Rates for the job – will they drop even further?

Update: in writing this post I’ve come up with the idea of a subs’ workshop in digital skills – if you’re familiar with the rates argument, skip to the end of the post to find out more and let me know what you think of this potential skill-sharing idea.

Today on a London freelance subs group/forum I belong to, a row broke out about sub-editor day rates. A well-known music magazine posted a temporary contract, offering a rate of £110 a day. This was followed by general admonishment as the standard day rate is around £130 (and has been unhappily stuck at this level for about a decade).

Unusually, no one spoke up in favour of the contract/rate – normally there is at least one person arguing the defence.

The outraged subs, quite rightly, made sure not to blame the poster but wanted him to communicate that the rate was unacceptably low and suggested that their response be passed up the line to the budget-holders. They also called out for other subs in the group not to accept the rate.

But it is a slim hope.

There is no longer a strong union in journalism and there is no real solidarity over freelance rates.

The bottom line is that some out-of-work freelancer probably snapped up the low-paid contract soon after posting. After all, some work is better than none at all. Food on the table over morals, and all that.

The standard response to these low-rate employment deals is: ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’ Which is probably true although it’s cold comfort in a self-employed world.

Perhaps media companies are cynically testing the water with lower rates – after all, they are not in business to play fair. Or perhaps they are dealing their own budget pressures – a classic print music magazine is surely facing both falling circulation and shrinking ad revenues.

I’m not trying to sort out the rights and wrongs of today’s rates storm. I’m just wondering where it is all leading. I find myself asking:

Do the rules of supply and demand apply anymore in a world which is undergoing a publishing revolution and a “mass-amateurisation of everything” (Shirky). And is it ultimately inevitable that there is a downward price pressure on print subs’ day rates?

Like rising and falling share prices, there seems to be an upper and lower resistance level to subbing day rates. Today the lower level was breached at £110. But like falling shares in a financial crisis, I worry that this resistance may give way to further falls. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

I don’t know the answers.

Two of the reasons I moved into web editing from sub-editing were the slump in demand for freelance print subs circa 2008 and a rise in the number of awkward situations where I was competing with my long-time subbing friends for work.

I’m happy that traditional market forces are in play for digital content work. There are currently not enough skilled people to service the new world in which everyone is a publisher. (More on that in a post I edited for a content recruiter’s blog on content growth areas and talent shortages: Europe in crisis but digital jobs remain a bright spot.)

All I know is that, when I started freelance subbing in 1989, the rate on my local paper was £65 a day. This jumped up to £110 for consumer mags in 1992, and then plateaued for many years, before rising to £130 around 2000. It’s been stuck there as a base rate ever since.

And this is a freelance rate – with no employee benefits or holiday pay (unless you’re booked on a long contract).

It’s no wonder experienced subs are leaving the profession or are desperate to re-skill and find work in the digital arena.

To this end, I’ve been thinking that there is a workshop in this that I could run to help other freelance subs make the transition. I’ve been working in digital since 2000 and went full-time in 2009. To keep up with the skills, I now train myself each week (using cake – but that’s another story).

I’m also thinking long-term how great would it be to recreate the freelance subs’ community with a connected team of skilled, reliable and readily available freelance digital editors.

If we can find a venue in London (available on a weekend as I live outside of London), and can get a group of up to five subs together, would anyone be interested in attending a low-cost half-day digital skills workshop?

What would you like to know? What are your questions? [Please email me at fionacullinan at hotmail dot com with your details so I can start a list of interested people and find out what they want to learn about.]

It would be great to hear your thoughts.

26 responses to “Rates for the job – will they drop even further?

  1. Gwennan Thomas

    I’d potentially be interested – please keep me updated.


  2. The corporate world pays around £150 a day to subs and proofreaders. More if you’re an expert in the field or know the company inside out.

  3. @Gwennan – if you email me, I’ll start a potential attendee list. It would be good to know where you’re at with digital and if there is anything specific you’d like to cover? It makes sense to inform a workshop around direct questions/needs.

    @Alison – You’re right, corporate rates tend to be higher. Do you find this is standard or a rate you have to push for?

  4. I would be interested in a digital course

  5. I may be interested in this. Please keep me posted.

  6. I was shocked earlier today to see the production editor – acting, because the cheapskates at XXX obviously don’t want any permanents on their books – return to the forum to say that he kad filled the slot many times over and asked for people to stop emailing him. It’s turkeys voting for Xmas, no wonder the newspapers found it so easy to get rid of subs.

