College Students Are Expected To Write for Free. Here’s How I’m Going to Change That.
“Unfortunately, we aren’t compensating writers at this time.”
That’s a common refrain for websites who rely on contributing writers to produce the bulk of their content — especially when those contributing writers happen to be college students.
While there are some contributor-based publications that do pay their writers, it seems to be absent from the landscape of college-focused publications. The subject matter of these sites might vary, but there’s one similarity: these websites have been largely built on the (mostly) unpaid work of college students. The Tab, Her Campus, Spoon University, Elite Daily, The Odyssey — have all raised significant capital (or have been acquired for $40–50 million in the case of Elite Daily) and yet they still haven’t figured out how to pay their writers.
Fresh U, the website I officially launched a year ago on June 1, 2015, followed this same model. The reward for writers was a byline and exposure. The only difference between us and some of the bigger media companies publishing college students was that Fresh U wasn’t (and still isn’t) making money, and aside from receiving some money from a few business competitions, we haven’t raised any significant investment. But I figured that even when we started monetizing the site, we still wouldn’t pay contributing writers. People seemed fine with writing for free and so many sites — even sites beyond the college demographic, like the Huffington Post — were profiting off of that. I wasn’t going to try fix what didn’t appear broken. You provide a platform, they produce the content. It’s a win-win. Right?
Something didn’t feel right.
Despite the fact that we weren’t making money, I started to feel like I was taking advantage of all of these writers who were just excited to be published. I started to feel like the expectation that you write for free first, get paid eventually (or never), wasn’t fair. And because Fresh U is publication for college freshmen, I felt wrong instilling in a new generation of writers that their value is limited to exposure.
In college, maybe this whole “writing for free” thing isn’t seen as a problem. After all, college is more about getting your foot in the door and getting your name out there — that’s why so many unpaid internships exist. But when college students are fueling the majority of content for profitable publications, it’s hard not to wonder when that promise of exposure turns into exploitation.
That’s why, effective today, I’m excited to announce that Fresh U will be moving to a revenue share business model. This means we will allocate a certain percentage of our monthly revenue to compensate contributing writers, and writers will be compensated based on the amount of traffic they bring to the site, as well as other qualitative assessments.
Like I mentioned above, Fresh U isn’t bringing in revenue yet. Our writers won’t be making money right away, because we aren’t making money. But what I want to establish with our business model is that as we grow, our writers will benefit with us. When we make our first big ad deal, or raise capital, our writers should be paid in proportion to what we’re making, since they’re the ones who are helping us grow in the first place.
I don’t want to build a media company that perpetuates a “writing for free” norm. But I also don’t want to give everyone a gold star just for participating. By basing compensation largely on views, we want to reward those who play a part in the traffic that lead to monetization.
This model isn’t perfect. I worry that focusing on traffic could lead writers to think that value is only measured by views. And I’m aware of the fact that it could take months or years before we starting bringing in enough revenue to actually pay writers a substantial amount. But as I work on growing this company, I’d rather weave this value into the moral fabric of our company now instead of deciding later that writers matter too.
In the fall, I’m going to begin my senior year at Syracuse University. Fresh U is going to develop into my full-time career when I graduate, and I am committed to building a company with a culture of integrity. Companies shouldn’t be profiting off the unpaid work of college students — and its time other publications realized that too.
About Fresh U
Launched on June 1, 2015, Fresh U is a for-freshmen, by-freshmen online publication with satellite publications on more than 10 campuses across the country along with an additional national site for freshmen at historically black colleges and universities. The company has a media partnership with Teen Vogue and competed in the finals of Student Startup Madness, a national college startup competition at South By Southwest in March 2016. Fresh U was founded by Kate Beckman, a student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, who started a freshman publication at Syracuse when she was a freshman in fall 2013.