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What’s writing worth?

There’s been a brouhaha on the Internet of late, over the issue of whether freelance writers for magazines, journals, and internet media outlets should be paid for their work. (No one is yet questioning whether editors and staff writers should be paid. That’s coming, though, for reasons I will get to in a moment.) Some writers (mostly of the paid staff variety, coincidentally) want freelancers to suck it up and write for no money, for exposure or giggles or what have you. Among editors there has been a fair amount of hand-wringing and declaring that the system is rigged against them paying writers fairly, but no plan for changing the system has emerged to their satisfaction. (Or else, surely, they would be executing that plan. Right?).

Everyone has been asking the wrong question. The question is, what is writing worth?

As a freelance writer, I am, of course, concerned for the writers’ welfare. I’ve written for no pay, and enjoyed it–but that was before I had child care to pay for and a mortgage. By getting older, I’ve vaulted myself into the “more expensive and of questionable value as a fresh voice” category of freelancers. Lining up the supply wagons, then, takes a top priority as I make choices about where and how to do my work.

I’m also female in a terrible profession for women: according to the latest VIDA count, I should statistically be landing one pitch for every three or four that my male counterparts land. I know exactly how lucky I am to work with editors and colleagues who value and respect my work.

But to understand the issue of pay for written work, we need to pivot the camera around to face the magazine/media owners and publishers. These are the folks who make sure (as Cord Jefferson observed late last week) that the words written in today’s journalism/creative nonfiction world reflect a working-class, apprenticed profession populated largely by elites. This isn’t a new problem–but it’s a big one, and not just for the writers.

The problem is that, as the pool of writers becomes both more homogeneous and less able/willing/incentivized to cover hard news, readers miss out on the stories and voices of people who look, talk, and think like themselves.

It’s not that it’s impossible for a writer holed up in a group apartment in Brooklyn to hit the streets in search of a picket line or a PTO meeting or a tenants’ association rally to cover; it’s that publishers are steadily removing the incentives to do so. Many publishers have convinced themselves that readers only want more stories about celebrity book authors and recycled TED talks about owning less stuff or how to crowdfund your band tour. And they won’t allow real people’s stories to edge out the glamour porn.

Without a viable profit-making model, these media companies and publishers are groping in the dark for ways to make money. It’s a sad—and hopefully temporary–side effect of this groping that good writing about real people gets devalued in favor of the thing that is sure to sell pageviews/copies.

Readers—especially women readers, as editors continue to spend their shrinking hard news budgets on writing by and for guys—are infantilized and devalued when publishers invest in lazy puff pieces pitting them against each other with “mommy wars” and “leaning in/out/north/west/south/whatever” and celebrity cheating scandals. Meanwhile, corporations, police departments and government agencies get away with things that these same writers for these media outlets might otherwise uncover.

So, if real news coverage and creative nonfiction about ordinary people’s lives is worth more than publishers will pay for it, what becomes of the writers? As Charles Pierce notes, journalists’ class consciousness has been scraped away so thoroughly by decades of consolidating news corporations and good old-fashioned unionbusting that the New York freelancing crowd only just noticed that the media outlets they write for will never want to pay them a dime no matter what they cover.

Barbara Ehrenreich has been doing some interesting work lately on the state of journalism and similar professions, and what she tells up and comers is ‘Welcome to the American working class.” The eating ramen and living in semi-squalor and needing infusions of additional cash to make rent that Jefferson mentions—those are features, not bugs, of the profession today. (Whether the cash infusions come from your parents or from playing poker or throwing rent parties is totally up to individual circumstances.) And part of what Ehrenreich is saying is that we ought to embrace this, to begin to have a class consciousness that will help us writers identify more with our readers, who are themselves struggling.

It can be scary to be a freelancer out there hustling, not sure where the next gig or check will come from, or when. Your writing gets skewed by the need for cash: you have to pitch things that are tied to the news cycle, however batty and soul-crushing it may be to write yet another piece about Celebrity Author Queen Bee Du Jour. It may feel more righteous to do a piece for free here and there because it liberates you from that market-driven headline.

But, in my experience, the bills will keep piling up on top of the small brown wicker table next to the front door, and you’re going to have to pay them (just as readers have to pay theirs). There are so many freelancers that the need for collective action in the face of publications’ unwillingness to pay is great—as someone recently pointed out, when writers talk to each other, it always benefits them financially.

So: Writers, talk to each other. Decide together what is worth writing about, and which publications are worth working for. And then pitch the editors on the topics that keep you awake at night, not what you think will perform well in SEO terms. There are a thousand stories in the naked city, as the saying goes. Somebody’s got to go out and tell them.

One thought on “What’s writing worth?

  1. Great article! I had never thought about those issues before. Nor did I realize that there is an attempt by corporate news interests to have freelancers “volunteer” their services. You have pointed out the fallacies involved. I hope you are successful in getting other writers to collaborate (organize)to fight this insidious effort.

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