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.
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:
Finished writing my book yesterday at 2:30 p.m. I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to be done. Well, you know, done aside from the rounds of editing coming over the next few months. Hurrah!
Current word count: 25,035 (out of 30,000)
A little more than a month left until my manuscript deadline, and I have reached my Jan. 1 goal of 25,000 words a few days early! It’s incredible to see the progress I’ve made. The book still has some holes and placeholders, but my to-do list is manageable, and the end is in sight. Of course, after I turn in the manuscript in February, there’s still a few months of editing to come. :)
Talked to more awesome crafters, and after copying and pasting integrating their quotes, I am very near my Dec. 1 goal of 20,000 words!
Current word count: 19,843 (out of 30,000)
My to-do list is still very long, but I feel positive about where the book’s going as the deadline creeps ever nearer. The manuscript is due Feb. 10, and ideally I’d like to be able to turn in something in really good shape, so maybe I’ll aim to hit 30,000 words by January 1 so I have a few weeks to revise and edit.
Probably the biggest thing on my list is contacting the organizers of major indie craft shows. I’d been waiting on that because craft show season is in full tilt right now. But if I wait too long, I’ll be hitting the holiday season when (presumably) people aren’t going to want to be doing interviews. Conundrum!
Crafty Superstar: Turn Your Crafts into Extra Cash, Keep Your Day Job, and Basically Have It All will be released in November 2009! And I have even more exciting news:
Current word count: 14,953 (out of 30,000)
I powered through today, integrating tons of quotes from interviews to try to hit my goal of 15,000 this weekend, and it worked! After hitting the halfway point, I just have to write about 5,000 words in November, December and January to hit my manuscript deadline (with a week or two for revisions in there, too).
I’ve been talking to so many amazing people for this book, and my list of crafters I want to talk to still keeps growing! If you happen to know a biz-savvy part-time crafter, let me know. :)