Is Lower Pay for Web Writing Defensible?

Jan 212010
 

silhouetteMaybe the magazine editor was just talking off the top of her head, but when I read it, steam came out of my ears.

In a story in the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ newsletter, by Stephanie Stiavetti, the editorial director of a national food magazine spoke of writing opportunities on her magazine’s website:

“There’s a lot of fear and concern…the move to user-generated content will impact those who made their living writing for print, but it has also opened up new opportunities for bloggers.”

Oh yes, we know all about that, how links are the new currency, and dwindling opportunities for freelancers. The article continues:

“How much quality can you expect from an uncompensated writer who may not be willing to put a lot of effort into an unpaid gig? ‘A lot,’ says the editor, who plans to use guest bloggers in the future: ‘We’ll be selecting the people we feel have the same level of accuracy and integrity that we would expect from our own writers.’

“The editor believes that (her magazine) has a lot to offer bloggers beyond money. “It’s exposure. Our Web site is one of the top twenty food sites in the world.”

(I’m making her anonymous because I don’t want hate mail directed at her. She’s not the first to say this.)

So the editor wants professional bloggers for the website, but they should work for free because her site gets a lot of hits. Hey, maybe she can apply that logic to the print magazine and stop paying professional writers there too, because her magazine has lots of of subscribers.

When I emailed the editor about her comments, she said the piece was misleading, that so far the magazine’s website columns are written by staffers. But when I pressed her about pay for freelancers online, she did not respond. Meanwhile, another magazine editor quoted in the story said she paid bloggers less than print writers for original content.

Should bloggers should be paid the same as print writers to create original content? (If so, Steph wrote that Sunset pays the same rate.)

  35 Responses to “Is Lower Pay for Web Writing Defensible?”

  1. I can’t help but wonder if Internet writing would pay more if the economy hadn’t failed at about the same time social networking took off. If social media had blown up four years ago, would online writers be making a fair wage?

    How do editors expect us to survive at this rate?

    • Maybe some of it is the idea that bloggers are not professionals, so therefore they shouldn’t be paid as much as freelance writers. But that is changing quickly, and many bloggers are now successful in print as well.

      When I was an editor, I didn’t think about whether people could survive on what I paid them. That was their problem. Some writers were willing to take less, and that’s what they got.

  2. I agree that it’s not the editor’s problem to think about whether people can survive on what they’re paid. The onus is on the writer to value their craft and insist on a rate that reflects what they’re worth.

    I make my living as a writer. Blogging is one of my deliverables, and I have a number of corporate clients that I blog for. I charge the same rate for blogging that I would for corporate writing, because that’s exactly what it is. And if a client isn’t willing to pay it – or wants to pay me in links, or exposure, or whatever – then they can find another writer.

    • In an ideal world, this is a great answer, but it does not truly work. They will just go find someone who will do it “for less”, and there are a lot of people who just want the exposure or links, or who will take less money than you.

      Unless everyone who writes the material they want agrees to say “NO”, which isn’t going to happen, it will be hard to get paid well to write for someone who has decided it should be cheap, free, or exchanged for exposure, because they always find someone they like in the end for cheap or free.

      The problem is that the internet has trained people to think stuff on the web is free, reducing its value, so they do not want to pay for it. Controlled circulation magazines, which are given away free, also ask for free content. It happens in print too!

      • I see your point. Magazines charge per issue and charge for subscriptions, but they give away content on the web for free. Therefore, writers have less value online.

        • But the money made from ad revenue is ridiculously high – if Heidi makes so much from 101cookbooks, can you imagine the money that sites like Saveur and Bon Apetit make?

          • I don’t know how much they make. It would be interesting to find out. I don’t think it’s as much as you imagine.

  3. I think a big problem is that some people are willing to work simply for links and companies are going for the lowest bidder.

    • Agreed.

      What I wonder about is why someone who writes for the web should be paid less than someone who writes for print. Is it just because readers can link immediately to the writer’s blog or website? In print there’s just a byline or bio sentence at the end of the article. Or do print writers usually need more credentials, and are therefore worth more?

  4. If such a site can get truly comparable writing for free, I can’t blame them for using it. In an ideal world, these good writers would realize they should be paid for their work and leave the mediocre to take free gigs. And while I know exactly nothing about the inner workings of online food mags, I can imagine that this process of realization (“Hey, I might want some money for this!”) leads to a lot of turnover. Then again, it’s the Internet, and the masses probably wouldn’t notice the lineup changing every few months.