  7. Workshop would be interesting.

    I enjoyed your post, Fiona. It chimes with my experience. You pinpointed 2008 as the date when the tide turned against print subbing, and I think you got that right.

    I’d been a freelance in a senior position at IPC for eight months that year when I was invited to an editorial meeting (they’d forgotten I was freelance) and it was announced that holiday cover and staff numbers were being slashed to the bone. They’ve been slashed further since then and in 2009 I worked there for less than a week. The trend has continued everywhere I’ve been, from contract publishers to the Mirror.

    I now publish two blogs (one’s a CV portfolio) and I’m constantly looking to expand my know-how. Digital must be the future.

  8. I would be interested in doing a half-day course on digital skills for subs. Mainly because I want to know what what are digital skills are necessary for sub-editors.
    On the subject of fees, I’ve been paid between £130-£150 per day. But given that there seems to be little freelance subbing work available for those new to freelancing, like myself I was tempted by the £110 job.
    Yet £110/day is far more than some freelance sub editors and copy editors charge. I’ve seen freelancers charge as little as £7.50 per hour (http://bit.ly/y4KQ97) through sites like oDesk.com.

  9. @Seth – “turkeys voting for Xmas” – great line.

    To be honest I’m a bit over the ranting about rates, mainly because as you can see from my own f/l subbing rates, the argument has been going on a very long time and the rates are still falling. The last time I remember thinking ‘wow, this is a great rate for a great job’ was around 1992 tbh.

    But I value a good sub and what they do, and see the falling rates more as a call to move on. I’m not sure the heyday will ever return of turning down work left, right and centre but I’m sure there are opportunities in digital and it would be great to have a reliable new list of freelance contacts to call on or share the work with.

    Sadly, when I’ve been in a position to commission, there’s been a skills gap. Either the young ‘uns don’t have the subbing skills (but are getting work because they have online writing skills) or the experienced subs can’t show that they have online experience (it’s not enough to say you can write for the web or ‘do SEO’, you have to show that you are online so I can see that you practise it). I particularly like personal blogs because it’s implicit that the blogger will understand all kinds of back end stuff and it’s easy to see how engaging they are, standards of accuracy, linking style, etc.

  10. Re a Saturday workshop – if interested people can email me fionacullinan at hotmail dot com with their details and what they want to know, I’ll see how much overlap there is for content.

    It may be that individual one-to-one sessions work better.

    Or a group therapy approach of sharing knowledge.

    My caveat is that I’m not a trainer – I’m quite shy actually – but I am a sub who’s ‘gone digital’ and it pains me to see good subs scrambling for work.

  11. I have fully switched to digital copywriting and editing since 2009 (but did a bit before that when working inhouse). My gripe is that all the reasonably paid work I can see advertised is inhouse. I did work for an ad agency abroad for over two years on big brand campaigns but now these are over, I cannot find as much flexibility in the UK. I can work nights, weekends, meet the deadlines, but cannot offer 9-5 on a daily basis (and commuting time on top).

    I am surprised that since there is a shortage of people with sound digital skills, employers are still so inflexible. I now live in Cambridge and have a child in school so cannot commute to London (where most of the jobs are) as I’d have to be back here by six even with extra childcare. At present I do a lot of indexing as it’s very flexible and my company pays promptly.

    There is still a mentality of ‘bums on seats’ while the technology has moved ahead and made remote working so easy. The only jobs I can see advertised where remote working is acceptable are through freelance sites offering dire rates.

    There is no digital bliss for the homeworker, rates are even lower than subediting!

  12. Well said and am definitely interested in the half-day course.

  13. @Richard – looking at your website link, you seem to be pretty digitally aware already.

    I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t think there are discrete jobs as a ‘digital sub’. It’s more that subs have natural quality control skills that can be adapted for the new digital jobs.

    Eg I am getting work as a digital content editor/producer. I’ve had to revisit my writing skills, use my subbing skills, and I’ve had to learn new multimedia skills, eg, picture research/manipulation, looking at web analytics, SEO, basic HTML, and taking more of an editor’s or mentoring role to brief bloggers/writers who aren’t familiar with publishing.

  14. @simone I hear you – but maybe decently paid jobs aren’t advertised but come through word-of-mouth connections in the same way subbing work often did.

    I’m not sure how unique my position is but I now freelance from home after earning my stripes in-house at a digital agency. If I lived in London, I’d probably have to be in the office full-time. My other freelance work started when I went to a conference on content strategy and met a recruiter who needed someone to take care of her business blog.

