To Pay or Not To Pay (or Get Paid) For Content

Some writing is worth doing for free — and some just isn’t worth paying for.

Tim Kreider’s “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” sure did hit a nerve this week! It zipped around the internet with its rallying cry: DO. NOT. WRITE. FOR. FREE!

Writers like Kreider should not write for free — but not everyone is a writer like Kreider. Nor is every piece of writing a special, billable gem. In 2013, it’s a little more complicated than that.

I come at this from a unique perspective. I was the first full-time, salaried writer hired at the Huffington Post, and the first section editor to have a budget for other writers. I built the team at Mediaite and was responsible for recruiting its initial contributors, both paid and unpaid. I had started my own career circa 2002, freelancing for small-bore pieces here and there (though that $4K check from Glamour back in 2003 still more than holds up). What got me my first regular gig — working for a $1500/month honorarium at Mediabistro’s FishbowlNY — was my work at The Blacktable, a cool downtown online mag run by A.J. Daulerio, Will Leitch, Eric Gillin and Aileen Gallagher. I sweated over my random submissions on shaving my legs, making out in taxis, and crashing the 2004 RNC, and in exchange I got the thrill of seeing my name in print and an invitation to my first downtown hipster roof party. Both were priceless.

That was ten years ago. In the intervening decade, the places for a writer to cut her teeth have proliferated, but the places that pay have…not. Barriers to entry have dropped wildly, but it has not necessarily minted a proportionate number of new writers to the ranks of the highly-paid. (Here I will give a point to Jonathan Franzen, who noted in his recent New Yorker Festival talk that the Internet’s bounty of “more opportunites to be published” didn’t always translate into “more opportunities to be paid,” particularly for women.)

Kreider addresses a lot of this in his piece, which focuses on professional, proven writers. What he misses are all those other people also calling themselves “writers” or, at least, describing what they are doing as “writing.” Journalists and writers are unaccredited. Not just anyone can say, “Hey! I’m a lawyer!” but anyone can call themselves a writer, and amass clips (or “clips” depending on how sniffy you are about what constitutes a clip). The rise of aggregation and repackaged content has meant less skill, experience and knowledge is required to do the work of churning through the news cycle, and the premium that skill and “walking around knowledge” offers is often seen as an extra just not worth paying for. (Sometimes it’s even seen as a distraction from the straightforward repurposing of a news story.)

The other issue involves who needs the “exposure.” A writer — who writes for a living — wants to get paid in money, so at a certain point “exposure” is of less value. But an entrepreneur or consultant or PR flack or whatnot — who is paid in some other way — does want that exposure. That counts as “earned media” and it’s a savings over what that business would have to invest in PR or paid advertising to reach the same eyeballs.

That’s the genius of Linkedin Influencers — they‘re not looking for business journalists, they want the big names writing straight to the audience. The dispatches are often short and blunt. Slate would probably not pay for them. But most of the Linkedin Influencers wouldn’t want to write for Slate anyway — that would be something they’d have to sweat over, report out, go back and forth with an editor about. This they can write on a plane and then watch the pageviews climb, because Linkedin Influencer has mad distribution.

This, too, was the genius of the early HuffPo business model. They didn’t need to offer money, they were offering cred. Cred had previously only been made available by places that would pay you — that was how cred was conferred. (Which was why when I was first freelancing it was the most exciting thing ever to get an event listing byline in Time Out.) But HuffPo said, “Hey Steven Weber! You’re an actor, but we’d love to publish your thoughts on politics!” Famous-ish people could suddenly write about the topics they loved — and, importantly, writers could write about the stuff off their beats (movies, sports) to show their range. (That was one of the reasons I was hired — at one point Kenny Lerer told me that 40% of my time should be spent on recruiting. The early HuffPo contributor rolls were filled with my friends, including no fewer than six ex-boyfriends. For one of them, it was his first byline, and he liked it, and he was good. Now he is a full-time writer, and he is paid.)

The notion of “free” in online writing has typically been examined from the point of view of the writer who puts in the time and does the work. Alas, if putting in the time was all it took the economics of authorship would be very different. I turn again to my Slate example, and ask: would Dan Kois spend $500 on this? If not, then what you have is a piece of writing that might be a dandy first draft, and perfectly fine to run. Since “perfectly fine” is the standard for a great many publications, that is where you will find many of these items, running unpaid.

Sometimes “perfectly fine” is a stretch. Often an editor will put in the time to help whip something into shape for publication. In many cases, “free” is practice, “free” is training, “free” is clips, “free” is a track record.

(This is why I thought that contributor class action lawsuit against HuffPo was nuts, and why I think those intern lawsuits seem crazy as well, unless the tasks performed and the quality of that performance were both akin to what a paid employee would deliver. Getting to that point presumably takes skill, and experience.)

The flip side often holds true. I’ve published some amazing writing from people who just wanted to “get it out there.” The Awl, a beloved and critically-acclaimed site, was built on smart, quality contributions from terrific writers on a we’ll-pay-you-eventually model (it launched in April 2009 and began paying in January 2011.) (Choire Sicha’s Branch on the subject earlier this year raises many of these points and makes for a fun deep-dive, if you’re into this stuff; scroll to the bottom for inevitable joke about how none of those contributors were paid, either.) The Hairpin, an Awl-family site, was built on similarly great but unpaid submissions until recently; it spawned The Toast, which pays in double-digits but is already a known platform for quality. Good writers want their work to appear on good sites; it’s part of what attracted me to Medium.

So there is value in exposure. For people who want to be writers, who want to call themselves writers, who want to promote their thing, who want to weigh in on a topic immediately without having to wait for an editor to get back to them, who want to be part of the “conversation,” who want to be part of the club. I can make money as a writer (see here) but it is my least efficient way of making money right now because I am building a business (see here). Much of my writing now is unpaid because it serves my agenda (i.e. “The Riptide of Titstare” at Linkedin, which railed against the ingrained patriarchy of media for a cool 56K views) or because I want to pipe up on something quick (i.e. “Fuck Yeah on Tumblr” here on Medium, which I’d been tracking as a user since 2009) or because I cared, dammit (i.e. “Messing With Texas” on Medium about how the Texas GOP tried to steal a vote and is terrible.)(NB: I am now paid for my work on Medium via the LadyBits vertical, but the above-referenced pieces were all written prior to that arrangement.)

I regularly turn down free stuff — and paid stuff! — because it doesn’t serve my needs at the time. Conversely, I’ll do something for free if it hits me at the right time, if I’m in the right mood, or if I like you. I’m not sure that makes me part of the problem; more likely, it makes me different from the kind of writer Kreider is talking about. I’m just not that unusual anymore.

Rachel Sklar is the cofounder of TheLi.st, a network and media platform for awesome women that also happens to pay its writers. She is pretty proud of herself for finding an illustration that was both subject matter and Hallowe’en appropriate.

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