When HuffPost announced on Jan. 18 that it was shutting down its unpaid contributor network, my freelancer’s heart grew three sizes.
The contributor network, which was launched in 2005, was one of the most, if not the most, detrimental thing to happen to freelance journalism in the 13 years I’ve been at this full time. They were part of what, at the time, felt like an avalanche pushing the value of content to $0.
That’s because Huffington Post, as it was known then, and its copycats put the price of the kind of work I did to pay my mortgage and feed my dog at exactly nothing. At the same time, they inflated the idea that writing is just a hobby, a side project, something people do in trying to achieve something else, not the job it’s been for centuries. Writers trying to make a living with our words were told we should put in hours of solid work creating content for someone else in exchange for the nebulous promise of “exposure” – whatever that is.
If I wanted exposure, I’d stand on the corner in an open trench coat, not do my job for zip.
During this mess, it wasn’t so much rafts of laid-off journalists pushing down the value of our work, but no- and low-pay sites and schemes meant to part with our labor for very little in return. HuffPost’s rise dovetailed with that of content mills like Demand Media, which promised companies fresh, sparkly content while paying their writers around $15 per piece. While the intentions of websites like McSweeney’s, The Toast, Hairpin, Reductress, The Awl and the website of Women’s Running magazine may have been good, they contributed to the idea that freelance writing wasn’t worth very much, because they paid so little — if they paid at all. (The Reductress started paying in 2016. The Toast closed in 2016, The Awl and The Hairpin are closing, and Women’s Running was sold this year, but McSweeney’s is still running, and still not paying.)
I can see you firing up Twitter to yell at me for saying these things out loud about your favorite website — I know they were much loved — but even if they started as passion projects that never quite figured out how to pay for themselves, deep-pocketed publishers saw them, their monster traffic, and figured they could get away with paying so little, too.
All of these things suppressed the value of our hard work, and the industry suffered (or at least the writers in it did — Arianna Huffington made $315 million off the backs of all that free labor). Which is why I hope we’re in a course correction. HuffPost shutting down its contributor network is a big start, but on the same day of that announcement, Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times reported that Tronc is looking to implement what appears to be the same system. He shared a slide from a presentation that — I’m not kidding — used a pyramid to represent the scheme. Demand Media has re-branded as Leaf Group and recently started reaching out to freelancers, offering $60 per 400- to 600-word “SEO-informed article,” according to an email forwarded to me from another writer.
And, of course, places still want us to write for free. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls launched with the stance that “contributor positions are unpaid, but flexible.” (I don’t know if that stance has changed — they didn’t return request for comment, and when I previously asked them about this on Twitter, they blocked my account). Thought Catalog was recently soliciting unpaid work with the line “We like to see how our guest writers perform on our site before discussing compensation.” And despite railing a year ago that she’s “constantly fighting with companies who want me to bare my soul, reveal my grief, my joy, and parts of my story that spent decades shrouded in shame … for free,” blogger Kelly Roberts (who, full disclosure, has been critical of my work) recently rebranded her website as She Can & She Did, which asks others to tell their stories with the caveat that they “relinquish rights to monetary compensation for work published on this site” by submitting.
When publications still don’t see why they should bother paying their writers, I know this battle is far from over. I don’t know if it’ll ever be. But at least we’re moving away from our work being worth nothing, one shuttered contributor network at a time.