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May 28, 2010

When online media outlets pay peanuts, they get monkeys

Freelancers are increasingly waking up to realise that if their work is good enough for a commercial outlet, they deserve to be paid.

Yesterday, independent news, commentary and satire website New Matilda announced it will stop publishing on June 25 because it can no longer fund itself. Many people greeted this news with sadness and regret: not only those who regularly read and concur with New Matilda, but also those who believe strongly in the importance of a vigorous and varied independent media sphere.

However, other commentators were more flint-hearted, arguing any media outlet that consistently fails to break even kind of deserves to go under. Survival of the fittest, you guys!

Duncan Riley runs The Inquisitr, a very different website to New Matilda, with a very different philosophy and commercial model. Yet yesterday, Riley editorialised that New Matilda editor Marni Cordell’s claim to run a “lean operation” was dubious.

“The reality is you live within your means, and in New Matilda’s case it would appear to have been paying far too much for content,” Riley wrote. “If you’re paying $100-$200 per post, and you’re getting far less back in revenue per post, you either pay less for the content, or you change the content, so you cover costs.”

When I saw this editorial, I wrote on Twitter: “Wow. @duncanriley says @newmatilda’s woes are due to paying contributors too much. How much does he pay his staff?”

Riley replied: “let me tell you, not $100-$200 a post. I’m not a charity, I need to cover costs. Business 101. but let me add: I don’t ask my writers to do 2k words on stuff few ppl will want to read either. I pay v. well for the words.”

One of Riley’s writers, Steven Hodson, chimed in: “his staff does quite well thank you :)”.

I still don’t know what Inquisitr contributors earn per word or per piece, and the site isn’t on Margaret Simons’ list of freelance pay rates.

But notwithstanding Riley’s opinion of what New Matilda readers might want to read, and his overestimation of its word lengths (they’re 800-1200 words) he’s arguing here that cutting contributor costs is a key method of making an online media outlet financially viable. As a working freelancer who earns a significant chunk of my living by writing for online media, I’ve really got to take issue with that argument.

Freelancers are increasingly waking up to realise that if their work is good enough for a commercial outlet to publish, they deserve to be paid. Not just hardened hacks — bloggers and emerging writers too. The kind that unscrupulous online media proprietors are used to screwing over for free content.

You see, freelancers talk. They talk at industry events. They talk at J-schools. They talk in the pub. They get to know which media outlets have reputations as good places to write for, which editors are generous with word lengths, deadlines and copy-edits, and which accounts departments pay promptly.

Good writers do their best work when they feel it’s worth their time and effort, whereas they’ll dash out crappy, ill-thought-out work for employers they don’t respect.

The best writers will take their talent elsewhere if they think they’re getting ripped off, which actually has adverse commercial effects for an online media outlet. Treating writers well by respecting their need to be remunerated creates a loyalty that gives you better value for your money. If you build a reliable stable of talented writers who enjoy writing for you, you’ll get better quality writing and more of it.

You also get a livelier site culture. Writers who are proud of their work will tell their networks about it on Facebook, Twitter and email, bringing you more page-views. They will stick around on your site and comment on each other’s work, which will encourage readers to spend more time there, too.

Whereas if you own a niggardly site that cuts corners by running wire copy, PR guff, endless top-10 listicles and half-hearted linkdumps, readers might follow one link there, but they’ll glance over it quickly and won’t come back.

One of the online publishers I write for is facing the problem of how to improve its content. The editor is trying to impress upon the publisher — who holds the editorial purse — that the current story rate they’re offering just doesn’t entice good writers who know the pay is better at competing sites.

The site I work for is unearthing great writers, encouraging them and training them up, before these writers get sick of being paid peanuts and take their skills elsewhere.

While I realise that small independent outlets simply can’t compete in the budgetary oneupmanship stakes, it is a grave error to think that slashing pay rates, or radically revising editorial philosophies, is the best way for independent media to move forward. That way, the entire sector will end up crappy, reactionary, unoriginal and intellectually flaccid — as mental junk food.

I’ve written for New Matilda, and I have to say the money doesn’t provide a very good return for my time. But as a writer and a thinker, I value immensely the opportunity to address a topic of my choice at a word length that lets me tease out the issues. I’ve come back to New Matilda again and again, knowing they’re likely to give me more opportunities to write the kind of stories I enjoy.

I’m also grateful to Crikey for giving me the opportunity to discuss all this in a professional context rather than leaving me to mouth off on my blog for 50 friends.

I was paid $100 to write this.

