March 18, 2013

The Atlantic | Esquire | Emily Hauser | Forbes | Salon
The recent dustup between Nate Thayer and The Atlantic concerning payment (or lack thereof) for freelance writers has highlighted a fact obvious to many working in newsrooms across all platforms: Writers, as a profession, don’t make very much, especially considering the volume of work they perform on any given project.

Charles Pierce said as much in a post for Esquire last week, chastising the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein for writing that much of the quality copy for news organizations is already being written for free by professionals who aren’t journalists, but rather “academics and business consultants and market analysts and former politicians.”

These sources, Klein argues, “have the expertise that makes editors — and readers — trust them.” This is a defensible position, Klein argues, because most journalists are simply repackaging their sources’ point of view, and the sources aren’t paid for their contributions.

But as Pierce notes, there’s much more to being a writer than expressing a point of view for the Opinion section:

I can assure you, Ezra, that out there in the wide world of journalism, reporters are now being required to do entirely too much work for free — whether that’s Tweeting or uploading video or whatever else is demanded to fill the other “platforms” with “content”  — and they’re being made to do it because their union protection is down to next to nothing, and because their benefits packages were (at best) gutted and (at worst) looted, and because the people who own the media companies know they have the whip hand on their employees as surely as the people at Hormel know it.

This is an idea that freelance writer and Daily Beast contributor Emily Hauser augments, pointing out that self-promotion and self-editing is paramount in today’s media environment. In addition to doing their own copy editing, fact-gathering and fact-checking, writers who are paid must do ever more:

Writers have always had to market ourselves, of course, particularly when starting out, but nothing like today, when it’s often considered part and parcel of the gig to not only produce copy, but also to blog about producing copy, tweet/FB/tumbl about the copy you produced, and engage with commenters over their opinions of the copy you produced, all while working on your next piece.

This does not seem to be a model that is fading from favor. In fact, Forbes’ Lewis DVorkin says his publication’s digital platform thrives on it. He wrote Monday morning that building a lucrative career as a freelance journalist is difficult but possible, if the business model is any indication.

… A writer who attracts 1 million unique visitors a month for 12 consecutive months, with a solid base of repeat visitors, can earn a six-figure annual income. That’s not easy to accomplish. In 2012, only the second year of our model, two contributors topped $100,000. We had a few at $75,000 and $50,000, and 25 hit the $35,000 mark. There is a long tail at $10,000. Using their individual data dashboard, a contributor can track how they’re doing in real time. For comparison, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average full-time reporter or correspondent’s salary at $45,270. Remember, being a contributor (many have worked for major national and regional news brands) is a freelance job, with considerable freedom to publish content for others.

That’s if you can build a base strong enough to support that kind of following, which DVorkin notes is extremely rare. More common is the notion of barely scraping by on what is often a laborious process.

“Broken Piano for President” author Patrick Wensink says that even after his book from independent publisher Lazy Fascist Press shot to No. 6 on the bestseller list when it received copious media coverage for being the target of a cease and desist letter from Jack Daniel’s over the book’s cover artwork, he made a grand total of about $12,000. And that’s with a fairly generous contract entitling him to 50 percent of the book’s profits after expenses.

But the truth is, there’s a reason most well-known writers still teach English. There’s a reason most authors drive dented cars. There’s a reason most writers have bad teeth. It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession. Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.

Related: Are journalism grads really earning starting salaries of $41K? | How can journalists negotiate for better salaries? | Writers on why they write

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Joshua Gillin is a contributor to Poynter's MediaWire blog and a writer, editor and pop culture blogger for the Tampa Bay Times and its sister…
Joshua Gillin

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