An argument about getting paid for online work erupted recently, when a respected journalist blogged about an Atlantic Wire editor who asked to repost a long article online for free.
What’s unbelievable is that just a few years ago, the Atlantic magazine offered him $21,000 per article for original reporting, and now they’re offering him nothing in exchange for “exposure.”
“The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast ’97 to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.”
That’s a cogent explanation for why writing online pays so little, or nothing. (If you have time, read the whole post, which includes a link to a HuffPo article that got more than 15,000 comments!)
Meanwhile, a food blogger, Stephanie Lucianovic of Grub Report, wrote a post about why she writes for free. An Atlantic Wire editor paid Lucianovic $75 to run her essay online. Ironic, no? (Turns out Lucianovic pitched that piece to the Atlantic Wire months ago, and didn’t hear back until the other post by the journalist ran. Coincidence? More like a defensive strategy.)
As usual, hand-wringing about writing and compensation ensued on social media and blog posts. Here are two more particularly good discussions:
- Will Write for Food (!): The Digital Freelance Journalist Dilemma. Why to write for free sometimes, and the importance of negotiating.
- The State of Online Journalism Today: Controversial. The former editor of Writer’s Digest comments from the perspective of an online editor who makes assignments that pay poorly, with excellent links.
As you know, writing for free or little pay is one of my favorite subjects. My most recent recent post, Whose Fault is It that Food Writing Doesn’t Pay?, had remarkably thoughtful comments, and I thank you for them.
As this debate goes on, I realize my background determines how I think about writing for free, as it must do for you. Because I’m a professional writer, I think people should be paid to write. My blog is an exception. I write it for free as a branding strategy and for self-expression. It brings me clients, keeps my books in front of people, creates opportunities for speaking engagements, and produces what I love most: communicating with you about the issues we face.
My bottom line, though, it that writers should be paid to write if they’re doing a job. I like what one commenter said in response to Lucianovic’s piece in the Atlantic Wire about writing for free:
“I don’t always consider writing ‘work.'”
Except it really *is* work.
Just because the act is rewarding doesn’t make it any less of a job. And magical, “gotta express myself,” soul-of-a-writer waxing – particularly when posed in print – fuels rampant exposure-based compensation, content farms, and unpaid internships. This is a profession, not a hobby, and perpetuating romantic mythologies harms us all.
While I am in this guy’s camp, you may not be. Many bloggers write for a hobby, and they don’t think about being paid. Some people write for fun or just to express themselves, so they don’t care about getting paid either. And some professional writers have told me they wrote something for free for a website, because they too get confused about what they’re supposed to do.
It’s complicated. There are professional writers and amateur writers, and the division between them is blurring, particularly as hobby bloggers break into paid work.
Where do you stand on the issue? Is it ever worthwhile to write for free for “exposure,” if you’re used to getting paid? If you write as a hobby, is it fine for another site to post your work for free?
(Photo by FreeDigitalPhotos.net)