15 Years of Income as a Freelance Science Journalist

I’ve been pondering – no – obsessing over this post for longer than I’d care to admit. On the one hand, I think it would be very useful for people considering a career in science journalism to get a direct view of the field’s financial realities. Income is the elephant in the room whenever I talk to aspiring writers. Of course anyone can simply Google “average income science writer,” and find a set of figures, but are those numbers really correct? Do they apply to freelancers as well as staff writers? How much does it vary from year to year? Has the death of newspapers and decline of magazines changed it? The simplest way to answer all of those questions and more would be to open my own books. I’m a sample of one, but I can provide very detailed data for that one, and I consider myself pretty average in most respects.

On the other hand, I’m an American man. My culture has programmed me since birth to believe that my net worth is the primary, if not the only, determinant of my value as a human being. That message was filtered through the upbringing of a Southern gentleman, through which I also learned that it is impolite to discuss one’s income, or for that matter anything to do with money, in public. If you’re rich you’ll make people feel uncomfortable, and if you’re poor it’ll sound like you’re begging. Where I come from a man disclosing his income is in the same position as a woman posing nude; it’s only appropriate in very private settings. Yes, of course I know that’s all wrong. Valuing men for their money and women for their bodies are constructs of an oppressive patriarchy, and as an enlightened 21st century feminist moderate Democrat I should reject that paradigm … yadda yadda yadda.

But it still gives me the creeps, okay?

As a result, I usually answer questions about my income with vague comparisons or outright evasions: “Last year I made about as much as a public school teacher,” or “You can make a living at it, but don’t go into it for the money.”

Lately, though, I’ve decided that disclosing this information would probably benefit others more than it would harm me. So here are the data.

Inflation-adjusted profit from freelance science writing, 1998-2012.

Inflation-adjusted profit from freelance science writing, 1998-2012.

You’ll notice that I labeled the graph “adjusted profit,” not “income.” That’s because I run a business, and the appropriate way to think about business income is in terms of profit and loss. The “adjusted” part is adjusting for inflation. These figures are in 2013 dollars. I used the handy online calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics because I’m in the US, but analogous tools are available for other currencies.

Side note to all journalists: always adjust for inflation when comparing money figures over time. Otherwise you may crank out idiotic stories saying “Prices for X are at all time highs!” when in fact the price of everything is almost always at an all-time high.

Even after adjusting for inflation, the profit figures aren’t exactly comparable to income you might get from a regular paycheck. Every expense that’s directly related to my work is a business cost. If you’re on a salary and you buy a new home computer, your income doesn’t change. When I buy a new computer, it’s a business expense that reduces my total profit for the year by that amount. My Internet bill, a portion of my mortgage and home expenses (because my office is in my house), and other items also count against profit. That said, profit from my sole proprietorship is the closest analogue to income in the regular paycheck-based world.

I also rounded the figures to the nearest $10 to make it impossible to back-calculate my exact income to the dollar from this graph. If you’re planning to post similar data I suggest you do the same, as one’s income for prior years sometimes pops up as a “security question” for tax and banking purposes.

Having established where the numbers come from, what do they mean? What the hell happened in 2005, for example, and what about 2010? How does one adapt to an income that can swing up and down so wildly? What about health insurance and retirement savings? I’ll delve into those questions in a later post. Right now, I need to go put on some more clothes.