Ink Stained Wretches

Over on Metafilter, there’s a rolicking conversation about the publishing world unfolding. To make a long story short, journalist Nate Thayer wrote a great blog post about the recent “basketball diplomacy” stuff going on in North Korea. A web editor for a major magazine contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to edit down a shortened version of the post for inclusion on their site.

A couple of emails were exchanged, and the editor noted that she couldn’t actually pay him for it because her freelancing budget was exhausted for the month, though it would be exposure for his work. Original reporting, the editor noted, only nets $100 per piece. Thayer refused and fired off a reply explaining that he had children to feed and wouldn’t work for free. Then he posted the entire email thread to his blog and said it was a commentary on the state of journalism.

Leaving aside the question of whether Thayer was a jerk for posting the email without asking permission, whether he was justified in being offended, or all of the above, it’s resulted in a lot of interesting commentary. What stood out to me in the MeFi thread, though, was a comment by one of the folks who was catching up on the story:

Whoa, $100 for an “original, reported story” is really really skint, unless the writer can knock something together in an hour. And do that five times a day, every day, for a week.

I stared at that for a few minutes trying to figure out why it felt off, and finally realized what rubbed me wrong. Almost two decades ago, I tried to make a go of it as a young freelance writer. Obviously, I was a new kid and times have changed, but the grim payscale was what most freelancing looked like even before digital knocked the ladder out and mobile kicked it while it was down.

Most publications employed staff writers that handled the lion’s share of their content. If you didn’t already have a good track record with the publication’s editors, you often had to work on spec. You’d research the story, cold-call an editor and pitch it, then write it, submit it, and possibly even edit it before the editor had to make a commitment. Publications that were easy to break into often paid in free copies. The next rung up the latter was pennies per word, and well-known publications could go as high as 10¢ per word or so. Only industry-focused niche journals could afford crazy rates like $1 per word because they presented a juicy, focused demographic for advertisers.

Feature articles in large, well-circulated magazines were prestigious (National Geographic, for example) but those opportunities were hotly contested and still only paid a couple thousand dollars for what could easily amount to weeks of research, writing, editing, pitching, and re-editing.

Knocking out 1000 words five times a day, every day, for a week was how freelance writing worked. Successful freelancers learned how to turn research work into multiple articles pitched to different markets – one story that could be told with different spins for different audiences, for example, or a topic meaty enough that multiple articles could be justified. Financially successful reporters weren’t necessarily ones who had reported on important things, but ones who had figured out how to parlay their recognition into syndicated columns; who’d decided to focus primarily on dull but comparatively lucrative corporate copywriting or technical editing; who’d turned a big story into a book that sold well; or who established enough conections and credibility to become a fixture in a particular industry.

I interviewed celebrities, I pitched ideas to the local newspapers, I pored over each year’s Writers Market and wrote for free to build my portfolio. I tried to parlay every bit of research into multiple pitches and cold-called editors. I started doing DTP and eventually web work on the side to pay bills, and (successfully!) pitched technical stories to computer publications. I managed to get a column in one, netting me a predctable $300 for 1500 words each month.

I was lucky enough to have a couple of mentors who had done well as freelancers; they showed me the ropes and assured me this was the “dues-paying” part of the writing life. However, after a couple of years of doing web stuff “on the side” while I wrote, it became clear that tech work was turning into my Real Job while writing was something I simply enjoyed. I’m sure if I’d been a better writer, or stuck it out, I could’ve climbed slowly but steadily. On the other hand, I now build the tech infrastructure for newspapers and magazines trying to survive in the digital age. I love doing what I do, and I still get the occasional chance to write for real.

The explosion of completely free high-quality content by people who simply want to write and have a platform thanks to the Internet makes competition rough. The shift to web and then to mobile has gutted ad revenues, leaving crunched editors with anemic budgets for freelancers. While Nate Thayer is totally within his rights to say, “Thanks but no thanks,” what happened to him just sounds a lot like… well, like freelancing.

Update: An editor at The Atlantic has replied, giving a bit of insight into what things look like on the other side of the editorial wall. Over at The Awl, a fascinating followup discussion is archived for posterity. It sounds like things haven’t changed too much since I plied my trade.

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