This Job, Not That Job

What I’m listening to: One Time Thing by The Airborne Toxic Event

Sometimes these posts write themselves.

That’s how I felt when writer Mika Doyle shared the news with me that LA Weekly terminated their editors (all but one staff writer) and turned to unpaid contributors to provide the publication’s content.

Thankfully, they didn’t escape the backlash. Advertisers are holding back advertising as it’s revealed that the buyers’ own financial backers are known to have funded a number of Republican political campaigns. Journalists and the freelance community are also outraged.

And yet they aren’t the only organization to think that free writing is a sound business model.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Free writing sounds like a great idea if you have writers who are desperate enough to want the byline. Yet what kind of writing are you getting? Who’s vetting sources? Who’s fact-checking? Who’s making sure articles are factual and not just supposition?

That one staff writer?

Puh-leeze.

As most of us know, LA Weekly is not the first news outlet to go for the freebie. It all started with Huffington Post, where too many writers were far too eager to write for a byline while making Arianna Huffington ridiculously wealthy (her estimated net worth is $35 million). She got the revenue, the writers got zip. Even the byline was kind of worthless, wasn’t it?

A short list of publications that don’t pay their writers:

  • Huffington Post
  • LA Weekly
  • Atlantic.com (at this writing, they do still pay for print articles)

These aren’t small potatoes, like Grass Cutting Monthly or Upholstery Times. These are Big Names.

Most of you know this already, but for those who don’t…

Freelancers who write for free are wasting their time and advancing the cause of a lousy client.

But what about the Big Name? Won’t that help my portfolio shine?

No. It won’t. Editors who would hire you might not because they know who pays and who doesn’t. The stain of the non-paying work will stick to you like varnish.

But I’m a good writer! you say. Doesn’t matter. Editors aren’t inclined to respect a writer who doesn’t respect the job enough to get money for it. There’s something about you accepting substandard conditions that suggests it’s the only work you can get. It also suggests you may not be up for a real job.

Instead of raising doubts, how about raising your own expectations? Try a job like this:

Backpacker Magazine

Online-only

As of 2015, we are now assigning web-only content to freelancers. We’ve got a theme every month for this online exclusive stuff (see below), and a few general categories of content we’re looking for:

Our main goals here are to create awesome content our readers will love, and drive traffic to the site (so viral = great).

All BACKPACKER assignments are made in writing, and require a signed contract with you, the freelance author, in order to be valid. The contract will specify payment amount, payment terms, and rights purchased. In general, we pay on acceptance and buy all rights. We pay $.40 to more than $1.00 per word, depending upon the complexity and demands of the article, as well as the proven experience of the writer.

 

Writers, what are some of the worst freelance gigs you’ve seen lately?

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Comments

  • Krista December 6, 2017 at 9:10 am

    Not really a gig but I had an article “accepted” by a publication, whose website explicitly states they PAY for online and print pieces. When I inquired about what I would be paid, they responded they were not going to pay because it would be published on their blog. I told her that I was not in the position to give my work away, as writing is my sole source of income. The worst part? The blog is filled with excellent writing on motherhood that people, for whatever reason, decided to just give away.

    Reply
    • lwidmer December 6, 2017 at 9:33 am

      Good for you, Krista! You don’t need that kind of bait-and-switch BS. My guess is those other articles were accepted under the same conditions and the writers, for whatever reason, were afraid to say anything. You did exactly what they all should have done — create a boundary and defend it.

      I hope you let them know that the only reason you sent your article was that their own website says they pay. That’s false advertising, and it’s a gross oversight at best and a sleazy attempt at free work at worst.

      Reply
      • Krista December 6, 2017 at 9:59 am

        Yes, I did let the editor know, but the submission guidelines are still quite vague. And what they are calling blog posts are in some cases 1000+-word articles! I can’t help feeling, though, as sleazy as it is, these publications only keep doing this because they can. If writers refused to work for free, they would have no choice but to pay! Sounds simple…

        Reply
        • lwidmer December 6, 2017 at 10:10 am

          That’s sleazy for sure. And you’re right — it sounds simple to me, too!

          Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson December 6, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Well, the other day I saw a job listing for a TV/entertainment writer. Despite seeing they only required two years experience, I decided to apply just to see what was what. (The listing didn’t mention scope or fees.) In my cover letter I even mentioned that it sounded like they might be looking for newer or less experienced writers.

    I wasn’t expecting it to pay much more than a tiny amount per click-through, so I was surprised that they offered 8-cents per word.

    Given my cover letter, clips, LinkedIn profile and resume all showed that I’m not a beginner and write for markets that pay more roughly 10 times the amount, I was also surprised that they replied with the 8-cents per word offer. Thanks but no thanks.

    I politely explained that while newer or part-time writers might welcome 8-cents per word (well, it is better than the LA Times’ new rate), the time it would take me to research and write an article for them would take time away from my regular clients, and since freelancing is my sole source of income, I need to make sure I’m not losing billable hours. She replied immediately and thanked me for my honesty.

    Reply
    • lwidmer December 6, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      I like how you handled that, Paula. Sometimes the cordial truth actually helps. She thanked you, which shows professionalism on her part. And who knows? What you said may influence their rates going forward.

      Reply
  • Jake Poinier December 7, 2017 at 9:07 am

    Naively, I thought the Huffington Post sale in 2013 (and resulting squalling from freelancers who, rightly, got none of Ariana’s zillions) was going to wake people up. At least some of them. Call me mercenary, but the older I get, the less I care about where my name appears…other than on the “Pay to the Order of…” line on a check.

    Reply
    • lwidmer December 7, 2017 at 9:38 am

      It’s a great byline, isn’t it? 😉

      I thought so too, Jake. But there are far too many sleepwalkers in the world.

      Reply
    • Cathy Miller December 12, 2017 at 9:07 am

      Classic definition of insanity, isn’t it, Jake? 😉

      Reply