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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
of Living Calculator
Photographers Outreach Program
Photographers Yahoo! Group
Photographers for the New York Times Yahoo! Group
Times Corporation profile
Official Statement on Freelancers' rights
Portions of this column were originally written for the March edition
of News Photographer Magazine.
© 2002 Mark
Mark Loundy is
a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose,