“Does journalism fit into capitalism?” That is “the question of the hour,” according to Manjula Martin, a freelance writer and editor, whom I interviewed last week. Martin has carved out a space for discussing the economic landscape for writers through her online database, Who Pays Writers?, and the digital magazine, Scratch, that she co-founded with Jane Friedman.
Who Pays Writers was born out of an online conversation between Martin and other writers who were commenting on publications that ask for donations or run advertisements, but don’t pay contributors. Martin herself had been frustrated recently by an experience in which she had gone through all the work of pitching an article, only to find out that the publication expected writers to work for free. “I was being very flippant, but I said, do we need a list?” she recalls.
The response was positive, and Martin set up a Tumblr, providing freelancers a space to self-report the rates they’ve received from publications ranging from The New Yorker and USA Today to Marie Clare and Pet Business. The site now contains thousands of reports, most depressingly meager, each a snapshot of the state of the industry from the point of view of freelancers. Over all, Martin says, writers can expect to earn about $100–250 for online articles at the big publications (The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation). The rates are higher for print, where many publications still pay by the word, and lower for book reviews and literary journals. (Martin emphasized that the data she collects is self-reported by writers and is not verified by publications. Salon declined to comment for this article. I reached out to The Atlantic for comment, but did not hear back before publication.)
Scratch came next. “Everyone really loved Who Pays Writers,” Martin says, “but people wanted more context.” The magazine provides that context, going deeper into the publishing economy with round-table discussions between editors, advice on negotiation techniques and contracts language, and first-person accounts of the freelancing life from successful writers. In the spirit of Martin’s commitment to transparency, each issue concludes with an accounting of the relationships between the writers and editors, the demographics of the writers and the amount of money each contributor was paid. (Full disclosure: Martin has commissioned me to write an essay for the next issue of Scratch for $200.)
For Martin, transparency is the first step to improving the situation of freelance writers. Fifteen dollars per hour has become a rallying cry for service workers, but what is a fair standard for writers? “We don’t even have a basic sort of understanding of what standards would be like for a freelance workforce, let alone what pay rates would be like,” she says. “I think we need that base first.” She points to a need for her freelance “co-workers” to be more educated: “Not understanding how the finances of our industry work—who is that bad for? It’s probably not as bad for the people cutting the checks as it is for the people receiving the checks.”
And it is bad for the people receiving the checks. The answer to Martin’s question about journalism existing in capitalism is, of course, that journalism does exist in capitalism, and capitalism is kicking journalists’ asses. The same goes for editors, and for many publications.