Ask The Editor

January 4, 2010

The New York Times and freelancers (A.K.A. filthy non-staff writer scum)

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times public editor, has continued his predecessor’s attack on freelance writers. He doesn’t exactly call us an odious bunch as his predecessor did but seems to feel it’s perfectly fine to impose draconian rules on non-staff writers while refusing to pay their reporting expenses or a decent pay rate, and to ignore the huge transgressions of staffers and stars.

Hoyt points to three freelancers who “transgressed” and were tossed by
the Times, but the offenses are minor compared to those of Times’ stars who are still with the paper.

  1. Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School wrote a column about innovation and included 3M in her column without disclosing that 3M paid her expenses to go to their site. Because her university research involves checking out such sites, if 3M hadn’t paid Harvard certainly would have. And presumably, that would have been okay with the Times. Otherwise, her career as a professor, which qualified her for this column, would have been viewed by the Times as an ethical failing and also disqualified her for this column.
  2. Mike Albo, who accepted a travel-sponsored junket to Jamaica but didn’t write about it for the Times. Hoyt fails to mention that few travel publications or columns pay travel expenses to travel writers.  So writers who wish to write about travel have three choices: pay their own expenses (usually greater than the assignment fee); accept complimentary trips from travel companies; or stop writing about travel.
  3. A third freelancer, Joshua Robinson, identified himself as a writer for the Times while soliciting photography work from airline magazines — and asking the airline magazines to cover his airfare. Wouldn’t any of us, if pitching an airline magazine A) promote our major credits and B) ask the magazine to cover the travel and other expenses of the project?

Virginia Postrel was asked by The New York Times to write the column that Tripsas eventually accepted and was fired from. Postrel turned it down due to the Times’ measly pay and refusal to cover research expenses. However, she says, had she taken the gig, she also would have been disqualified on “ethical” grounds.

She had a correspondence with Hoyt about the hypocritical so-called ethical stance of a media outlet that demands purity from freelancers but refuses to pay in full for the research and reporting it profits from. Worth a read.

– Anita Bartholomew

Post has been updated to remove a statement that Hoyt didn’t mention that Tripsas’ expenses could have as easily been picked up by Harvard. Hoyt did mention this.

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October 27, 2009

More.com gets into the writer exploitation game

On a writers listserv I subscribe to, a writer posted a message that she’d been asked to write for More.com — the online presence for More magazine.

But…

More.com wants her to write for free. And this writer wonders if it will be good exposure for her to do so.

Here’s my take. You can expose yourself, night and day, all over the web. And it will get you exactly nothing. Why would you think that the exploiter will pay you for what you’re giving away for free? Why would other magazines rush to offer you big money if they know you’ll write for free (and trust me, they’ll know).

The only time it makes sense to write for exposure is when you’re publicizing something else that you want readers to know about and buy (your book, for example). If you don’t have something to sell to readers, working for nothing gets you exactly that.

Don’t allow profit-making ventures to make money from your labors.

But for those who still aren’t convinced, who think it might make sense to write for “exposure” only, here’s a suggestion. Contact one of your favorite charities and offer to write something that lets the charity spend its limited funds on doing good deeds. In these difficult economic times, that would be a great way to get web exposure while helping out those who really need your help.

– Anita Bartholomew

 

October 25, 2009

How Demand Studios’ exploitation of writers turned it into a billion dollar company

Wired has a fascinating article about Demand Studios, one of the word factories that regularly advertises for writers, only to exploit them. You can’t claim Demand pays writers peanuts. It’s more like peanut husks.

It’s worth reading the article to learn how this sweatshop-type operation makes such big bucks. But here, we’re only concerned with the pennies it pays to the people who made it possible for Demand to become the billion-dollar enterprise it now is. The snippet below provides a hint:

It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40.

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline.

Don’t write for these — or any — exploiters. Leave these crumbs for the amateurs. I know it’s tempting, as newspapers die, and magazines fight for survival, to take whatever work is available. But writers who do so help perpetuate their own exploitation.