  15. Kirsten Foster

    Count me in. I had some experience ‘subbing’ on digital platforms in the mid-Nineties – yes, prehistoric times when an animated gif was exciting, but not much since then. I suppose I want to know how I can sell myself – what skills I already have that can be repurposed and what’s most important to learn first.

  16. @Fiona: Thanks for your comments. While I can handle Photoshop, basic HTML and CMS systems, my concern about working in the digital environment is that different employers seem to have different expectations of what subbing for online involves; and I have no clear idea of what services I need to offer and which I should improve upon. And, frankly, most sub-editors I speak to have no idea either.

  17. @Richard – I think it probably is dependent on the job and the employer so it makes sense to cover a number of bases.

    We have a subs team where I work and they have basically been trained in SEO. But I think there is a lot more to it than this.

    In subbing terms, it is like getting a freelance gig at a whole new publication – there are restrictions on headline, intro and copy length and style, different tone/voice, structure of the content is an issue, link strategy may need to be edited in, anchor and alt text will probably need writing, suitable illustration may have to sourced, and all elements checked and styled as usual.

    Does that cross with your experience? Or are you finding they are asking for other skills?

  18. Not sure if this is useful but here is my list of web editing skills from my work site – this is everything I could think of from the work I do, and I think there are big overlaps with print subbing:

    Web editing – the production side of online comms: briefing, creating, structuring, editing, SEO, linking, anchor text, alt text, picture research, image manipulation, legal checks, calls-to-action, optimising for various platforms, metadata, version control, sign-off, uploading, HTML, CMS, scheduling, quality checks and sharing.

  19. Hi Fiona – thank you for making this positive response to such a frustrating situation! I’d definitely be interested in such a course.

  20. @Fiona: The tasks you listed are those that I expect online subs would have to handle. But I’ve worked for employers who have just want the main body of the online article proofread, those who denied that online copy had to be subbed at all, and seen adverts for online sub editings jobs that list PHP, CSS and XHTML skills as necessary to get the job. And that was before iPads and apps became popular.

    As for “Rates for the job – will they drop even further?” this job advert that arrived in my inbox earlier today answers your question:

    Role – Sub/Copy Editor
    Location – Houndsditch
    Duration – 13 weeks
    Salary – £10 per hour

  21. Hello Fiona, how are you? Thanks for your positive response and I would also be interested in a digital course. I’ve been writing and editing rather than subbing but I can see lean times ahead! Regarding that NME ad, the “Please, please, no more CVs” was, as someone put it so succinctly, a ‘bitchslap’.

  22. Hi Fiona,

    Thanks for all this. I am an experienced print sub but have html/blogging/digital skills too. I would be most interested in a workshop.

    Please could you add me to any list you are compiling.

    Best wishes, Caroline

  23. Thanks everyone for the comments and emails.

    There seems to be a lot of interest in skilling up. About 15 subs/writers have got in contact – from newbie up to blogging, HTMLing types currently working in digital.

    I’m thinking it may make sense to split the levels up – eg, a two-hours intro to digital skills (workshop style, covering some of the basics) followed by perhaps also a more advanced one – although, because of people’s different experiences, this one might be best done as a moderated round table discussion or a sort of group therapy session?

    I’ll out together a few questions this coming weekend and see if I can narrow this down a bit more. Or add your thoughts here.


  24. I can throw in some copywriting digital skills if we have a skills share. I have been mostly writing articles and commercial copy for websites. I tag/moderate video content for a website. And also do indexing for an academic company that sells online abstracts, so I’m into keywords (quality keyword work, not ‘stuffing’).

    If, like me, you’d like to build your own portfolio website, I have written down some basic info into an article, including SEO tips:

  25. Hi there, I too would be interested in the course you are proposing. I find the debate very interesting, most of my work has been in print subbing and writing but I do a little digital subbing also and would like to improve my skills in that area.

  26. I am more involved in writing at the moment, but I really would like some online skills. I’ve written a few short features for a now defunct site (Disney), and had to pull out key words. I don’t know what I would want the course to consist of – if you haven’t much experience in an area you don’t know what you need/or don’t need. Although I would like to take advantage of the blog capabilities of having my own domain name. Despite using the internet all day every day, it’s never to do anything outside my comfort zone. I’m very open to whatever you think would be relevant. Thanks Fiona.