If You Don't Click on This Story, I Don't Get Paid

by Noah Davis


Over the course of the last three months, I have interviewed more than twenty writers, editors, media people, and journalism professors about the state of being a freelance writer in 2015. The general consensus is that it’s the best time since the very early days of the web to make money by writing online, and a marked improvement from even two years ago. The influx of cash starts at the top, with the proliferation of well-capitalized sites like Vice, BuzzFeed, and Vox Media, which have all raised hundreds of millions of dollars — large chunks of it during the time I spent reporting this piece. The money comes from venture capitalists and other sources, with many traditional media companies desperate to buy their way into new digital forms that they ignored for too long and failed to create themselves. And some small percentage of it has been used by editors to entice writers.

In my own work, I’ve seen my average rate for my writing, which includes print and digital combined, jump from thirty-seven cents per word during the first half of 2013 to fifty cents per word in the first six months of 2014, and fifty-three cents per word so far this year. While that increase is partially due to my slowly rising standing in the freelance writing ecosystem, a lot of it stems directly from writing for flush sites. In general, each new digital outlet I write for pays better than the previous ones; there’s money out there if you know where to look.

Many newer outlets offer fifty cents per word or more — sites like The Verge might pay a dollar per word — as do established publications, including New York’s blog network and The Guardian. “You can expect that two hundred and fifty dollars is an ultimate baseline for anything that you do,” Kyle Chayka, a New York-based freelancer, told me. “No one is paying less than that. My own perception is that fifty cents per word is a fair going rate for an experienced freelance writer who’s writing something primarily for the web that’s been reported.” But still: Figure twelve hundred or fifteen hundred words per piece, and you’re talking closer to twenty cents per word. “That’s depressing math when you’re doing your budget,” Erik Malinowski, a freelancer writer, said.

This is true. And yet, it’s also true that two hundred or three hundred dollars per piece is more than a lot of outlets paid a couple years ago — and certainly more than they paid six or seven years ago. The increase is due in part to stores of cash, to developing business models like native advertising, and to the changing nature of outlets’ goals. “Web publications that have ambitions to compete with the big glossies know that they need to pay the best people in order to do that,” Eva Holland, a Canadian-based freelancer who writes frequently for sites like SBNation Longform, Grantland, and Pacific Standard, said. “You see editors framing it that way. They will say that our pay is comparable to a national magazine and that’s part of their pitch.” It’s not there yet, but it’s getting closer. Long pieces at SBNation, BuzzFeed, or other well-capitalized outlets are frequently well-edited, smart, tight, and sometimes influential. Their rates, between two thousand and three thousand dollars per piece — or even up to (and beyond) a dollar per word at outlets like Medium or The Huffington Post’s High Line, depending on the story (and your ability to negotiate) — will take a chunk out of your Brooklyn rent.

Sometimes, though, you write on the cheap in an effort to get noticed and move up in the world. “My friends who aren’t writers don’t know places like McSweeney’s or the Awl but those are highly influential places for the kinds of people who would hire you to do other stuff because of the quality and the pedigree of the work,” Vinson Cunningham said, adding that work for New York and the New York Times Magazine came directly out of a piece he wrote for The Awl.

Sites are slowly embracing new forms of online journalism as well. Susie Cagle combines writing and illustration in her work and says that interest in this form has increased dramatically in the last eighteen months or so. She routinely makes three to five thousand dollars for a multi-thousand-word reported feature with a number of illustrations. “This venture capital has infused all this money into freelance journalism but it has also created a little bit of an arms race between the sites,” she said. “If I do an illustrated piece for one site, I get editors approaching me in a way that I never did before, saying they want to try to something like that.” Still, most of the outlets Cagle writes for “didn’t exist two years ago” and “I don’t think this will last,” she said — although she’s more optimistic now than she was a couple of years ago that she’ll be able to find work with the combination of writing and illustration that she does.

There’s also a new group of digital outlets taking on more ambitious work. Sites like Epic and the Atavist — winner of one National Magazine Award, and an eight-time nominee* — publish long features, the type of fifteen-thousand-word-plus pieces that don’t fit into a traditional print magazine. (Well, almost never.) These stories can reach the level of an excellent magazine piece. They don’t pay as much upfront — think in the five-thousand-dollar range — but revenue-share deals and other ways to make money can increase the payout.

Josh Dean, a frequent contributor to outlets like GQ and Bloomberg Businessweek, wrote “The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang” for the Atavist Magazine because it would have been “gutted” at eight thousand words, the maximum length he would have gotten at a print magazine. The piece, which ran at eighteen thousand words, was one he felt might get optioned by a movie studio, and the freedom the Atavist provided allowed Dean to expand the tale and its characters. While the initial fee he received was smaller than what he would get if it ran in a traditional men’s magazine, it did get optioned, which bumped the payout considerably. (Relevant disclosures: I’m renting a desk at Atavist’s office this summer. I have also worked in a professional capacity with many people quoted in this piece.)

