The Writers Who Aren’t Getting Paid

The argument over people writing for online media outlets without compensation has been going on for a long time, but it recently became more pronounced thanks to a highly publicized email exchange between freelance journalist Nate Thayer and an editor at the Atlantic website. TL;DR: She asked if he’d be willing to edit down a piece he published elsewhere so she could run it as an Atlantic blog post—noting, “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month”—and he strongly objected to that offer; to paraphrase his subsequent comment to an interviewer, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

Over the next few days, it’s felt like everybody’s had a response to this incident. Another digital editor at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal, sympathizes with Thayer—having been a struggling freelance writer himself—but argues that, right now, the best business model online media’s been able to come up with is one that puts writers at serious disadvantage. “In most cases, even great reported stories will fizzle, not spark,” Madrigal writes, speaking specifically of the traffic those stories generate and the extent to which they sell ads. “They will bring in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 visitors. You’d need thousands of these to make a big site go.” And who can afford to pay for, and publish, thousands of those stories?

“Even a small blog, with one person at the helm, is going to need, say, 100-150 posts a month,” he continues. I think this is debatable, but it’s definitely a model that’s out there for a certain type of news/issue-oriented blog, so let’s go with it. Next, I’m going to toss some numbers out here, rather than the specific numbers he uses: Let’s say a 250-word blog post is worth $40-50, and go up to $100-150 for a longer (500-600 words) piece, of which you’ll run one a day, and we’ll assume 20 publishing days to a typical month. If you relied strictly on freelancers, this could put your monthly editorial budget anywhere between $5200 and $9500—although since you’d be likely to set aside at least one-third of the blogs to be produced in-house, let’s say $3500 to $6300 a month. Can you guarantee your advertisers $6300 worth of visibility each month? And keep in mind: I’m just talking about pieces that are no longer than a typical magazine sidebar or, at most, a one-page article—we haven’t even come close to the longform journalism of which Thayer’s article would have been an example.

Madrigal explains the shortcomings with this model well, and as the conversation gets around to “well, what if we didn’t pay some of the writers?” he offers some justifications, including exposure—later in the week, in a separate Atlantic post, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted upfront he’d accepted exposure in lieu of cash for his earliest appearances at that blog, and he was upfront about why it worked for him: “I could not convince editors that what I was curious about was worth writing about. Every day I would watch ideas die in my head… What the internet offered was the chance to let all of those ideas compete in the arena, and live and die on the merits. And [The Atlantic] was offering a bigger arena.”

As I was sitting here thinking about how to frame my take on this, I realized that within the last week I’d actually written two short essays, each in the neighborhood of 500 words, and given them to the publishers of a book I’d edited (Bedroom Roulette) to be published on other websites in order to promote the book’s release. So, yeah, here I am, smack dab in the “will write for expsoure” camp—although neither of the sites for which I wrote was ad-supported, a point that comes into play in just a bit.

I’ve actually worried about this a lot from the perspective of somebody who publishes unpaid contributions from “guest authors” in Beatrice on a regular basis and does earn some revenue (though nowhere near a self-sustaining amount) from advertising. As someone who does not envision himself writing for corporate media for free—and I’m thinking specifically of sites like The Huffington Post that have gotten rich off of content the majority of which they didn’t have to pay for—I’ve grappled with the legitimacy of turning around and asking people if they’d be willing to write up to 700 words for Beatrice for free. (One of the reasons I’ve pinned hope on monetizing Beatrice in recent years, in fact, has been the desire to bring in enough to return to those contributors and offer a retroactive fee, or to apply that fee to a donation to a literary non-profit, and then to pay contributors moving forward. Already, though, again going by a $100 rule of thumb, that tab would run over $25,000, which can make me feel like I’m just daydreaming.)

I spoke to my friend John Scalzi about this last week, because he’s someone who has very forcefully argued against writing without getting paid while running a series of unpaid “guest posts” called “The Big Idea” at his blog, Whatever, and I wanted to get his thinking on the issue. He noted that Whatever isn’t a commercial blog, and not running any third-party ads at all, which mitigates the concern that he’s raking it in off Big Idea writers without getting paid—and he also observes that such essays, appearing around the time the contributor’s latest books are being released, have become “a natural part of the publicity cycle, in which authors make themselves available to promote their books and that work is seen as having a direct benefit in terms of sales and awareness of that specific book.”

(In his Atlantic post, Coates noted that when you see a group of authors/experts/scholars engaged in a “roundtable discussion” online, it’s quite likely that they aren’t getting paid for their participation, either—just as they aren’t typically paid to appear on television news programs to be interviewed. This can also be “a natural part of the publicity cycle,” although it’s not always about promoting a specific release.)

Scalzi makes two other points I think are significant in this context: “Rather than seek out people to write for the site, I let people know slots are available if they want them,” he told me. “Which is to say they make an affirmative decision that it’s worth their time and energy rather than me trying to convince them.” If nobody’s coming forward to write Big Idea pieces, he doesn’t actively solicit contributors—he just lets the series go into quiet hiatus until writers start checking in again.

Furthermore, he observed, “I also think people generally believe that I am letting them borrow my audience to talk about their book, rather than using them writing about their book to build my audience.” He didn’t start posting “Big Idea” pieces until well after Whatever had become a prominent blog with a strong core audience. “This seems like it could be a trivial distinction, but I don’t think it is when all is said and done,” he said, and I think that’s absolutely right—and I also believe that one of the reasons Scalzi and I have both been successful at building audiences (though he much more than I) is that, in addition to our own strongly formed perspectives, we’ve been willing to share other perspectives that capture our attention with readers, not in a bid to boost traffic, but just because we find them interesting and we hope someone else might, too.

But a writer with a personal blog letting other writers “borrow my audience” is a very different thing than a corporate media website letting other writers “borrow their audience” and then collecting revenue off what those writers contribute. And, of course, I can’t strictly speaking call Beatrice a personal blog. So, as I say, I continue to grapple with these questions as the editor and publisher of Beatrice, and in the meantime I’m grateful for every writer who does choose to share something here with readers.

As a writer, though, I don’t know what the “answer” is to the bigger question at stake—I know that I’m making an effort to focus on professional situations that adequately reward me for the skills and experience I bring to the table, and I encourage any other writer to do the same. But the choices I’m making along the way may be different than the ones you make, and the “reward” isn’t always about money… although, at some point, if writing is going to be more than just a hobby, it has to be.

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9 March 2013 | theory |