Worries of a freelance journalist

03 Mar

I love my job. I really absolutely and truly love love LOVE being a freelance writer and journalist. But sometimes I wonder whether I really want to do this for the rest of my life. No, let’s rephrase that: I quite often worry whether I will be able to do this kind of work for the rest of my life.

The freelance rates in South Africa have not changed for at least five years, people keep telling me, and that while expenses have gone up-up-UP dramatically:

  • Petrol (±R3.50 per liter when I arrived in South Africa in 2004, and over R8 about 6.5 years later)
  • Medical aid contributions (increase of about 15% per annum)
  • Rent (increase of 10-15% per annum)
  • Food (six years ago, R100 gave me bags full of groceries. Today R100 is nothing more than ‘petty cash’)
  • Electricity (my bill has pretty much doubled over the past three or so years, regardless of the fact that I switch off geyser during the day and despite the fact I have installed energy saving light bulbs. And guess what? Electricity will go up again this year, by 26% this year)
  • Inflation (which basically makes everything more expensive).

To make a monthly income of R9.000 a month (this is what I need to survive and to save a small amount) I have to produce between 4500 and 6000 words a month. This number of words depends on the client: some publications – the minority, let me tell you – pay the recommended rate of R2,50 a word* or more. Other pay no more than R1,50.

I can guarantee you that in three years from now, I will no longer be able to survive on R9.000 – which is quite tight as we speak (I am basically screwed when big expenses occur –  when my computer gets nicked for instance, or when my cat needs to go to the vet) but sufficient to sustain my lifestyle: I have no car, no kids, no mortgage, no credit card bills / study loan to pay off, and  have no debt.

Back to why I will not be able to live off R9.000 in three years time. Three to four years ago, I used to be able to live off R7.000 (AND save). This is no longer possible due to the reason I mentioned earlier in this blog (rent increases, power increases, food price increases, etc).

According to my calculations I will have to earn between R2.000 and R3.000 more a month in 2014 to make ends meet. And this, dear readers, means I will have to up my work load as I doubt the freelance rates will go up.

Of course, squeezing in one extra 1o00-word story (equivalent of R2000 to R3000) extra a month should not be a problem (assuming that my clients want more work from me, of course. What if they do not want to?), but what about 10 years from? Firstly, there is only so much one can do in a month without burning out like a piece of cheap charcoal. Secondly, there is only so much work available for us freelancers.

So what to do? Luckily I have more than one skill apart from news and feature writing. I do translating (from Dutch to English and vise versa), photography, I write reports, I have basic SEO skills, and am able to write press releases. Nevertheless the future worries me. And I doubt that I am the only freelancer in this position. Or am I? What are your thoughts?

*Recommended rate set by the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA)


Posted by on March 3, 2011 in Tales of a Freelance Journo


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11 responses to “Worries of a freelance journalist

  1. Kathy Malherbe

    March 3, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Miriam you are absolutely right. Our perceived value and our contributions are well respected amongst editors and publishers yet we get offered such low rates? We all have to take on alternative jobs to make ends meet whether it is translation or PR work etc. I also love my job and I like to do it well. In depth research, interviews and then writing. But it is very hard to do this when you are being paid R2.50 a word or even worse R1.50(I won’t work for R1.50). I am not sure what other Safreans feel but perhaps we should agree to a minimum rate? Sorry I missed the meeting last night. Thanks once again to the committee for working so hard to keep Safrea Western Cape going.

    • Miriam Mannak

      March 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Hey Kathy, No worries for missing it. Hope you can make it next time. I agree to work for one particular client (one of the magazine publishers) for R1.50 because I write four different publications and the stories are usually quite long. If I decide to put my foot down, I lose half (if not more) of my income. So it is a catch 22 situation. Editors usually have their hands tied and depend on the publisher’s willingness to increase fees. I really do not know what the solution is. Maybe, as SAFREA, we should talk to some of the publishers and explain them about our situation? I doubt whether they realize about the pressure we freelancers have to deal with.

  2. Tarryn Saunders

    March 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I enjoyed this article.

    As a freelancer only on the threshold of this strange career, I can certainly understand what you are saying. I am “officially” a freelance actress, but it appears you don’t get such things in Cape Town anymore, so of course one must find money, mentors and places to create one’s own work. And where the heck do you get that? So I’ve been doing freelance writing for a couple of years, and have found the biggest challenge is being exploited by publishers. I’ve been told “You don’t have a name yet. We aren’t a charity. You should be happy to work for free”, and other such delightful comments. So I have worked for free. A lot. Because I enjoy it and it’s part of my personal mission to flood SA with the arts. Yet I continually end up working at a loss. I cannot pay the rent, and I look great now because I lost weight when I was unemployed and hungry for a while. But how the heck is one supposed to have this “name” when we are only given a chance to create if we work at a loss?

