Telling stories

Posts Tagged ‘Huffington Post’

It’s Time for Writers to Say No to Nothing

Posted by southwrite on August 23, 2014

Money HandI don’t know how I avoided it. After all, I’ve been doing freelance writing since the late 1990s, so I’ve been through quite a few booms and busts in the business. Yet, here was the offer. It was delivered third hand through a friend and went something like this, “we would consider your writing for us, but the first article has to be for free. You know so we can determine if our styles match.”

Over the years I’ve written articles for a number of magazines, ghosted three books, and worked for numerous corporate clients. None of them ever said, ‘we want it for free – you know, to try you out.’

Writing, like any business relationship, carries a certain amount of risk for both the author and the publisher. I may not deliver exactly what you want. You may not hold up your end of the agreement or even pay me. Wanting it for free isn’t really about this risk, it’s about cutting expenses and boosting profits. These days, many very profitable publishers pay their writers and reporters next to nothing or nothing at all. (The most notable examples in this category are the Huffington Post and VICE.)

They have no problem finding takers for their nothing. Of course, it’s usually couched in the sweet melody of prestige. You’ll get noticed and the work you do will translate into big (paying) jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately that rarely happens. Writers who publish their work on sites like the Huffington Post find that the strong wind of notice tends to be a mild breeze or a dead calm. There are too many other toilers and too much material to get noticed. Meanwhile, the site makes huge profits for owners with little left over for those who actually produce the material that brings eyes to the site in the first place. Arianna Huffington sold the Huffington Post for a cool $315 million. VICE publisher Shane Smith is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. Most other web ventures and magazines don’t make anywhere near that level of profit, but to one extent or another they’ve adopted the same business model.

In one sense this is pure capitalism at work. In the modern marketplace it’s not about the product you offer, but the leverage you have over workers or customers. In publishing, the business model is often based on scamming the producers into giving away their work. Why pay real money that could pay real bills? Instead offer some intangible and mythical alternative based more on hope than actual experience.

Writers are especially vulnerable to this ploy. We create and we have an overwhelming desire to share our creations with others. We want people to read our work as much and sometimes more than we want to be paid. Many novices come to the profession with low self-esteem about their abilities and a fear that nobody will publish them.

This is a mistake and one that has consequences for all writers. The more of us who fall for the writing for nothing scam, the harder it becomes for everyone else to make a living. The profession, in which once many professionals of varying abilities could make a living, has been transformed into a hand to mouth existence in which only the biggest names with the deepest platforms can really make money.

Make no mistake about it, writing is a business in which you have to make money – or you need to do something else. Writing is labor that deserves to be compensated at an appropriate rate.

The long history of labor and management relations has been marked by conflict and even violence over wages and working conditions. As independent contractors, freelance writers aren’t represented by unions (although there are a few like The Freelancer’s Union that claim to be), but we are more like employed workers than we care to admit. We have all the responsibilities of self-employed business people, but are still servants to those who publish our work. As the smallest of companies in this Free Agent Nation, we have little or no leverage when it comes to negotiating with magazines or corporations.

So, how do we deal with this issue – with those who want our work without paying for it? The first step is by realizing that you are a business – no matter how small – and that you must run it like a business. You’re writing to make money and turn a profit. You won’t produce either if you succumb to the enticement of providing something for nothing. I realized that fact when I heard the offer I mentioned above. That’s why I said no and did so without reservation.

It’s time we all said no to nothing.



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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.


Posted in Working, Writing | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »