We’re frequently hired at a per-word rate, but does that mean we must always be on Slack or attend virtual meetings? It depends…
The freelancing world has undeniably changed a lot in the last few years. It’s only been accelerated by the advent of AI, and every individual contractor out there is working hard to string enough gig work together to pay their rent, put their kids through school or ensure their animals are fed. As we face more layoffs in the media space and more highly skilled journalists go freelance, the market becomes more competitive. It’s simple supply and demand economics, right?
As the supply swells and corporate America continues to seek ways to make more money (but refuses to spend more on skilled and talented employees), freelance journalists are starting to feel the pinch. That means that in order to land a job or simply keep a client happy, many of us are taking lower paying gigs (sub $1-per-word rates are astoundingly common these days, even for VERY high profile publications), and get dragged into doing extra work, without additional compensation just to stay afloat–a thing I call “time creep.”
What is Time Creep?
Time creep is when a publication or client decides that now that they have you under contract, you’re obligated to be available to them at all times as if they are your only client. It frequently happens when there’s turmoil at a publication or company and often indicates that the client (i.e., your “boss”) feels insecure about their skills, job, or even the stories they’ve assigned you.
An Editor With a Planning Issue
For example, a friend and fellow freelance journalist recently told me a story about a client paying a flat fee of $400 per story. It’s relatively easy work. The editor at the publication assigns her a story brief, she does the reporting, turns it in on deadline, and makes one round of edits as requested–a standard deal these days
She’s highly skilled, has name recognition, has been in journalism for a long time, and has a bevy of high-profile bylines under her belt. She’s been looking for more steady freelance work for a while as a way to build a consistent base for those bigger stories she regularly lands, and this gig came to her.
On the surface, the deal makes good business sense because it makes the most of her time, allowing her to freely pitch other big swings and still keep a bedrock of consistent work coming in. She gets big bonus points for getting all of this in writing in a signed contract!
Recently her editor has decided that he wants her on content calls. Everything from story generation to scheduling calls and meetings come into her inbox. Since the client is new, she says she feels pressured to try and make at least a few of the meetings, but it’s cutting into the time she’s allocated for other clients and other pitches.
It’s also significantly cutting into that nominal $400 per story rate. The editor has also requested that she be available on Slack during business hours, even though she’s not getting any additional pay or benefits. She’s increasingly unhappy with the arrangement but reached out because she didn’t know what to do or how to handle it.
What to Do About Time Creep?
Check Your Contract
Notice any wording that includes some of the additional work you’re being asked to put in, whether it’s creating content ideas, or attending meetings that have very little to do with you; it pays to know what you have in writing.
Find Out Why Your Editor is Demanding More
Human beings don’t deal with stress well, no matter who they are or how strong their meditation practice may be (P.S. I teach meditation and yoga every single week on Zoom, so, yeah, I know.) It’s entirely possible that they got heat for assigning you a bad topic, or your story got tied up in internal politics. Take a breath, and remember that your editor (or client) is human and is probably having a momentary stress freak-out about something that is both well beyond your control and utterly unrelated to your work.
It may make sense to drop your editor a note (resist the urge to CC everyone angrily) on the side and ask why the project parameters have changed. Once you have more information, you can move on to the next step and decide how you want to move forward with the project. Remember (as one of my past, most favorite bosses used to constantly remind me); Business is not personal. Keep it professional.
Set Your Boundaries & Put it in Writing
Once you better understand what is going on with your editor/outlet/publication, it’s time to reset your boundaries and get it all in writing. If you’re willing to take on the extra work requirements after speaking with your editor, set those boundaries via email.
If, however, you’ve determined that the additional demands on your time don’t work for you, be clear about your boundaries, and what it will require from the client, should they want more of your time.
As an example, you could send an email like this:
Hi [Editor or Contact Name],
I really appreciate you clarifying why you need additional time from me, and I’m so glad we connected to discuss this.
As a freelancer, I juggle several clients and deadlines every week. It’s vital that I understand how your needs have changed from when I was onboarded so we can find the best way to work together.
I enjoy working with you, but because of these other obligations, and the current scope of work (contract), we have, I will only be able to do X (X being whatever you originally agreed to OR being what you discussed in another email or call regarding your work). Do you have any wiggle room in your budget to pay an hourly rate for those times when you want me to attend meetings or otherwise dedicate my time to this project?
Give your editor some time to respond to you with details and then handle their response accordingly.
One of the joys of being your own boss is the ability to set your own boundaries around work. That means that sometimes you have to have difficult conversations about time creep. It also means that sometimes you must fire a client and find a new one. Either way, remember that business is not personal and (as one of my favorite food YouTubers might say, “You are the boss of your own dross.”
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