Freelancing as a journalist is a great job except, too often, for the pay. Although many publications value our work, there are some that are just looking for best deal. They want the least expensive writer that will do the work, not thinking much about quality, experience, integrity—all the things that go into making a piece of writing not only a pleasure to read, but accurate and objective (which is how it should be, if it’s a reported story).
My tale of woe concerns a major magazine and its website. I’ve written for the publication before, and enjoyed it, even though the pay wasn’t great. But I thought perhaps I would become more valuable to the editors the more work I did, and the happier they were with that work. Yeah, right.
Three weeks after hiring me to do some regular freelancing for the magazine’s website, my editor jumped ship and went to work for another publication. Then the next editor for whom I had been working sheepishly informed me—after I did many stories for her—that the website would now only pay in something called “traffic awards” rather than, say, cash. Traffic awards, as I understood it, meant that the more eyeballs my stories got, the more I would make. But it would make pennies on the eyeball—really, pennies.
This is a crummy way for a publication to do business. First, it encourages writers to only report stories they think will get the most hits. Sometimes what people should be reading—or don’t know about but should know about—are not topics that will become viral sensations. They won’t get the most tweets, won’t be recommended often on Facebook or massively emailed to others. Nevertheless, they may be important subjects. The financial crisis of 2008, for example, was not easy to understand but the multitude of stories published about it helped the American public—and the world—to understand as best they could what, exactly, was going on. Many of those stories did not get the same amount of traffic as stories about Kim Kardashian. Or Snooki. You get the idea. It undermines good journalism to pay based on the popularity of a story.
And that doesn’t even begin to tackle the devaluation of good journalism. It’s not enough, I guess, that one of the pillars of a democratic society is a free press. It seems the general public thinks it’s pretty easy to report and write a story, because they are seeing and reading so much stuff on the web—content, content, content, everywhere you look. Much of it—a significant amount of it, in fact—is not very well done. Some publications don’t care. They want writers who will write on the cheap, who will crank out copy and be paid in traffic awards. Maybe next they’ll be paying writers in actual, unshelled peanuts.
Several months ago an editor that contributes to the magazine offered me a few profiles to write for a specific section. I wrote for this section last year and really liked it. Last year a 400-word profile paid $500 and I did two of them. This year that exact same amount of work, I was told, paid $200—and my very kind editor had to fight to get it. It was one of the only times in my career I said no. Anyone who freelances for a living knows you can’t say “no” very often, and I don’t. But coming on top of the traffic awards policy, slashing the fee for this year’s profiles by more than 50%, was too much for me.
I don’t know who is writing them this year—perhaps very inexperienced writers, perhaps interns, perhaps monkeys. But the experience left the worst taste in my mouth. There’s nothing like knowing that as I get more experienced and better at what I do, I’m worth less today than I was yesterday. – Eilene Zimmerman, guest contributor
Eilene Zimmerman is a freelance journalist. She writes the monthly Career Couch column for the New York Times and is a frequent contributor to the paper’s small business section, the Christian Science Monitor, CNNMoney.com, Salon.com and Crain’s New York Business. Follow her on Twitter at @eilenez