Monday, January 25, 2010

The Internet's Effect on the Market
For Freelance Writing & Journalism

'What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession -- or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage. Freelance writing fees -- beginning with the Internet but extending to newspapers and magazines -- have been spiraling downward for a couple of years and reached what appears to be bottom in 2009. The trend has gotten scant attention outside the trade. Maybe that's because we live in a culture that holds journalists in low esteem. Or it could be because so much focus has been put on the massive cutbacks in full-time journalism jobs. An estimated 31,000 writers, editors and others have been jettisoned by newspapers in just the last two years.Today's reality is that much of freelancing has become all too free. Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50% or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers.'
--from a recent article by the L.A. Times' excellent media reporter, James Rainey. We had many reactions to this piece, but figured y'all should have first crack at commenting.


At 10:13 AM, Blogger Kass said...

The internet has replaced so much, I keep thinking there is going to be a charge for using blogger and facebook and google. I don't take a paper anymore. I'm getting all of my reading material, except books, online. I'm overwhelmed by how much good writing there is out there. I can barely keep up. Some of it, I would gladly pay for, but where do I send the check?

At 10:18 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting you mention that last thing about sending the check. The NYT has noted that readers often ask the same question: how can I support this great free stuff you give me on the web? That's no doubt behind their recently announced plan to begin charging for web access. And since they're the industry leader, others will certainly study them closely and head in that general direction. But it won't happen without lots of complications.

And yes, it can be a bit overwhelming. But what a great problem to have, huh? Too much good writing to read.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger FreshGreenKim said...

To speak to how to pay, Kass, a good writer friend of mine has set up his blog for wireless delivery on Amazon. (price of $1.99/month) Interesting concept, though I'm not sure how well it will take off... I'm intrigued, though.

One thing I am slowly learning is NOT to give my words away. In my eagerness to establish some credentials, I practically gave away some of my better writing while working on content mill stuff.

I liken it to the plethora of cheap goods that have flooded the market. There are still consumers willing to buy a junk product, there probably are consumers willing to read junk writing.

At 10:57 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kim's speaking of a larger (if also narrower) conversation she and I and many other writers often have about the strategy behind all this. The reality, as she rightly suggests, is that the law of supply and demand remains a law, and must be fully considered and dealt with. But there are lots of ways and niches in which to make a living wage from one's writing. You just have to identify them, work at them, and remain disciplined. Most of all--and this is the biggest mental hurdle of all for many writers--you have to value your own work enough to do what it takes to charge real money for it. That includes, among other things, branching out into commercial writing that will support your journalism.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Kass said...

You've convinced me. Both of you.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

What if the enemy is us? Granted, the ranks of the freelancer have swelled in the past few years, partly due to layoffs, and partly due to the increased opportunities afforded by the Net. But would the poor compensation paid by online and print publications be as big an issue if freelancers weren't willing to work for such poor pay? Seems to me the problem is our nature. Much as we like to think of ourselves as lone wolves, we don't really act like them. Wolves have the decency to travel in packs. Rather, we're more like snakes, a characteristic that many an editor has learned to exploit. We've all had those pitch conversations with editors. The ones where they state their publication's rates flatly, then react with astonishment to any form of protest, as though they could walk out the door and within 10 minutes find a dozen other freelancers willing to write blog posts for $15 each, and, well, yeah. Of course they can. Or, what about the editors who ask "What's your rate?" Don't you ever wonder if they take perverse pleasure in getting a writer to work for less than they were willing to offer? This is not to say that editors are our enemies. They wouldn't do this if we didn't let them. Yes, we hate to say the opposite of "yes," but "no" is no solution unless every subsequent freelancer contacted by that editor also says "no." Pack-like behavior from snakes? Not likely. Maybe our only hope is to change our nature, to get better about creating a sense of community among freelancers, to realize that we're all in it together. But then, if we did that, it might make it hard for publications to save money by laying off writers, and hire them back as freelancers.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

A lot of truth and insight in this, TJ, which I would expect. But of course the bottom line remains supply and demand, and since millions of people will always continue to want to write and publish under their own names (including novices who aren't doing it for financial reasons), the oversupply of writing isn't likely to ever change.

At the same time, the web utterly changes the dynamics of the demand side, since it's a publishing platform with essentially unlimited space, thus undercutting the traditional economic equation, which rested on a limited space for writing. All of this also helps explain why traditional media earn only cents on the dollar for their web ads versus print ads. It has the same root cause--a geometrically expanding inventory from which to choose, for readers and advertisers.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

There's an expectation with online publishing that it OUGHT to be given away for free. Which in many cases is all it's worth, of course. But then when something worthwhile does come down the pike, that people should feel "honored" that you'd read it, but they certainly shouldn't have to pay for reading it.

To be honest I can see a lot of sides to that issue. On the one hand, I think the expectation is ridiculous: you wouldn't expect a lawyer to give their trained services away for free, so why would you expect other trained skill-holders to do the same? On the other hand, so many artists and creatives DO give away at least SOME of their work for free (I am guilty as charged) that the expectations are only reinforced.

So we must admit that we're partially complicit in the process if not totally responsible for the climate in which it operates.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've touched on a key point, Art (actually more than one): you have to make sure you're only giving away some of your work, and in a way that strategically stokes demand for more of it, and for more targetted uses and applications. It's largely the same dynamics as in the visual arts, I'm sure.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Here's one Seattle writer's unequivocal take on this issue:


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