Will This Hot Startup’s Underpaid Writers Rise Up?

Odyssey Online says it receives around 30 million unique hits per month. Pictured is the front page of Odyssey Online as it appeared on Sep. 14, 2016. (UpstartCity/Charles Rollet)

The Odyssey, a cross between a blogging platform and a campus newspaper, is attempting to monetize the writing talents of college students on a massive scale. In exchange for a national pulpit and professional editing, up to 14,000 mostly unpaid “content creators” agree to submit one article a week about almost anything they want, racking up 30 million monthly unique views for Odyssey to make ad revenues off of.

Investors are interested in Odyssey’s low-cost, high-output model: the site, which launched in 2014, raised $25 million in an April funding round. But as Odyssey expands, growing numbers of its writers are calling it exploitative. Could those who gave Odyssey life end up as its gravediggers?

Clemson University senior Mackenzie Pearson seems an unlikely candidate for an Odyssey critic: she’s the author of its most famous article ever, a 2015 post coining the term “Dad bod.” Her article hailing pudgier men went hyper-viral, garnering more than 500,000 social media shares and millions of views. Pearson told Upstart City she was thrilled at the attention; Odyssey paid her $1,000.

However, Pearson became disillusioned after Odyssey repeatedly asked her to recruit writers and market the platform without any chance for further compensation. She also thought the $1,000 paled in comparison to the sensation her article caused. “There is little-to-no protection of contributors—I dare to call us staff writers because there is also slim to no pay. Everything is about quantity over quality,” she said. Pearson added the episode inspired her to work in intellectual property law after she graduates, to help protect people’s content.

Pearson is far from the only one blasting the platform for its payment policy. While rewards are given to writers with high page views like Pearson, the only chance to make money for the vast majority of Odyssey writers is a weekly $20 prize to whoever’s article gets the most shares within their “community” (typically centered around a college campus) — and even that prize depends on whether the community meets strict article quotas. Someone could regularly write for Odyssey without ever seeing a paycheck. Frustrated writers began a Twitter campaign last month called #PayYourWriters, while most writers at Meredith College in North Carolina have quit, complaining that editors hassled them in class to meet quotas.

Odyssey has taken notice. In a Reddit interview, CEO Evan Burns countered that Odyssey pays over $100,000 a month to its 14,000 writers (or about $7 each.) Burns has also said he wants to invest recent funding towards paying select creators more money and expanding into the non-college demographic. Managing editor Hilarey Wojtowicz added that Odyssey provides a service by giving writers “one-on-one attention” and coaching from salaried editors at its New York office.

Odyssey still has a large user base happy getting their names out there. But as criticism of its model grows, how long this lasts remains to be seen.

“If you’re looking to get paid I would say go somewhere else, but if you’re looking for exposure, for a team where you can develop your creative sense, this is where you can do it,” said Lake Forest College sophomore and Odyssey contributor Matt Demirs.

“I definitely think we should get paid more,” he added. “I wish we could get paid, but the fact of the matter is that this is how the company runs.”