Last week, Wil Wheaton went viral with a post he wrote regarding his refusal to write for The Huffington Post in exchange for “exposure.” The Huffington Post is, by far, the most egregious offender in the world of (not) paying writers — despite being one of the wealthiest media companies in the history of the internet, HuffPo still refuses to compensate bloggers and guest writers for appearing on its many live-casts or writing posts for the site. They also post aggregated excerpts of material from other websites without their permission and often ask sites like ours if they can republish our work for free. The sin in these cases isn’t exactly that we aren’t being paid for the republication, but that we put our hearts and souls into building the kind of community that produces the kind of work Huffington Post would never be able to solicit or nurture themselves, and yet they are able to reap the benefits of that work by passing off ours as their own. We do it anyway: we let them republish our posts, we’re happy to be featured on their live-casts. Honestly, the exposure helps.
“Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period,” tweeted Wheaton, and he’s absolutely right: we do all deserve to get paid for our work, period. Writers, designers, bloggers, illustrators, coders, the whole lot of us. Everybody who’s ever freelanced, including me, has written mountains of essays, posts and articles for free, and it sucks. Back in the late ’00s the market for freelance writers was bleak, to say the least.
But what do blanket statements like Wheaton’s — statements pretty much every writer has stated, at some point — mean for websites who genuinely cannot pay their writers or cannot afford to pay their writers very much? Don’t scowl! I can feel your scowl and I need you to stop scowling. I need you to think about the fact that the internet seems to want both of these things:
- Free content
- Writers getting paid to write content
Readers don’t want ads. They don’t like paywalls. They don’t like being asked for money. And yet. AND YET. They get very upset to hear that a website is failing to pay its writers for the content they themselves are failing to pay for!
Last week, Gawker, with trademark snark, took a dig at excellent literary website The Rumpus, criticizing it for its own post about Wil Wheaton’s post:
Yes, it was gutsy of The Rumpus, who indeed doesn’t pay its writers, to even wade into the conversation. But The Rumpus isn’t The Huffington Post. The Rumpus isn’t Gawker, either, or The Atlantic or Entertainment Weekly. The Rumpus, unlike HuffPo, can’t afford to pay its writers. The website doesn’t garner enough income to pay its writers. Full stop.
So what do we say? What should The Rumpus do? Force its editors to stop writing and editing essays so they can instead devote their time to pitching advertisers? (Because, FYI, despite also being the writer/editor this whole site was built around — about half my job these days involves accounting, budgeting, building revenue streams, pitching advertisers, plotting merch, selling A+, planning camp, etc.) Shut down altogether? Most print literary journals, which also don’t make money, also don’t pay their writers and many also charge them to submit in the first place.
The Rumpus is not of the same world as The Huffington Post, and therein lies the problem with this conversation: somewhere along the line, in an important and valuable attempt to pay writers better, the issue of what any given publication could legitimately afford was thrown out the window. Paying writers = the right side of history, period. If you don’t have the financial backing of venture capital or a man with a lot of money, you shouldn’t even exist. Your continued dedication to existence is in fact offensive to the very writers you claim to nurture. In response to angry comments on The Rumpus’s post, a managing editor stepped in to share their side of the story:
As the Managing Editor of the site, I’d like to add that we wish we could pay, both our writers and our editors. Everyone who works for me works out of love for the site—The Rumpus makes enough to keep running. We are very up-front about this, and it’s the reason that our writers maintain full ownership of anything we publish. We don’t have writers sign any kind of contract, as many other sites (which pay nominal fees) do. Personally, I thank my editors and writers again and again for their amazing work, and I try to help promote their other projects whenever and wherever possible. The Rumpus is a family, and a labor of love. Further, we know that the subject of paying for writing is important to discuss, and that’s why this post went up on our site (in spite of the backlash that could have, and did, occur).