Mel Campbell is speaking about writing for online media tomorrow at 12:30pm, as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

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28 comments

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28 thoughts on “When online media outlets pay peanuts, they get monkeys

  1. the invigilator

    Hi Mel. I probably have fewer than 50 readers. More like 3 or 4. Regardless, you can f**k yourself. The internet is an opportunity. Those who do not utilise it to its full potential with imagination and balls can remain poorly paid, or hopefully not paid at all.

    New Matilda had an opportunity. They had INVESTORS for Christ’s sake. But what did they produce that was decent (apart from some of Ben Pijobie’s stuff before he got the ABC gig)?

    What thoughts or memes or ideas have they penetrated with?

    Why didn’t they ask ME to write for em’. Or someone who actually has some originality?

    The MSM cover all the basics. We need alternative to push the envelope. With objectivity, honesty and analytical rigour. Also with brevity, if you don’t mind.

    This is not an exercise in self-aggrandizement. It is the future of the goddamned species.

    I mean, our little Australian experiment in meshing politics and blogging (years in front of America) – leading to people like Julia experimenting with policy – might just save the European Union from collapse.

    What do Ben Eltham contribute towards all that? Diddly and Squat.

    Disclaimer: I was paid richly in personal satisfaction for this piece.

  2. Michael R James

    Putting the “free” into Freelance! At $100 a pop it seems you would need to publish between 300 to 500 pieces a year just to make a bare living, but one that could not support mortgages or family etc. Depressing.

    As to the demise of New Matilda, obviously a case of no where near enough scale. Crikey’s survival remains somewhat a miracle but I predict is also under threat from the thing that made it possible in the first place: new media. With ABC-Drum, National Times and The Punch, and whatever is going to arrive with the next wave via iPad and imitators, the squeeze will be relentless and unsentimentally brutal.

  3. Sophie Black

    Ed: The Inviglilator — presumably New Matilda didn’t ask you because they’re looking for an argument more articulate than telling people to go f themselves. keep it nice.

  4. Michael R James

    @THE INVIGILATOR Posted Friday, 28 May 2010 at 3:18 pm

    If this piece represents your best effort, your blog will remain at 3 or 4 readers (your mum & dad & sister?). (But look, obviously you are 15 years old and you might mature in time….good luck)

    As for “The MSM cover all the basics”. Takes my breath away. No doubt different Crikey readers/subscribers get different things from it but for me it is an honest interpretation of news that one has trouble finding in the MSM. The “alt”, “edgy” stuff that you are addicted to, is wearying after ….a few milliseconds and the quality is simply hardly ever there (witness your letter; but again have a shot at writing a full piece for Crikey, they are quite receptive (code for desperate) if you are good enough).

  5. Michael R James

    @THE INVIGILATOR Posted Friday, 28 May 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Uh-oh. Might have just shot yourself in the foot. It seems Crikey Ed has just told you to go f**k yourself (you’re 15 years old, what else you gonna do?).

  6. the invigilator

    Sophie, Mel – apologies. Fair call – my blog this ain’t. But I would like some thoughts about the issues I raise here. From Crikey.

    Michael, I would love to see examples the ‘alt’ stuff you talk about. Or even some vague categories? PS My blog is here – want to become the 5th reader??? ;D

    My letter was written in about 2 minutes. I wouldn’t expect to be paid $100 for that. But, hell, if they want me to write a piece (about the Productivity Commission?) I’d be more than happy to…

  7. paddy

    Dear Mel,
    they paid you $100 to write this and (being a cheapskate concession subscriber)
    I paid $100 to read it.
    There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, I got the best part of the deal.
    A thousand thanks and hang in there.
    Hope they’ll keep paying you for lots more in the future.
    Cheers P.

  8. mellamaphone

    I was talking to a journalist friend about this topic last night… online is killing decent writing, as so many sites are happy to go with the cheapest writer, rather than the most skilled or informed, because they just don’t have a decent budget. Guru.com is expecially troublesome.

  9. JamesK

    The flip side is the White House Press Corp to a man/ woman on $1 million/ year to report ever sycophantically the President say of his daughter Malia “pokin’ her head ’round the bathroom door”: “Did you plug the hole yet Daddy?”

    Come to think of it not much different the drivel we get out our Canberra Press Gallery kevvieluvvies……..

  10. the invigilator

    Mellamaphone – this was the problem I had with Eltham et al. The opportunity was rare, valuable… and squandered.

    Guru is a forerunner of things to come. My advice: begin training your mind now. Get used to thinking deeply and critically. Also, treat your readers as compatriots. Comrades in revolution. Lead them, but also respond to them.

    Truth is a negotiated artifact, not something to be venerated.