The Nation recently ran a post all about writers’ impudent, presumptuous demand that they should be paid for writing. In the journal, Julia Carrie Wong outlines the work of Manjula Martin, whose blog Who Pays Writers? more accurately described who pays writers what, with very regular updates on publications accepting paid contributions, and their rates – from the writers’ perspectives. The blog then led to Scratch Magazine, “a digital magazine for writers” covering “writing + money + life.”
Wong puts an ideological spin on all this, decrying “capitalism’s effect on journalism,” but arguably capitalism has been around all through the history of journalism, and even engendered it, and has been paying for it for many decades. This is more about technology’s effect on journalism, or at least the combination of greed (to acquire new revenue streams, especially free ones) and fear (to lose old revenue streams) that technological change has unleashed.
One of these streams is the blogging community, and here Wong instances the report in Digiday about Time Inc’s Entertainment Weekly and its bid to “take a platform turn … following the Huffington Post path of opening up to outside contributors.” The snag is that “some bloggers will be paid … Others will be compensated in the form of prestige, access to the brand’s editors and a huge potential readership audience via Google Hangouts and its SiriusXM show.”
Digiday quotes Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, about the woes of EW in mining this vein: “When you pivot to say, some of our content is coming from outsiders and you can’t necessarily vouch for it, it’s hard because your readers have built up a different expectations.” Now hold on: What publication hasn’t had guest contributors, detached expert columnists, and otherwise out-of-house writers who have still traditionally been paid even though they’re not under the same roof as the editorial office? What good commissioning editor doesn’t build their platform by commissioning from out of house? (I know I used to.) Isn’t this a false argument purpose-built to undermine the self-respect of these freelance bloggers who EW and their ilk are so desperate to corral? Just because they’ve been blogging for free for themselves, why should they do it to enrich EW?
Of course prestige and exposure can be valuable to some people. But when a publication or publisher makes this the principle of renumeration for its writer base, it’s become a vanity press. And no one expects standards from them. The argument holds up when applied to book publishing: Why not to periodicals?
Writers might also want to reflect on the following: If a publication or media platform is in so much trouble that it can’t afford to pay you for writing, do you really think you can get much profile benefit from it?