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:
My first adventure of 2013 (hopefully the first of many) is going to San Francisco for about a week in February and March. I love the Bay Area will take any excuse to spend time there. I’ll be teaching some workshops at Makeshift Society, which I’m so stoked to finally check out. Here are the three crafty/DIY workshops I’ll be doing the first week of March:
Get Your Book Published
Monday, March 4, 6 to 7 p.m.
Do you have a killer book idea but don’t know how to get it published? I have plenty of practical advice for you. In this hour-long workshop, we’ll talk about:
- developing your book idea
- preparing a proposal
- finding an agent
- pitching it to publishers
- actually writing the dang thing
- how to make it a success
Cost: $30 per person ($25 for Makeshift Society members) — REGISTER HERE
Coptic Stitch Bookbinding Workshop
Tuesday, March 5, 6 to 7 p.m.
I’ll teach you how to sew a sketchbook in just one hour in this workshop. The coptic bookbinding technique is great for journals because the books lay completely flat when open and you can make them out of any paper you like. We’ll even send you home with a few essential tools and resources for binding books on your own.
Cost: $50 per person ($45 for Makeshift Society members) — includes all materials — REGISTER HERE
Zine Making Happy Hour
Wednesday, March 6, 6 to 8 p.m.
Kick off those heels, loosen your collar and come make a zine at Makeshift Society after work. These photocopied little magazines can be anything you want them to be — a manifesto, a bitchfest, an art project or a dream. We’ll provide the scissors, glue sticks, paper, ephemera, examples and wine — you bring your friends and your ideas.
Cost: $25 per person ($20 for Makeshift Society members) — includes all materials and lotsa wine — REGISTER HERE
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!
I found an old issue of this acerbic, New York-centric magazine for a dollar and fell in love with it. Got a good deal on this hardcover from Copacetic Comics in Pittsburgh!
Published: 2006, 304 pp.
Obtained via: Copacetic
Date started: 2.10.09
Date finished: 2.30.09
What I liked: The mid-’80s seem like such a heady time to start a magazine. The economy was good, and the technology was laughably low-tech. The founding editors, Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, are recognizable names now—Carter’s the editor of Vanity Fair, and Andersen is a novelist and the host of Studio 360. It seems like everybody who got in on the ground floor at SPY went on to do great things. Sounds like heaven.
I also loved the page scans of notorious articles, and the pranks the staff would pull using only a fax machine and moxie.
What I didn’t like: Once I finished reading, I remembered how dismal the current magazine industry is. Around 1993, the original staff had fled, and the last few years of the magazine were decidedly less funny, hence the title.
What I learned: Staying true to your ideals works for a while. But when the ride’s over, it doesn’t mean you stop moving.
Current word count: 27,818 (out of 30,000)
Trying not to freak out too much about the fact that my book is due in less than a MONTH. I’m starting to break down the remaining stuff to do into manageable chunks. I made up a calendar with weekly goals written on it, for example, my goal for this weekend is to polish up the introduction and first chapter and get the appendix done.
I’m taking a few days off of work in the next month to give myself more time to work on the book. I’m also trying not to completely get cut off from the rest of the world. (Sorry, friends!)
One big problem in getting done with the book is that I keep finding more people I want to talk to! Gotta stop that… After next week, promise.
PS: I’m not writing recaps of books I read for now, but I am still updating my list.
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. :)