Working for Free? Someone’s Got to Get Paid

two dollar bill

I’ve been thinking a lot about getting paid lately. Not only because I’ve been a self-employed editor and writer for the last six months, but because the internet blew up this week over an incident in which The Atlantic asked a writer to adapt a hella long story for zero dollars. Freelance writers went into conniption fits; magazine editors went into damage-control mode. (As far as I can tell, the people who actually control the budgets stayed out of the fracas.) Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic shrugged with his response piece saying “the biz ain’t what it used to be.” But I disagree with one of his main points: The digital journalism world isn’t what sucks — the entire journalism business model sucks.

The outrage moved from Twitter onto this epically long Branch started by Choire Sicha called “How Much Should A Writer Be Paid, If Anything?” But that’s not the right question. A better question is: How do people who create things for a living convince the public to pay for content that is valuable to them? How do providers of editorial services convince publishers that our work is worth paying for?

Editorial content is the whole point of a publisher’s business, and, yet, the outfits that can afford to pay at least $1 per word (which seems like the tipping point of profitability for freelance writers) are by far in the minority. The biggest magazines and blogs have staff writers or reporters, but such a luxury is a dream for most publishers. Full-time staffers are awfully expensive, and many publishers have already doubled or tripled the workloads of their editors. So we get more churnalism, more aggregation, more noise and less meaning. The quest for ever-growing traffic drives publishers to (generally) go for quantity over quality in online articles. But when advertising sales or monthly unique impressions decline, the whole business model collapses. Editorial budgets shrink, web presences decline, print publications shutter. Ad infinitum.

The Atlantic’s sorry-not-sorry response keeps coming back to the idea that people should be able to work for free if they want to. That’s so not the point. Coming up with acceptable excuses for not paying people does nothing to fix the faulty journalism business model that relies on a bottomless pool of people who aspire to be writers and are willing to work for peanuts.

On the Branch thread, some people make a distinction between the work that goes into “reported” writing. Being a freelancer is sexy. Being a reporter is just hard work. My main freelance gig right now is as a copy editor for a Capitol Hill newspaper that publishes a print paper as well as constantly pushes news items out on the web. What its reporters excel at is finding information no one else has; we’re talking about wearing out shoe leather like an old-school reporter in the movies. Though you can’t own facts, that kind of reportage seems inherently more valuable than a post explaining when the Oscars are being televised. But how do you calculate the ROI on editorial quality? Publishers like hard numbers, and that’s most likely going to be circulation or unique visitor stats.

Opening up the can of worms about who pays what feels like a good first step to fixing the business of journalism. (Who Pays What is a Tumblr you need to follow.)  Transparency helps freelancers know the marketplace bettere, and sharing strategies will help all editors and publishers see what business models work (I hope). It’s interesting that some of the publishers on the Branch thread are saying they allocate a certain standard percentage of their overall budget for freelance editorial expenses. (I really wish we could look at the business models for all of these startups trying to make the focus of their publishing business the actual editorial content:

So what’s the solution? I think it’s the idea of patronage. I subscribe to the New York Times Sunday edition so I get the big issue on the weekend and unrestricted access to the website, but also because I believe in the newspaper’s work and I don’t ever want to see it go away. I donate to my local NPR station for the same reason. Being a subscriber to a magazine, newspaper or website is a transaction. Being a patron is a partnership. When we convince the public that editorial content is valuable, publishers will follow suit.

tl;dr: Subscribe to a damn magazine or newspaper or website. Someone’s got to pay.

Bonus

I started making this list of the bess kiss-off responses to people asking you to work for free a long time ago, and it seems like a great time to put it up:

4 comments

  1. Lauren Venell

    Fantastic post, Grace! As a creative professional (though not a writer) I experience this all the time and none of us seems to know the answer yet. Though I also support the media outlets I appreciate through subscriptions, etc. it’s just one small part of the problem. There’s also the issue (with digital content in particular) that demand for online content is too far ahead of most publishers’ ability to monetize it, as well as the argument you mentioned in paragraph 4–that people should be able to work for free if they want to–which is most often used by for-profit companies to justify pressuring creatives for free content in exchange for “exposure.” This argument in particular caused a huge brouhaha during Amanda Palmer’s last tour when she asked for volunteer musicians. The backlash was so great so that eventually she announced she would pay them after all. On the content provider side, creative professionals need to take more control of their worth by consistently rejecting exploitation like this. The No!Spec project is one good example of how creatives are banding together to fight back.

    Final note: thank you for sharing the Who Pays What tumblr. I wasn’t aware of this before. You might also want to look at the Show Me the Money series Eleanor Hanson Wise of @thepresentgroup did for the SFMoMA blog (full disclosure, I did the infographics). It would be great if we could somehow pull all of these resources together into one solid database.

  2. Pingback: #freelancechat | grace dobush

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