Will Write for Food: The Digital Freelance Journalist Dilemma

I am exhausted from following the explosion of opinion about how much freelance journalists should be paid after writer Nate Thayer took on The Atlantic for offering to publish his work, for free.

It used to be that freelance meant you were a free agent. Now, it just means you work for free, or scraps. I understand Thayer’s anger, and I’m glad he started the conversation. And as much as I respect (want to be?!) Matt Yglesias or Alexis Madrigal and hear them on the fact that there is no easy solution to pay smart writers and writers have to write and gosh, darn, they never did really make any money anyway – hearing them talk about why I should write for free makes me envision doing very mean things to them. Because they’re in. And they’re not even trying to tell us that it gets better. Digital natives aren’t entirely shocked by the fact that we can’t make a decent living, yet still hopeful. What they’re saying is “write for free and maybe you’ll be able to make your own brand someday, but we sure as hell can’t pay you for it. We definitely can not even hire you for menial writing labor.”

It’s frustrating. Basically, young, digital journalists are the new wannabe-on-Broadway actors. We live in a vortex of hope and really hard work, but I am pretty sure I will still be blogging for peanuts while holding down a steady service industry job into my middle age. Even if you make it into a newsroom, as Yglesias points out, you end up also blogging for free sometimes. None of the work that goes into good journalism is compensated with sums equal to its worth.

So, what to do? Aside from marrying well or hustling tables in a busy restaurant, both of which are valid, smart options.

  •  Write for free – sometimes. I think mixing up a steady, low-paid blogging gig (OK, probably a handful of these if we’re serious) with unpaid ones that you like, is a good idea. Madrigal writes that journalists used to cover garden shows and write about petunias for the money. I think if you have to write about garden shows, you should get paid for it. But if you’re writing about what you really want to write about and an outlet offers you space to that? I think exposure is worth it in that case.
  •  If you haven’t been paying attention to the importance of traffic that comes to a website and aren’t well versed in the methods and math that keep digital enterprises up and (sort of) running – it’s time. I don’t think journalists can stay in the writer’s bubble. I think you have to bring a business sensibility with you. That’s what was a bit disappointing in Thayer’s response.Poor Olga wasnt asking him to do more writing, and she gave him a chance to turn it down. Online editors need stuff, too. You’re mad if its native advertising, you’re mad if they want to shorten your article and publish for free. It’s a lose-lose if you don’t know when to barter with them and when to demand payment.
  • About native advertising. Or sponsored content like the kind Fortune is about to start doing. Every time I explain to someone – at least in the bubble of New York City-  how many places I blog for and for what and the other, unrelated full time job I work, they look at me like a confused puppy. “Why don’t you just write copy for a marketing agency?”  Why don’t I?! I think, looking at my bills. Because its bad. It’s making a deal with the devil. It will ruin your soul. Or will it? Can journalists start forming a better relationship with advertorial content? Hey, Fortune  thinks it can change the whole game on their end. Like always, the ad guys have money; they’ll definitely pay you to write. And finding a solution about how to make dollar-dollar bills online is the only thing that will save us from a descent into slave labor for The Atlantic. If we find a way to make digital magazines profitable, will they pay us then?

Do you report for free? Do you blog, or create other kinds of content, in your newsroom in addition to what you’re getting paid for? Are you hiring?!