its stock value. (Source: CBS MarketWatch)

In a February letter to freelancers, Times' Photo Director Margaret O'Connor said that the paper hoped to raise rates "when economic conditions improve."

This from a company that last upped its day rates during Ronald Reagan's first term. Where were they for the Clinton Administration? If the longest economic boom in U.S. history wasn't an opportunity to increase rates, what is?

More than 500 freelancers from around the world signed a letter protesting the fee elimination. In a reply, O'Connor stated, "We are following a standard business practice of having independent contractors and freelancers be responsible for their own overhead, including equipment."

Uh, did I miss something? If clients don't pay for your business overhead then who does? The Times' corporate doublespeak machine is working overtime here.

The Times may have blinked in at least one case in which it offered an increase in the assignment fee equivalent to the transmission fee. They're sort of treading water by renaming the money.

I don't mean to single-out the fabulously profitable Times (nearly half a billion in 2001.) Well, maybe I do. But they are really just the current high-profile symptom of far-deeper problem in the freelance photography industry.

The fact is, many editorial photographers don't realize that they are running an independent business and must realize a profit to survive. Few know business basics. Fewer-still know when or how to say no to an assignment.

Freelancers who have been steeped in editorial culture and photographic technique operate nearly defenseless in the shark-infested waters of the business world. They think they're alone and editors encourage this belief.

Myth: "$200 a day. Wow, that's $1000 a week."

Well, no. Since benefits are typically 50% of base pay, it's more like $667 a week.

"That's still pretty good. That's almost $35,000 a year."

Nope, since freelancers work only 80-100 billable days a year if they're lucky, it's more like $13,340 a year. And we haven't even started talking about CDB, reinvestment of profits, supporting a family, etc.
What's CDB? I'll talk about that, plus why you're not alone and more next month.

The Bangor (Maine) Daily News, circulation 81,000, for tripling its freelance rates in 1998 to $300 per day for one-time rights. The Daily News doesn't currently use a blanket contract. It negotiates with its freelancers individually.

USA Today for its enlightened treatment of freelancers and for giving wire service photographers photo credits.

American Association of Retired Persons for the indemnification clause in an otherwise pretty fair contract. Deal breaker.

The New York Times for eliminating transmission fees.

The Washington Post for their all-media-forever-and-ever contract.

The Associated Press, for starting it all in 1998 with its rights-grabbing take-it-or-leave-it contract.

Reuters for its Work Made For Hire contract.

Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors Contracts Watch keeps tabs on freelancers' dealings with publications. Their stories are wonderful examples of the effectiveness of strength in numbers – even in the present economy. Check them out.

Common Cents is a new column I hope will educate, agitate and inform. It will be an unapologetic, opinionated, and often sarcastic advocate for freelancers. In the coming months I'll hook you up with resources and experts to guide your business. I'll also continue to list The Good, The Bad and The Ugly publications and their specific dealings with freelancers. (A tip of the cap to retired Newsday shooter Dick Kraus for the TGTB&TU name. Also to Paula Lerner who has been using it in her Business Issues lectures.) By the way, my mechanic just raised his labor rates to $89 an hour. I'm sure glad that I don't have to pay him those silly fees anymore.

ASJA Contracts Watch
Cost of Living Calculator
Editorial Photographers Outreach Program
Editorial Photographers Web site
Editorial Photographers Yahoo! Group
Freelance Photographers for the New York Times Yahoo! Group
New York Times Corporation profile
NPPA's Official Statement on Freelancers' rights
Portions of this column were originally written for the March edition of News Photographer Magazine.

© 2002 Mark Loundy

Mark Loundy is a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose, California.

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