A J-Source reader asked what he should look for in a freelance contract to make sure it is fair. Rebecca Collard, a Canadian freelance journalist working in the Middle East and North Africa, says understanding the business side of freelancing is sometimes the toughest part of the job and shares her advice. 

Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.

The question: I’m about to graduate from the journalism program at Thompson Rivers University and I have a question about freelance contracts. Do most freelancers have a stock contract that they modify as necessary, or do they predominantly rely on the contracts generated by the publications they are writing for? What are the sort of things I should watch out for in a contract to make sure it’s fair to me?—Travis Persaud.

Rebecca Collard is a Canadian freelance journalist working in the Middle East and North Africa since 2007. She has reported extensively on the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the impact of the Syrian civil war for CBC, BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian and Rolling Stone Middle East, among other international organizations. She is currently based in Beirut.

As a freelance journalist, sometimes the business side is the toughest part of the job and it is something journalism programs rarely prepare students well for.

Related content on J-Source:

In my experience, contracts are typically drawn up by the media outlets. Depending on the type of work and the organization, the contract may be for a one-off freelance contribution or a standing contract for on-going contributions. The contract should stipulate the amount you will be paid and, just as importantly, when you will be paid. You may find as a freelancer you spend a good chunk of your time chasing money you are owed. This can be very frustrating. A contract that stipulates when you should receive payment can be very useful in the case of a conflict. On top of that, it should outline publication rights for your work.

All that said, I’ve done most of my freelance work without a contract, particularly for non-Canadian outlets. It’s common when I accept a commission for a news or feature story that there is no contract and I will simply invoice when the piece is finished. Still, it’s best if you have the payment amount and some specifics of what you will provide in email, just in case there is a misunderstanding later. Generally, I haven’t found working without a contact problematic.

There has been no correlation between having a contract and how quickly I’m paid. Even when I have a contract that stipulates I will be paid within 30 days of publication, it can take months of harassing account departments to get the money. As long as the outlet is reputable, they usually have the intention of paying you, however that may take much longer than they should.

You should really look at this: http://www.beaconreader.com/pay-me-please. It’s a site where freelancers can list organizations that have not paid them—as a bit of a name-and-shame tactic. There are a scary number of major media outlets on there—including a couple of Canadian organizations—who are not paying their freelancers, so file with caution.

Got a question? The Canadian Association of Journalists will consult its members across the country to find the appropriate expert to craft a response to your question, which will then be posted on J-Source. Tweet @jsource your question with the hashtag #AskMentor or email your question to feedback@j-source.ca.

Related content on J-Source:

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.