    More time has to be put into soul destroying jobs (I type up transcripts of cigarette research forum discussions, and live with my parents in stifling middle-class suburbia).

    Young theatre makers and journalists feel rather discouraged, and a little sill for choosing this career path. But we lose weight, at least.

    • Makana Moon - Mike Loewe

      March 4, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Get smart people. I started freelancing in 1984. I’ve been up and down (both in greater extremes in recent years). But we never give up. We keep on being creative and looking for the next good opportunity — where our beautiful and totally nuts personalities fit perfectly with the work. I’m 51, I’ve started and sold, and built and broken, quite a few newspapers, agencies etc. And on the weekend I was standing outside our local Pick n Pay flogging my monthly community magazine — a skinny little thing but packed with writing — for R10 bucks! I thought I’d get an absolute thrashing, but I’ve sold over 100 copies and have a hundred or so more out in niched spots (couldn’t sell through PnP, no bar code). Was I discouraged? Hey I’m 51! But you got to get out there and face your demons. I had one or two mean comments, but mostly it was a positive marketing excercise. I now know I can sell my little media contribution for R5 — and it will work as one proddie in my basket. Let’s not be like the Unemployed People’s Union, who in my town, organised a fabulous protest — but doesn’t seem to be able to actually stand for the positions of councillors and have the power to see that shit buckets are replaced by flush loos, or proper lighting is put in to help prevent rape. The union is constantly approaching big daddy and asking for change. Let’s keep making change. And not small change! We are not really freelancers, or we are not only freelancers, we are small business people. Our passion for writing should not be our great undoing. We should always have our eye out for that money-spinning project. It helps only to believe in it, and helps bugger-all to disbelieve. Suspend disbelief and keep on cooooking! — Beste, Mike Loewe

      • Miriam Mannak

        March 4, 2011 at 10:39 am

        Hi Mike,
        Thanks for the comment. Of course we will never give up. Well, I won’t. The main point I wanted to make it that it seems unreasonable and unfair that freelance rates have not gone up over the past decade and that some of us, who do not have more than one skill, will be screwed in the end looking at how everything has become more expensive. But I agree: we need to continue to give back to society. And we need to start seeing ourselves as business owners.
        Mike, what is the name of your publication? Where can I find it?
        Warm regards,

  3. Louis Greenberg

    March 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Ditto for freelance editors, I’m afraid. And I’m in awe that you can make ends meet on R9000 a month, Miriam.

    • Miriam Mannak

      March 31, 2011 at 11:38 am

      Thanks Louis, for your comment.
      I am able to make ends meet because I do not have kids, a car, a mortgage, debt, a study loan that has to be paid off, a credit card, and store cards. I never buy things on credit. However, should I ever have kids / car / home, then I would not know how to do it, really.

  4. Janice Scott

    October 13, 2011 at 9:41 am

    I started freelancing when i was living in Welkom in the Free State around 1990. I had no telephone, no car, no fax and no typewriter. I had four children, a semi-supportive husband and lots of debit but i managed to get work published, which was always the first aim! Eventually we moved back to Johannesburg and i started freelancing for the Saturday Star newspaper on a regular basis, i did this for about five years and was moderately successful (i believe). Cheques always seemed to plop into my lap when i most needed them. However i was working full time for someone else, in a completely different sector and began to battle with the constant juggling of daytime job,freelance work involving telephone interviews, actual interviews, research and then all the hassles with four children, a divorce …. blah blah … suffice to say it all got too much and i eventually dropped the freelance writing side of my life, as it was only generating (then) about R2K to R3K a month, definitely not enough to live off. I currently need in the region of R15K out (i.e. after tax) to survive. I’m 59 and am now looking at going back into freelancing (cos you can’t ever get it out of your blood) or working really hard and actually FINISHING my damned book! I suggest you carry on with what you are doing because you are obviously getting regular work – are you multi-selling your pieces? i.e. dressing the same topic/interview up to suit different publications. You should also look at marketing freelance contributions to overseas markets, because the pay is way better.
    Best of luck!
    Janice Scott (Edenvale)

    • Miriam Mannak

      October 13, 2011 at 10:22 am

      I hear you Janice. Freelancing is quite tough. I do think I will have ton continue with it for a while as well, I have no other option in SA. I am a foreigner you see, and labour laws are quite tough in that respect (understandably so, by the way). Most fo the times, I enjoy my work. I do, but sometimes, panic strikes me in the face 🙂 I do have a regular set of clients, and sometimes I do write several stories about one topic (different angles, different sources, etc). I am looking for work overseas, but times are tough there as well. Anyway. At least I have an income 🙂
      What is your book about? When will it be finished you think?
      If you want to get back into freelancing, why not join the Southern African Freelancers’ Association?
      Thanks for the support and kind words of advice 🙂


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