Putting the Free in Freelance

The LA Times is reporting on a not-so-secret secret of the media business: that the market for freelance writing has collapsed as a byproduct of the digital economy. We at Newcity have been as guilty as anyone in furthering this trend: our already rock-bottom rates had to be halved in order to survive about five years ago, and we still struggle to pay these new rates on any timely basis. That, in spite of the fact that we rely on freelancers more than ever.

This is a matter of considerable pain and sorrow for us, for we value the writer and artist above all. When we started Newcity as a print publication nearly twenty-four years ago, we had no revenue, no prospects. But we insisted on paying writers something for everything we published from day one, even though it was not unusual for small startups to operate on the efforts of “volunteers.” We were not a charity, and it seemed odd to try and build a business on the backs of folks working for free. (Interns are another matter, since there is a trade of education and career enhancement for their labors, which are defined by their temporary tenure.)

Everything has changed with the internet, as the  LA Times points out. The going rate is pushing toward zero, which is sadly ironic, since the internet has the distinct advantage of near-zero cost of distribution (newspapers and magazines pay for printing and distribution), making content perhaps its only marginal cost. On one level, writing for free might make sense: new writers, fresh out of school, can use the chance to get published, the valuable learning process of working with an editor as a bonus. And, let’s face it, even though Newcity pays something, it’s not that far from free. (We’re in fact, experimenting with free ourselves now, with online-only content. Not by choice, but necessity.)

But the model is on its head. It’s not just novice writers toiling without compensation online, but many topnotch scribes as well, depending on the forum. I know several successful writers personally who contribute to the Huffington Post, for example, for no pay, but simply for the audience. The “brand of me” notion is a compelling lure to those successful enough to whiff its perfume. Of course, these same personal brand-builders rely on the old media to pay their bills, in essence contributing to the vicious cycle that now threatens their golden goose by demanding pay from their old friend and then volunteering for the rebellion that wants to slay it.

And advertisers, nauseated from the swirling disruption of the media economy, have exacerbated the trend by backing off print media. I suspect this is less empirical, that is, less driven by either a reduction in the impact of their print ads or an offsetting ad effectiveness online, and more emotional. With traditional media reporting its own terminal illness on a daily basis, advertisers increasingly feel like fools for sticking with the tried and true when that new toy is so very shiny. Net net, the aspirational opportunities for freelance writers, the Conde Nasts of the world, are getting smaller and more crowded. They’re looking at their new competitors paying zero, and reducing many of their rates accordingly. So the top starts looking more and more like the bottom.

Economists might note that the endless supply of new writers entering the marketplace will tend to drive prices close to zero, and so our current state might make sense in that regard. But world-class nonfiction writers, seasoned journalists, are not in endless supply. They’re worth something, and the sooner that advertisers wake up and realize that the eyeballs they prize are not an undifferentiated commodity, the better off we’ll all be.

Leave a Reply