Most everyone gets asked to write for free, only some people say yes

The debate over how much professional writers should be paid — sparked by Atlantic’s request to publish Nathan Thayer’s work without paying him — is a window into how dramatically the Internet has changed the system of creating and distributing news and opinion.

What’s a writer’s work worth? After reading dozens of posts, hundreds of tweets, lurking in an online chat, and talking to two of my favorite freelancers, I can tell you this: It’s complicated. Really, really complicated.

The Internet, it seems, has totally messed up a simple pay scale. Back in the day, freelancers got paid roughly by the word. Sometimes it was as low as 10 cents a word. Everyone was shooting for $1 a word, and some people got more than that. Hotshots might get $10,000-$20,000 for a fabulous magazine piece. There was a lot of variation, but there was also a standard rate that people were shooting for.

Now, trying to pin down how much a writer should be paid is an impossible task. It’s simply unknowable.

“I had this notion that, after six months of freelancing, I was going to set a ‘base rate’ and stick to it,’’ former editor turned freelance writer Ann Friedman told me during a gchat Wednesday (while she was on a plane).  “And now that seems so funny to me. I decide whether to pursue or accept work based on a whole host of factors.”

Like what? Friedman said she’ll go below her established rate if she has other money coming in, if it’s an outlet she really likes, if it’s an editor who will help her grow as a writer, if it’s a publication where she’s trying to get a foot in the door, if it’s a steady gig, if it’s a piece she really wants to write and no one seems willing to pay for it, or if “I get to put the goddamn New Yorker on my clips page.”

(Disclosure: We arranged to pay Friedman for a chapter in an upcoming book. We paid substantially below her established rate and we’re afraid to ask why she agreed to do it.)

By contrast, Beatriz Terrazas, a writer and visual storyteller, former Nieman fellow and Dallas Morning News reporter and photographer, doesn’t work for free anymore, ever. But she does occasionally write for very little money.

“If you as a publisher feel you don’t need to pay or can’t pay for content, it seems to me you don’t value that work,” she said in a phone interview. “And if you don’t value it, how can you justify it to your readers, or your audience, or your advertisers?”

Publishers clearly have the upper hand. Ever since Mayhill Fowler quit the Huffington Post when she still couldn’t command a price after breaking a number of stories that headlined the 2008 presidential election, it’s been clear that good writing and intriguing information can be had for very little.

When everybody has a blog, or at the very least a Facebook page, fresh ideas are widely distributed and manage to float to the top of the marketplace of ideas surprisingly fast. Felix Salmon points out that “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made its way to both the Huffington Post and Gawker, where it was seen and liked by millions.

That’s the beauty and the bane of a digital universe. When everything had to be published on paper, the hole was finite, the profit margins substantial, and the process for finding content more discerning. Now the amount of space to be filled is infinite, profit margins are miniscule and the process for finding content is like running on a hamster wheel.

We end up in a world where Thayer’s expertise on North Korea has to compete with the personal narratives of mom bloggers – at least in theory. In practice, the marketplace for an individual writer’s work is wider than it ever has been. Hundreds of factors impact specific demand, including reputation, experience, skill, reliability, talent, availability, and uniqueness.

It’s easy to tell a young writer to write for cheap or free. It’s harder to say the same thing to an experienced writer. But if anything can be said about this new reality, it’s that the scale slides for everyone. The more experienced you get with the whims of the market, the more competent you will be at negotiating the best price for your work.

Related discussion

  • Om Malik, GigaOm: “…if you are going to take freelance contributions, then pay something — just as a sign of respect (if not the true worth) of a writer’s capability.”
  • Editors and writers debate the numbers: How much should a writer be paid?
  • Paul Carr, PandoDaily: “The reason professional journalists need to be paid is not because money somehow magically makes them better at their job, but because real journalism is their job.”
  • Stephanie Lucianovic, The Atlantic Wire: “Every piece I write has the potential to be a paid piece. I want every piece to be a paid piece, but the messed-up reality is that it just doesn’t always work out that way.”
  • Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal responds and elaborates: “…the biz ain’t what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I have a hard time giving much credibility to this type of article here when a search under “internship” reveals dozens of articles guiding people on how to get low-paying work. I’m sure the semantic parsers will point out that some internships do pay something. Good for them.

  • Alfred Ingram

    Montgomery, Alabama 1954. Everyone who looks like me is asked to move to the back of the bus. For varied reasons almost everyone does move to the back of the bus. If more white people get on than there are seats in their half of the bus, black men and women are forced to give up their seats although they payed the same fare. Almost all the time, almost everyone gives up their seat without protest. Are you saying that, if they had been writers instead of black, it would have been okay to quietly yield up their rights? Are publications like the white citizens of Montgomery imbued with a sense that they’re entitled to work without compensation, entitle to just about anything they ask for?