    This same “exposure” argument gets thrown around the web design community by cheapskate clients constantly. “If you do this site for free (or cheap) I’ll link to you, and you will get a bunch of business!” Veterans know not to go for it. The young folks to the game buy into it, and it undercuts everyone else, but in the end the client is almost never left with a quality product. If this parallel to food writing holds, I suspect the resulting magazine will not be special.

    • Yes, it’s still a relatively new model, so editors are trying to figure it out, and I agree, there’s got to be turnover as they try things. It’s their job to create a quality product, regardless of what comes in.

  5. Some Bloggers simply have bigger audiences than freelance writers. The currency for the magazine is the bloggers “network” and yes, they’re “cheaper.” There is a reason why newspapers and magazine across the country are struggling selling “print” because the readers are on or moving more to “online”. One final note, food critics will be slowly be losing audience interest because restaurant patrons will be relying on restaurant reviews made by the public and, guess again, bloggers.

  6. I’m trying to figure out what she means by “professional bloggers”! Bloggers who live off of their blog writing? I think that if a publication has a going pay rate then it should be clear before someone submits an article so either the writer/blogger can simply refuse to submit because the pay is not what they expect or so they can negotiate (as Eagranie said). There is also something to be said for publisher/editor integrity: do they expect the same quality, the same work and research behind an article for on-line publication as they would for paper publication? Then why pay less?

    If an editor does not want to pay for an article then they should publish what I assume would be considered a “non-professional blogger”: there is a multitude of talent out there among the previously unpublished. And many of us who desire to go pro would gladly write for little or no pay, simply for the exposure and experience.

  7. You said it yourself – surviving on whatever pay a writer gets is the writer’s problem not the editor’s. At least savvy bloggers know how to generate income through ads and other revenue sources on their sites. What do print writers do to earn more income?

    • They have full-time jobs, part-time jobs, they teach cooking classes, they write books, they take corporate work — you name it. It’s a struggle.

  8. It comes down to platform and pr doesn’t it? It’s maddening. A new writer whose product is top quality SHOULD be paid the same for online and print content, but she might be more willing to accept less for the exposure opportunity. One of the ways magazines bring in new subscribers is through their websites. If they are looking for (and getting) the same quality of writing online as in print, they should pay for it. Period.

  9. I guess I’ve been in the writing business too long, but I can see promise and pitfalls on both sides here.

    When I started (more years ago than I like to admit), I said there were three phases to being a writer: unpublished, unpaid, and unknown. The blogosphere offers far lower barriers to entry to young writers than I ever faced. That’s a good thing.

    As for getting people to write for free, there’s been something in the newspaper business for years called a “fetcher.” That’s when an editor says, “Tell us your story.” Readers write in, never expecting to be compensated, other than getting their name in the paper. It not only brought new voices to the newspaper, but it filled space at little or no cost. Also a good thing.

    The pitfalls come when editors over-rely on this source of content, and the payback is that if the writers aren’t professional, the readers won’t come back, further weakening the economic structure of the site.

    The bigger problem is the fact that Web publishing is still searching for a viable economic model (subscription? advertising?). Until this gets sorted out, editors are likely to pay less (although I, like eagrainie, charge the same no matter what the venue). Rates, unfortunately, are for them to offer and ours to accept or decline as we see fit.

    I like to think that quality will win out, but maybe I’m an idealist.

    • Thoughtful reply, Howard.

      Let’s not forget that magazines have been struggling the last few years, with ad revenue down. I bet the editor I mentioned doesn’t have much of a budget for online writers, and the magazine is pressuring her to build a product that will lead to ad income.

  10. I think it’s hard to find the right answer for this . To become a “print writer,” you need clips. How do you get them unless you find an editor willing to take a risk on a new writer? They take a risk, you take a risk (no payment)? It’s kind of a vicious cycle, and I can see both sides of the situation.

  11. I think what people need to be careful of, when contributing their work for free, is what site they contribute to. If in fact links are the new currency, which is debatable, the links are only valuable if they come from a site that ACTUALLY has good traffic, not just one that just says they do.

    Food writers need to start checking out any sites they plan to contribute to using Quantcast.com to see if they are actually a player on the net. Many would like to be and may say they are, but they aren’t delivering the numbers and on the net it’s about traffic. If you are going to give your work away for free (which I wouldn’t suggest) at least contribute to sites that actually have the numbers, not the ones that just say they do. In the previous posting Dianne talked with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes. According to Quantcast Elise can say she’s in the top 20 food sites because its true.

    Another point writers need to think about is their reason for doing this in the first place. Many people give away their work for free in hopes of landing a job or book deal. But people need to remember if those businesses are doing poorly, the likelihood their free work leading to something paid has diminished dramatically in the past couple years.