I’m sensitive to this issue as a website that was unable to pay most of its writers from our inception in 2009 until late 2013. We didn’t have the money to pay them, that’s just a fact. The money did not exist, we could not summon it from the sky; we’re lesbians, we inherently lack rich husbands. Maybe that means we should’ve given up, I’m not sure, but that makes me really frightened for the future of independent journalism by and for populations even more disenfranchised than our own. How can we advocate for both disenfranchised writers and disenfranchised publishers? Because the thing is…
Not paying your writers SUCKS.
I doubt The Rumpus takes nightly baths in piles of fresh hundred-dollar bills, cackling over how they swindled Rick Moody and Roxane Gay into lining their coffers.
Not paying writers can mean: no recourse for missed deadlines, no exclusivity, being the last priority on their to-do list, formatting everything yourself, only so many rounds of edits an unpaid writer has time for before an editor might just go ahead with a light re-write instead, genuinely feeling like a terrible person emotionally indebted to all your contributors. There’s a vicious cycle to it, too — less money to pay writers means less experienced writers which requires more editors. (We genuinely do love working closely with new writers to improve their work, though, it’s a highlight of the job — but a time-consuming one, too.) This guilt will literally keep you up at night! You will possibly find yourself addicted to Ambien! You can’t assign stories, either — if the story isn’t fun to write, you yourself will be the one to write it. You end up with a very homogenous team because the writers most likely to stick around are the ones who are your actual friends and/or people whose background and life experience affords them the ability to write for free. You continuously find yourself losing bright talent to jobs that can pay, you find yourself in competition with sites who can pay. It’s awful.
In December 2013, a fan gave us $10k to start paying our writers, and we did. I started sleeping better, my high blood pressure problem corrected itself. I also had to work so many hours a week to keep our income up enough to pay these writers through 2014 (the $10k covered about three months of paying writers) that I had a mental breakdown a few months later, but that was still better than how I’d felt the year before!
Compensating our team members enabled us to organize and operate our business with increased efficiency across the board. It made this site a much better place to work. It enabled us to publish more voices that don’t get heard from marginalized groups who definitely couldn’t afford to do any work for free. We still wish we could pay more, and know we would be a better site if we did.
The Content Wars
This conversation was radically different only a few years ago — before big-money sites began crowding out the indies and blogs who’d initially populated the internet, it was rare to find any website that paid its writers well. This was indeed a very dark time to be a writer. The conversation changed when venture capital and men with deep pockets took over the internet, which was honestly a blessing — but also led to indies who’d been doing pretty well paying writers what they could being held to a higher and more absolute standard of author compensation. Wealthy sites like Cosmopolitan and Bustle jumped on the feminist bandwagon, while communities like Feministing still struggle for financial viability.
At the same time, the innovative sponsored content teams and astronomical number of views larger sites could offer wooed advertisers entirely away from the indies they’d previously sold to. The rise of ad-blockers marked the final nail in the coffin: again, big sites were insulated from significant damage by swollen bank accounts, deals with Facebook and teams devoted to creating unblockable “native advertising.”
The fact that some websites, like Gawker and Broadly, clearly do have money can mislead the general public about how finances work in the roll of online media. The visibly bustling editorial budgets of some publications combined with the general mystery surrounding how online media creates revenue — advertising? sponsored content? — can create the illusion that online media generates income simply by existing; that all the websites you read on a daily basis just sort of accumulate cash from eldritch internet sources. (In actuality, most of the websites you read are funded either by venture capital from male investors or from out of somebody’s personal pocket.) (Yes, that’s the second time we’ve linked you to that post — it’s important!) Similarly, the digital nature of digital media can lead some to think that unlike other industries, online media has no overhead, only sweet sweet profit. After all, you have a personal Twitter account and maybe a personal website for free or for very little money, so isn’t that just how it works?