Write a book, instead. Either shop it to agents and publishers or invest in publishing and marketing it yourself. There are plenty of new publishing opportunities to explore, from the Espresso Book Machine which is rolling out a few new locations and may soon make the printing of a single book as cost-effective as printing in bulk, to ebooks, which already eliminate the costs of distribution, warehousing and shipping.

– Anita Bartholomew

July 30, 2009

The exploited writers’ anthem; sing to the tune of “Born Free”

From my friend and colleague, Erik Sherman, a little ditty to remind writers where writing for nothing will get them:

Here’s a snippet. Sing along to the rest on his site at this link:

Write free
As free as the grass grows
Who cares where the cash goes?
Write free, and follow your heart

Work free, and readers surround you
Exposure astounds you
Although you live in a car …

How dumb do these “Dummies” think we are?

I’ve written before about companies that ask writers to write for free or nearly free. Add another would-be exploiter to the list: the ” … for Dummies” folks.

On a writers’ email listserv, someone posted the following forwarded email:


Date: July 21, 2009 1:21:07 PM PDT

Are you a subject area expert who would like to write for Dummies.com?

Because consumers look to Dummies.com for answers on nearly every part of their life, we’re looking for expert authors on all kinds of topics from iPhones to investing. If you’re a topic expert with excellent writing skills and would like to contribute articles to Dummies.com, please visit us.

We’ll review your credentials and writing sample. If there’s a match, we’ll contact you. Unfortunately, we can’t send feedback to everyone, so only the authors that we think are the best match for Dummies.com will be contacted.

I found it curious that Dummies.com mentioned nothing about pay. I know, from a number of writer friends who have authored Dummies books, that the company doesn’t pay well but the work is easy and some books earn out their advances and pay royalties. So I thought these authors might be interested in picking up gigs for the website if the pay were halfway decent. Checking further, here’s what I found:

[You] grant us and our parent, affiliates and licensees the right to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, distribute, have distributed, and promote the content in any form, anywhere and for any purpose without compensation

There’s more but the above is all you need to know. Do not write for companies that want your labor and talent but offer nothing in return. This is a profit-making venture for them but it won’t be for you. Give away your knowledge and talent, and you’ve established its value at $0.

Leave the slave labor to a real dummy and keep looking for a paying gig. And, if you’re so inclined,  politely let the Dummies.com folks know that you don’t think much of companies that exploit writers.

– Anita Bartholomew

June 9, 2009

Pay the writer, damnit!

This, fair warning, is going to be more a rant than a typical post.

There are a number of “content providers” trolling the web, offering writing “opportunities” that are merely opportunities for the so-called content provider to exploit those who write.

Among these are Demand Studios, which had the audacity to send an acquaintance, who queried in response to their offer of writing work, a reply that included the following:

“As the articles get indexed by search engines and  build traffic, payouts increase. By the third month, average monthly payout per article is $1.24.”

Yes, average payout of $1.24 after three months. Amazingly enough, that means that writers may actually earn less than $1.24 per article.

And some writers are taking this!

Helium runs another of these exploitation rackets. My friend and colleague, Erik Sherman, decided to calculate what Helium may be paying its writers, based on the figures it makes public.

His estimates?

“The average story will make 80 cents.”

Do not write for these people. You are not doing yourself or your career any good and you’re actually making matters worse for other writers by driving down the perceived value of writing. I’m pretty sure most people could earn more begging on a busy city street than they would writing for one of these outfits and would earn about as much respect (because as soon as it comes out that you write for peanuts — hell, make that peanut, singular — you’ve established your value to future potential customers).

I don’t care if this is the first opportunity you’ve ever gotten to write anything for anybody. You’re worth more. Demand more. Don’t sell yourself or your talents so cheaply.

And this is for the cheapskates who are pulling this crap. Back in the 1840s, editors paid writers from $2 to $12 per page. How can you so shamelessly offer a fraction of what one could have earned about 170 years ago?

Listen to Harlan Ellison . And pay the writer, damnit!

Anita Bartholomew

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