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Writing, Prestige and Other Things That Don’t Pay the Rent | The Nation

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Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong

Old problems in new media.

Writing, Prestige and Other Things That Don’t Pay the Rent

Dollars

(Reuters/Mark Blinch)

“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.

Last week, the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project released its annual report on the state of the news media, which examines the continuing struggles of news outlets to hit upon a sustainable (let alone profitable) model for generating revenue. Pew’s report quantified the rapid growth of jobs in digital reporting, but also noted the continuing decline of jobs in print media. While job growth is good news for writers, the new hiring does not replace all the jobs that have been lost in the massive layoffs that have been occurring for a decade in print. Many print publications are also unionized, and very few of the writers at born-digital outlets are organized (the staff of Truthout is one of the few exceptions to this rule).  This translates into less job security, and individual instead of collective contracts for writers, making it harder to prevent the kind of downward competition that drives standards lower.

In another sign of capitalism’s effect on journalism, Digiday reported last week that Entertainment Weekly, which is owned by Time Inc., will be establishing a “contributor network” where bloggers will be “compensated in the form of prestige, access to the brand’s editors and a huge potential readership audience.” Prestige, of course, is worth even less than dogecoin when it comes to paying rent, and just one week later, Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Entertainment Weekly is laying off longtime critics and writers Owen Gleiberan, Nick Catucci and Annie Barret. If you don’t see the connection between these two moves, you’re not paying attention.

Meanwhile, media observer and journalist Jim Romenesko reported last week that the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which operates Cleveland.com, is instituting a “zero–tolerance policy for typos,” and its content chief has suggested that reporters enlist their spouses in helping them avoid mistakes. A frustrated reporter wrote to Romenesko that such a move was predictable because there are no copy editors on the digital side of the news operation, and “an entire layer of editors” has been laid off. As labor historian Jacob Remes put it on Twitter, what’s really happening here could be headlined, “Publisher demands labor that used to be done by paid copy editors be done by unpaid wives.”

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Earlier this month, writer Yasmin Nair shook up leftist academic circles in an essay arguing that “those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.” Nair’s statement provoked much debate among writers who are trying to navigate an industry that increasingly demands unpaid work and has been successful in getting its way. Many objected to Nair’s definition of “scab,” which seems to me both beside the point and unresolvable. (I worked for a labor union for four years and witnessed many discussions between organizers and workers with far more experience about the true definition of a scab. Some of us called anyone who crossed a picket line—worker or customer—a scab. Others reserved it for replacement workers during a strike. Some contend that it really applies only to union members who work during strikes. When in doubt, don’t cross a picket line.)

For Martin, the debate hits home. “I worry about that on a very personal level,” she says. “Every time I write something for free, somebody else gets paid less or offered less. I think that’s true, and I don’t think anyone is disputing that in this argument.” But she understands why people do it, and instead of having writers focus on one another, she wants to point the conversation back to understanding the economic system and arming writers with information. “To me the data is just the first step,” she says. “It’s always interesting to me when people really just want the numbers. But the numbers have stories around them and the stories around them are the important thing. Hopefully a group of workers who are at heart story tellers can figure out a way to talk about it.”

 

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