Telling stories

Somebody Always Pays

Posted by southwrite on June 1, 2014

Gas Mask Typewriter

What’s the new model for media success? You can get very rich persuading a lot of eager writers to do work – for nothing or close to it. Of course Arianna Huffington virtually created the business model based not paying writers with the Huffington Post – which she sold for a cool $315 million.

Huffington may have been the first to hit it really big by taking a sweat shop approach to journalism, but she is certainly not the only one. It’s a business model that works.

The latest media mogul who has gotten insanely rich off the backs of struggling writers who can barely pay their rent is VICE publisher Shane Smith. His media propertyhas a successful HBO show, global magazine, and websites in multiple verticals. The company is able to sell its “cool young audience” who appreciate its good journalism to major corporate brands. That has generated a lot of interest among Investors who know a hot property when they see one.

As a result the company is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. [Arianna must be green with envy.]

Amidst all this wealth you might think the writers who produce all that cool copy would be doing well. Not a chance. This is what it’s like to work at VICE:

Most people don’t go into the media to get rich. But a company as successful as Vice should be paying decent wages. Vice doesn’t. Instead, the company pays shitty wages to low-level employees, “compensating” them instead with the sheer coolness of working for Vice Media. “A handful of grownups a thin middle layer and a gaggle of people who also moonlight at American Apparel” is how one veteran characterizes the company. “The appeal is street cred, lots of free parties/booze and the hope that one earns a coveted Vice ring.” (Literally, a ring that says “VICE,” given to lucky employees.)

Salaries – and remember we’re talking New York here – range from about $20,000 to start with senior producers getting above $30,000. How do you pay for a Brooklyn apartment on a salary like that?

Like all trends, it filters down. Even publications with history and a lot of prestige try to get away with stiffing writers. This exchange between a journalist and The Atlantic, which wanted a 1000 words for nothing is classic.

Now everybody t seems to be asking for something for nothing. If a writer gains a little unspendable prestige from VICE or The Atlantic, what do you get from the local newspaper or magazine? Really. Nothing.

Arianna and Shane approach this like a business. Most writers are still pretending they’re artists. We’re not. And, until we accept that we’re in business to sell and get paid we’re all going to be really poor if we survive at all.

Writing isn’t free. While some people have become rich not paying for it, somebody always does. Whether you work in retail to make ends meet or depend on a spouse or partner with a job, somebody else is paying so that they don’t.

A lot of freelance writers get angry about the unfairness of it all. But let’s face facts, many wanna’ be and even seasoned writers have fallen for the myth of prestige. Just take a look at the people writing for the Huffington Post. Many of them are not beginners, but experienced writers who have done quite well elsewhere. And, VICE has young talented people clamoring for a chance to work there.

When someone asks me about whether they should contribute their work for little or nothing I always try to discourage them. If your work is worth putting any time into then you should get something for it. Otherwise, don’t do it. If publications can’t pay their vendors – and that’s what writers are – then they deserve to fail.


2 Responses to “Somebody Always Pays”

  1. So right, Randy! I’ve had to walk away from clients who felt $5 was more than sufficient for a 500-word article, or that writing an entire website (about 25 screens) was worth about $50. It hurts to give up a guaranteed retainer, but a 98% discount in exchange for “regular” work that keeps you from taking assignments that CAN pay the rent is simply awful!

    • southwrite said

      Billie, you’re absolutely right. You have to realize that your work and your time have value — and refuse to accept assignments don’t serve your business interests. As long as writers roll over and take little or even nothing for their work, they will continue to offer little or nothing.

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