There are also even more non-traditional outlets — companies that didn’t have writing in their initial mission, but saw an opportunity to draw attention to themselves by funding prestige work. Amazon’s Kindle Singles are a prime example, a parallel experiment to something like Amazon Studios’ Transparent or Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Some writers are trying to take advantage of these new opportunities. “I’m starting to look at what places have the infrastructure to provide money to fund big projects and, increasingly, they are not publications,” Jamie Lauren Keiles, a former Rookie magazine staff writer who started freelancing full time in April, said.

A print feature will still command between a dollar-fifty and two dollars per word, sometimes more. By that metric, print pays better. But the supply of print work is limited by its nature–a magazine is only as long as its ads will allow it to be — and is growing smaller by the year as the number of advertising pages continues to fall, so much so that the Magazine Publishers of America eliminated them from their monthly reports. Print newspapers are losing advertising at a similar rate. Many print stories also require a slightly different skill set than the one possessed by a generation raised on, and used to writing for, the internet. “That person who relies on their voice and who can write a great web article in fifteen minutes isn’t necessarily a great magazine writer,” Keenan Mayo, an editor at Men’s Fitness, said. The web (traditionally) rewards writers who use their unique tone to stand out, while print (traditionally) offers more opportunity for reported pieces, especially at the length of a three-thousand-word-and-up feature. Mayo and other editors I spoke with, like ESPN The Magazine’s Megan Greenwell, do find writers they like online and recruit them for tryouts. “A big part of my job has been to get a diverse cast of writers, and we’ve been pretty successful at that,” Greenwell said.

If you put it all together, at the very least, freelance online work can be a significant part of a viable freelancer success story, the connective tissue in a career supplemented by occasional print work. Break your writing down on an hourly wage rather than a per-word basis, which is math that any smart freelancer does, and you learn that the five-hundred-dollar opinion piece you write for a website that took three hours makes more financial sense than the six-thousand-dollar piece you spent sixty hours reporting, writing, and re-writing over the course of a month for a national magazine. “The notion that you get paid more to do something that’s deeply reported for print and you get paid less for opinion on the web [isn’t entirely true],” freelancer, podcaster, and newsletter creator extraordinaire Ann Friedman said. “It all bleeds together for me. Those categories that people use to describe different types of content is not how I see my work breaking down.”

The question is, how long will the relative good times of getting paid to write on the web last? Even venture dollars are exhaustible. While a few sites will probably survive, the existing (and future) business models can’t support all the ones that are currently vying for writers and eyeballs. “The people who make money off the internet are Facebook, Google, and Twitter and their billionaire executives,” David Samuels, a contributing editor at Harper’s and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, said. “They are fantastically rich because they ate this whole world. Everybody in this world of internet publications is essentially providing content for them one way or another for free. If that’s your job, you’re very very nervous every day about the one little misstep that’s completely meaningless to Facebook, Google, or Twitter but might be the difference between life and death for you and for your publication. Does that encourage writers to take risks in language, subject matter, or approach? Does it encourage editors to edit those stories or to edit those things out? Does it encourage anybody to take financial or aesthetic risks? Does it impress anybody outside this world with the power, independence, and influence of any of these publications? No.”

We’re already in the early stages of a reckoning for internet publishers. Sports on Earth, a sports journalism-focused collaboration between USA Today and MLB Advanced Media, is a fraction of its old self. Circa didn’t work. SayMedia burned through a hundred million dollars. Mic pivoted. The Dissolve disappeared. Grantland is in flux. The Huffington Post could get sold for spare parts. The survival of Yahoo’s editorial is perpetually in doubt, and so on. (A good summary here.) “I have skepticism of the business models of certain places that I write for,” Friedman said. “Maybe I don’t want to sign a year-long contract with that place or with that editor, for whatever reason.” Holland agrees: “That’s a big question, if the places that have worked out well for you will continue to exist in six months or a year.”

And then there is a whole class of indie sites, outlets like this one, The Toast, and other media-world darlings that are struggling in a different way. A site needs a least twenty million unique visitors a month before most major advertising agencies will consider adding it as part of its media buy. It’s possible to make some money through agreements with smaller agencies and native advertising partnerships; direct deals with mid-market and local companies; and revenue-sharing deals via companies like Vice and Federated Media, but that cash flow is unpredictable by nature. While it can constitute a significant portion of a small- to medium-sized site’s revenue over the course of a year or two, the month-to-month reality relies largely on a patchwork ad networks for consistency. Those networks continue to see falling CPM rates. The indie outfits, many of which have helped launch the careers of young writers, won’t be able to raise their rates if they want to survive.

Even a site with the best intentions can struggle to find solid financial footing. When I emailed the Awl co-editor Matt Buchanan about potentially writing this piece, part of his response was that “one thing that would be the same is the pay lol.” Lol indeed. I asked for three hundred and fifty dollars, arguing that it had a chance to find a massive audience. Because this piece is about what writers are paid, in the interest of doing something unusual and putting some skin in the game, as a one-time, one-off experiment, the Awl ultimately counter-proposed a base rate of two hundred dollars plus an additional dollar per thousand pageviews, which I accepted. (The piece will be updated with the results in a month.) You have to bet on yourself. No one else will.

