Everyone knows this: the freelancers, who are forced to beg for months-late checks; the editors, who surf on an endless sea of referrals, looking for unicorn writers who turn in copy clean and on time; the readers, who get the short end of the content stick when writers are rushing to work quickly to justify their unlivable wages and editors don’t have the room to build relationships with writers more than one story at a time. It’s a broken system, based on bad economics. It’s like the Abilene paradox of employment. All parties know they hate it, but they still get on board anyways.
The good news, though, is that its stranglehold on the publishing economy might be loosening.
Starting with The Atlantic a few years ago, savvy digital folk began seeing the wisdom of putting people on staff rather than just negotiating shallow contracts. The Atlantic had great success with this, hoovering up large swaths of young editorial talent and working them hard. To a smaller degree, Gawker, too, built up staff writers rather than simply rotating in writers (although the perma-lance sitch was not great). This, of course, is how newspapers and other union shops used to work: When I started at the San Francisco Chronicle a million years ago, I was contractually forbidden from writing as an editorial assistant at the organization. Freelance rules were that tight, to discourage cheap, disposable labor.
And now, as Vox Media and BuzzFeed have shown, freelancing is not a necessary evil in a digital media world. When I worked at BuzzFeed, one of the most striking things was the emphasis on staff culture. Sure, we had freelancers pitching, but it didn’t comprise nearly as much of the writing as other places I’d been, including the Chronicle. And as far as I can tell, Vox Media has also grown to employ many, many writers and editors on a full-time basis.
This makes good sense to me. In all things, you get what you pay for — if you aren’t sinking resources into your writers, it’s hard to ask that much from them. As an editor, when I want to assign a breaking story, I look around to staff. It doesn’t seem fair to pay someone $200 for a post but then demand it be fast and good. And beyond fairness — most freelancers just won’t do it! They can’t! They’re juggling gigs, with their time spoken for.
Of course, there will always be people who love freelancing — and occasions when freelance or contract work is mutually beneficial. And it doesn’t make sense to increase staff willy-nilly: A company’s head count is a very delicate thing, subject to so many factors. In 2015, though, I think that competition for editorial talent will grow even stiffer, and throwing freelance crumbs at writers who are looking for a full meal just won’t cut it. But even as I solicit freelance work (please pitch me!), I’m happy when I lose a good writer to a staff job. It was my fault for not hiring them in the first place.
Reyhan Harmanci is a senior editor at Fast Company.