    Most the future food writing work is moving to the net. The problem is the revenues available on the net won’t support the high overheads the publishing industry has come to enjoy. The reason for this is with the net there is less scarcity of information then when everyone got their information from print. Less scarcity equals lower revenues and people won’t pay for something they can easily get for free on the net.

    In my view writers would be better to put their work out there on their own blogs/websites and work to drive traffic on their own, which then can be monetized through advertising. While the revenue levels from advertising might not be enough for companies used to higher overheads and corner offices, it can provide significant income for an individual if you can get traffic yourself. We do it!

    • Well said, Rick.

      Readers, if you don’t know Joy of Baking, it is a very successful website, built by Rick and his wife Stephanie. They have an enormous database of recipes.

  12. At the very least, it seems to me that the writers should be paid commesurate to what the magazine gets for ads, subscriptions, etc., for the site. This is what magazines do for writers in the print version of their magazines, right? If the magazine is getting money off of its website, then it should pay the writers who write for the website.

    What makes the equation more complicated, in my view, is that the magazines use their websites, in part, to attract readers to its print version. So, the web version is part of the whole enterprise. So, it makes sense to me to pay the writers in the web version the same as what they pay the writers in the print version–because both are part of the same whole.

    What makes things even more complicated is the fact that the magazines’ websites are probably uber-successful for the companies because the costs are lower. And part of this “costs are lower” equation is the concept that web writers are expected to write for free or for less than the print writers get. Even though the content is expected to be the same in both.

    Ultimately, I think this is one of those fuzzy areas that will be worked out in the next few years. It can be a good thing if people who would never have gotten a foot in the door could actually get some exposure and recognition for their writing. But, eventually, even these people will want to be paid for what they do. And then the next wave of newcomers will come in. Maybe the whole system will reveal itself to be a giant Ponzi scheme? Or, magazines will have to start charging for their websites like they charge for their print versions. Or it will usher in a totally new paradigm?

    • Good question, Jeanne. I guess we don’t know. I’m not sure magazines are making tons of money from their websites, though. I have yet to see data on this.

      I like your point about the website being part of the whole. I remember a talk by Martha Stewart, where she talked about “multiple points of entry.” Her point was to have overlapping businesses: sheets at K-Mart, website, catalog, TV show, books, etc., so that wherever a consumer wanted to come in, they would enter her web of merchandizing and move around all its parts. So magazines have cookbooks, TV shows, websites, etc. as different revenue sources. We could learn from them!

  13. I learn 2 things from this: 1) I don’t plan on a food writing career anymore, 2) I don’t think there is much we can do about it as long as so many bloggers accept reduced pay or no pay.

    Those magazines can affort to **at least** pay a minimum fee for that free content! A $50, a $70, would be nice and more respectful.

    I admire your point of view and looking forward to meeting you in Seattle!

  14. In short, I heard/read other people saying the comments section is like their home, as is their blog, and won’t allow any behavior or language they would not hear from a guest in their home. Simple.

  15. When I wrote for a BBC magazine a few years ago, they paid the same, which I thought was great — my content had the same value as any other writer’s. I only came to their attention because of my blog. By the way, I really didn’t notice much of a long-lasting uptick in traffic because of the piece.

    Readers want quality. They don’t care about the writer’s pedigree.

  16. I think magazines will get what they pay for. I am not a food writer but as a contemporary (blogging) ceramicist I work in a similarly obscure, underpaid profession. When I decided to take myself seriously and become professional I realized that not many people in my field could become well-known and make a living….but a few people are famous ceramcists so I thought it might as well be me!

    In creative fields, practitioners often feel that their creativity should fill their whole resume. Becoming good at pr, using the web effectively and making yourself and the services you can offer valuable is an essential part of being a writer or an artist. Most people are not naturally good a these things but artists can learn. Pr and promotional skills are like any other technical skill, when your services are valuable and your skills are high magazines will pay to get you.

    • Good point, Shannon. When I was a magazine editor I think I paid the more confident writers more, just because they thought they deserved it. Of course, they had to deliver too.

  17. Hello I saw all the things you wrote and I am currently studing international marketing and I am doing a market rersearch about copywriters.
    I would like to know if you could give me some information about the prices paid by the companies for an article and how does it work (For example in france they pay for a page or a word). Could you help me please? I need it just to compare with other countres in my report. Thanks a lot. Alix

    • Hey Alix, I’m afraid there is no standard. Some companies pay by the word, some by the piece, and the amounts vary widely.

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