How to Get a Publication to Pay You Without Going to Small Claims Court

This week we wrote about how journalists should be paid in the digital environment. Journalists being paid is a hot issue, especially since a lot of times, we’re asked to write for free or for exposure. That, too, is a loaded issue — sometimes it might be worth it, or it never, ever is.

And sometimes, we agree to do work for payment and never receive it. This is a classic freelancer dilemma and while most of you are, hopefully, sitting in newsrooms with a salary and benefits package and paid sick days, you never know when the shoe is going to drop and you need to pick up some work. Or, as is common in the digital environment, your contract allows you to write other sites every now and again, as long as you’re not competing with yourself.

Recently, I made a rookie mistake by taking on work for a start-up magazine. The work kept coming and the pay was in line with my experience and time. I won’t disclose the name of the publication (just to say it wasn’t this one), since the affair is — almost — concluded. But I did learn some lessons. Not about how to prevent this from happening again — there were contracts and tax information and all the legalese you can dream up.

So, short of a lawyer, who wouldn’t have been worth the sort-of small change I was owed,  and one step away from small claims court, here’s how I won my war.

1) Boomerang. If you haven’t installed this extension into your gmail, do it now. After back and forths with the one-person accounting department and eventually the publisher, who both promised on a daily basis that the proverbial check was in the mail, I got tired of hounding them. I’d already wasted a lot of time on features for them. So I simply composed two or three messages scheduled to go out two times a week and scheduled them to be sent on a continual basis. Did I spam them? Yes. Did it work? Sort of. I at least had a huge folder of written requests for payment and written, lies, assurances that checks were coming.

2) Social media. Perhaps I wasn’t leaning in enough, but I gave them the benefit of a doubt for about six months (don’t judge my passivity!) until I started to get really angry. I still wanted to be paid, and didn’t want to harass them, but I thought it was about time the world knew what was going on. When the publication tweeted a link to the newest content and a  brag about some partnership or something– I finally broke. I replied to their tweet saying that the issue looked great, and hoped the new partnership meant freelance coffers were going to be filled.

I felt a little like a bully. Until my phone rang an hour later asking me to take it down and confirming my mailing address. Use social media wisely; you don’t want to look aggressive, but get your message out there. Throw in an exclamation point, a compliment, even a neutral emoji. This is a sad truth. My hounding and polite attitude did nothing, and they pretty much called my bluff on a lawyer. Once it was public that they weren’t paying up, while looking for investors, stamps started to make their way onto envelopes.

3) Prepare for the worst. Like I said, I thought I had covered all of my bases when I took on the gig in the first place. Like a lover scorned, I’ll now be even more demanding before taking on new freelance assignments. I won’t write for start-ups, which is a bummer, because I believe in the idea of them. I might ask for partial payment before starting work, which will surely put some editors off. An e-quaintance of mine runs an online copy-writing company and recently released Small Business Bodyguard. It’s marketed to content writers and small e-business owners, but the information included is all a freelance journalist needs to protect themselves. There are other resources out there, even here on Mediabistro. Even if you’re a seasoned pro, don’t count on contacts, fellow journalists, or anyone to help you get what you’re owed. You have to look out for number one.

Have you ever hounded a publication on social media to pay you and it worked? Please tell me I’m not the only one!