When you enter a brick-and-mortar store, you’re usually somewhat aware that they have to pay for their real estate, their maintenance, their stock; when you visit a website, you don’t see their server fees, the technology professionals they pay for maintenance, or any of their other invisible costs. At Autostraddle, we’d love to have a paid Slack account so that our conversations on that platform can be archived so we’re not constantly scrambling to remember crucial interactions, and upgrade our newsletter client so we can have a larger mailing list. But those cost money, more money than we can afford; and they’re just two examples. The sites who can afford to pay their writers generously usually have physical real estate, too — a pipe dream for indies like ours who save up all year for the editors to be able to spend even one week in the same location.
The glory days of Google AdSense are gone, if they were ever here for anybody besides Perez Hilton. Autostraddle rarely made more than $50 a day with Adsense, despite averaging 95k -100k pageviews a day. If the highest CPM (cost per thousand impressions) your site can demand is 50 cents, then “eyeballs” equals very few “dollars.”
Readers Have to Pay For Writers To Get Paid
We’re lucky, in a weird way, that we struggled with attracting advertisers from the get-go and had to develop alternate revenue streams almost immediately, like our A+ Membership program, our merch store, A-Camp, and affiliate marketing. At this point, only 11% of our revenue is ad-based, which is actually a huge decline from when our site was a lot smaller but so was the internet itself. We’ve made less and less from advertising every year since 2011, despite our size and influence increasing significantly over that time period and having the added benefit this year of Totally Her selling impressions on our behalf (at a 50% commission). If advertising was our only income stream, we’d be fucked, but it isn’t, so our revenue has grown every year regardless of outside factors, including traffic, which did suffer after the launch of A+ last summer. (Asking your readers to pay for writing is apparently uncouth; we were told we should, instead, invent a time-turner and devote ourselves to doing presentations at colleges.) Luckily, more and more readers have come to understand why we need A+ to survive, and have joined; thus, we still exist.
We’re now able to pay all our contributors (between $25 – $100 a post, usually in the $35-$50 range), but it’s not what they could make writing for Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Slate or a Vox Media property. Sadly, it’s not much more than they could make writing for a lot of wealthy sites who crank out so much content a day that they actually manage to pay their writers less than sites like ours or feminist indie The Toast does. (Following Grantland’s shuttering, The Toast’s Nicole Cliffe shared some truly awesome real talk on how they’ve managed to survive an indie-hostile climate.) Most independent sites that attract niche groups like ours (queer women) will struggle to meet the demands of a populace whose zest for demanding better compensation for writers ignores the independent businesses who simply cannot without the financial support of that populace.
Who Pays Writers
Sites like Who Pays Writers are performing a fantastic service, making public online the information that writers like me used to seek out in the annual Writer’s Market reference books at the local library.
Because of WPW, we’re all aware that Bustle, which’s very well-funded, apparently pays $20 a post, and HelloGiggles, recently valued at $30 million, paid $25 a post as of last year. WPW could probably benefit from an “independent media” tag, though, ’cause it’s dizzying to see The Billfold ($25 for 500-to-1,000 word essay) right above Cosmopolitan ($2 a word for a 1,200 word essay in print) and Buzzfeed ($200 for a 1,000- to 2,ooo-word essay) without any notation that the former is an indie with no venture capital funding and the latter have a few more financial cards in their favor. (Although Cosmo still only offers $100 for unsolicited online essays.) The irony is that Scratch Mag, a publication launched by WPW to give more context to numbers like that, didn’t make enough money to keep publishing.
The conversation about paying writers can’t afford to lump in The Rumpus with The Huffington Post. As Maria Bustillos wrote in a 2013 conversation on The Awl about paying writers:
From my perspective there are two considerations to balance: my desire to write the piece in question, and the publication’s ability to pay. Sometimes the decision is 100% on one side or the other.
When we sneer at indies for failing to earn the money necessary to compensate their writers or interns at Vice Media levels, we are seemingly advocating for the little guy, but, in fact, are crushing a whole bunch of other little guys in the process. How do we advocate for writers getting fairly compensated and take The Huffington Post to task without inadvertently harming independent publishers? I honestly don’t know. But I hope we figure it out.