Stuart Dredge has written about the recent online row about paying journalists. The short of the story is Nate Thayer was asked to repurpose an article for The Atlantic for no money, and countless toys were rapidly thrown out of countless prams by countless writers, bloggers and people who just really like throwing toys out of prams.
Dredge is calmer than most, and argues against the commonplace default position these days that people should always be paid for writing.
My wife and I have a site called Apps Playground, about children’s apps, which is profitable (to the tune of £20-£30 of App Store affiliate fees a month, once hosting costs are deducted) as long as you don’t factor in the time we spend writing it. So we’re writing for free, but it’s our own thing.
If someone – say a big technology site like TechCrunch or Mashable – asked me to write the kind of stuff I do for The Guardian for them for free, would I? Obviously no. If they asked me to do a guest piece for free in my role as Apps Playground co-founder, with a link to the site? Obviously yes. Different hats.
On the surface, this looks similar to the regular ‘write for us in return for exposure’ offer every seasoned writer I know gets from publications on a fairly regular basis. As Dredge notes, writing for free is about the trade-off—whether or not you will potentially see more overall long-term value/income in return for giving away some of your time.
That said, this is looking at things from an individual’s viewpoint rather than a wider context. When publications—especially online—trend towards unsustainable rates (or in many cases, no rates), everyone’s individual one-off potentially leads to a situation where no-one gets paid. As someone who’s almost entirely a professional writer these days, that scares the shit out of me. Having been doing this gig for well over a decade now, with (so far) precisely no editors hunting me down and repeatedly punching me in the face while yelling about inaccurate use of interrobangs, I like to think I’m doing a pretty good job of things. But even so, it’s hard to see how it’s possible in the long term to compete against free, if that’s the way things go.
Perhaps, too, there are simply too many journalists, and new digital economics mean we’ll have to work harder and scrap smarter to stay in the game. There’s an interesting parallel with musicians here, I think, which is probably a separate article in itself.
He may well be right. Perhaps the entire creative sector is moving towards an end point where the vast majority of those within it—even those who’d previously had long and healthy careers—simply won’t be able to survive. Writing, music, and other creative endeavours could become little more than hobbyist pastimes, filling an hour in an evening before the creator goes to bed, ready for another day doing a ‘proper’ job, whatever that might be. That doesn’t so much horrify me as make me incredibly sad. If we cannot find a place and see value in creative tasks, I think we’ll be poorer for it and publications/other outlets will increasingly become unfocussed; however, perhaps with more people having a voice, diversity will flourish, great new creators will break through, and people will start once again thinking about paying directly to read, watch or hear more work from them, rather than waiting until they’ve a spare evening to craft something new.
Update: Gary Marshall adds his thoughts.