Besides, it’s not like the traditional outlets are in good shape. The New York Times said goodbye to roughly a hundred editorial staffers, with a similar number gone from the Wall Street Journal. Conde Nast might be shuttering Details and Self and will possibly unleash a bloodbath in the fall. Time Inc., Meredith Corporation, and Prometheus Global Media — owner of the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard — and other outlets have all recently cut costs. “Magazine layoffs” is not a pretty Google search term. But neither is “content bubble.”

In addition to creating a lack of outlets for writers, the hollowing out of the editor pool at most publications alters the details. Huge amounts of institutional knowledge and experience has been laid off or moved into new professions. The result is a world where what matters is that something exists, not that it’s good. How much can you learn by writing slideshows for ten dollars a slide? Or from a thousand-word think piece that is accepted and published without any pushback on the thoughts it contains? How much will you learn putting together a three-thousand-word feature that only gets a light edit and doesn’t pay enough to justify spending the days or weeks you’d need to really report and write it right? “I can only imagine how punishing it is to be a young writer these days,” Mary H.K. Choi, a writer for GQ, New York, and others, said. “I’m legit bummed that some really incredible voices and brains aren’t getting the handholding they need or the money they deserve because I know it happens. We talk about it over drinks and I usually pay.” A writer can improve, but it’s on them to do so.

That’s a real concern. So is this: “What I’d say is that the lower and middle-end of this economy look fine, in the sense that I think there are a bunch of places for people to do work and get paid,” Samuels said. “Plenty of those people are bright and really want to do good work. But I’d say that the top end of this market looks even worse today than it did two years ago.”

In 2015, the amount spent on native advertising — which is written and designed to look and feel like editorial, rather than an ad — will top 4.3 billion dollars, and is projected to double in the next three years. That’s a lot of brands that need content, and a lot of content that needs writers. If you’re a freelancer, you can go hungry riding on your emaciated high horse, or you can devote some portion of your time to doing this work. The demand is nearly limitless, and growing, and, at least to me, it’s an acceptable evil as long as it’s more in the copywriting vein and less getting bribed to include links in a blog. (I get these offers two or three times a month.)

There is also a proliferation of pop-up blogs that exist for a month or two, providing steady work for a couple writers during that time. New York is at the forefront of this trend, scoring brands like Chloe, Dolce, and Chanel to be the sole sponsor of a single-serving site about an event like Fashion Week or an idea like the art world. The content is editorially independent but the branding on the site is obvious in the display ads. Getting a gig like this is something most, if not all, freelance writers would accept, a reflection of the economic realities and changing perceptions of the relationship between advertiser and publication. These sites, and others like them, are an evolution. The reality is that almost all editorial is paid for by advertisers at some level.“I wonder if we are starting to eschew sponsored content a tiny bit less,”Jazmine Hughes, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, said. “These things are happening because big luxury brands are handing over a huge chunk of money to have an elevated editorial ad. Maybe we are getting to a point where sponsored content is getting less uncool.”

I make roughly a quarter of my income from this type of writing. One is for an international corporation that pays a large media company to produce a monthly newsletter. The other is some light editing and website production for another major corporation. I also take occasional one-offs: a flowchart, a six-hundred-word story built around an interview or two of experts provided to me by the client, a consumer-focused piece about a new product that a company runs on its website. I keep my name off the end product and I don’t take assignments that fall into categories I usually write about for consumer publications. Spending five percent of my time on branded whatnot for roughly twenty-five percent of my revenue frees up hours I can spend reporting or pursuing more ambitious stories that won’t be worth it financially but might pay off in other ways; getting paid twelve-fifty an hour for twenty hours is a lot easier to stomach when you’re also making a hundred dollars an hour for ten.

Virtually everyone I talk to has some side source of income. The ways you make money have changed, but the fact that you do it hasn’t. “I wrote thirty-nine Matt Christopher sports biographies for kids,” Glenn Stout, editor of SB Nation’s Longform, said. “Clearly, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but it allowed me to do other things.” Other people I spoke with do occasional copywriting, screenplay rewrites, or other lucrative un-bylined work.

Aileen Gallagher, a former editor at New York and current professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, sees her students interested in pursuing options beyond the typical Devil Wears Prada dream of moving to New York and working for a glossy magazine (or even a shiny, well-funded website). Many are saddled with huge loans debts and looking for steady paychecks quickly. “I tell them how much I’ve made on freelance pieces and they get really sad,” Gallagher said. “I had a guest speaker who does branded content for Time Inc. and the students were full of questions for her. They wanted to know how they could take this thing they learned how to do, which is write, and not starve.”

Mary H.K. Choi has a suggestion: “Nobody become a writer unless your side hustle is finance or your parents are rich.”

Photo by Shutterstock

*We originally misstated the number of ASMEs won by The Atavist Magazine. Sorry!