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Jan. 24, 2017, 12:22 p.m.
Business Models

The Internet sets writers free…to get new audiences, and also to “dive into a giant flaming garbage pile”

An extended conversation on the economics of building a career writing on the web today: “Unfortunately, it looks a little grim.”

“So here’s the thing about the Internet setting you free, right? The Internet can set you free, but it can also set free those who may want to exploit you for your work.”

Manjula Martin has been thinking about how writers make money on the Internet for, in Internet years, a very long time. She launched Who Pays Writers, a crowd-sourced Tumblr of the rates that various on- and offline publications pay, in 2012, and a year later cofounded Scratch Magazine, an online magazine about the relationship between writers and money that she later shut down — it was profitable, but not profitable enough.

Many of the themes that Martin has been mulling over come together in her new book, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which includes essays from writers like Choire Sicha, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, and Roxane Gay to “confront the age-old question: How do creative people make money?”

I pulled quotes from some of my favorite essays in the book to spur a discussion with Martin about the economics of writing online, the things we hate about Twitter, and how business changes at Medium reflect broader problems with how writers are paid. The book, like our conversation, paints a realistic-rather-than-rosy picture of writing online. “The election happened right before this book came out, and there is definitely a feeling of, like, God, if we thought it was hard to get paid before, just wait,” Martin said. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, was actually fun and interesting and not a downer. I hope it spurs the people who create content and the people who pay for it to think about new ways to do things.

“True or false: Writers should be paid for everything they write. Writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job. You’ll know you’re successful when you can quit your day job. Writing is an art, not a business. Writers should be entrepreneurs. Digital technology has destroyed the market for writing. The Internet will set us all free.” [Manjula Martin, p. xi]

Laura Hazard Owen: I completely get that, as you write, we need to look beyond binaries. But where do you fall on the “digital technology has destroyed the market for writing vs. the Internet will set us free” spectrum — or, at least, what’s the best evidence you have for each argument? How has your view changed?

Manjula Martin: Binaries are true, it’s just that they don’t cover the wide spectrum of complexities between those two points, and so I think both of the things are true. I think the Internet can set us free, or could have set us free, perhaps, but I also think that it has devalued labor, specifically the labor of writers.

In any given moment, one can fall anywhere on that spectrum, and one can move around on it. But I think today I am definitely more toward the end of the spectrum that is showing that digital technologies have helped companies devalue our labor. So here’s the thing about the Internet setting you free, right? The Internet can set you free, but it can also set free those who may want to exploit you for your work. It’s like a giant free-for-all, catch-all, venue.

And so I think we’re at a moment right now — culturally, not just with journalists or other types of writers, but in general, it definitely seems like technology is having a moment where it has discovered that pushing people toward gig-based labor and away from the securities of more traditional types of jobs is a way to make profit quickly. Or if not to make profit, at least to satisfy the gaping hunger for content that the Internet seems to have at the moment.

Owen: Medium announced recently that it’s cutting back on its publisher program and trying to find a new business model for journalism. How do you think about Medium and decisions like that?

Martin: Medium was actually one of the companies I talked to in 2015 when I was considering closing Scratch magazine and considering shifting it to a different platform. I can’t tell you much more of what we talked about because they made me sign an NDA, like, at the door. But I had discussed a migration with them, and I had discussed figuring out some sort of way to keep funding a digital publication.

I can say, generally, what the Medium thing has confirmed for me is my suspicion that people who start a media company because they think it can become a new kind of tech company have a responsibility to actually understand the business models that exist in the media right now before diving in head-first and offering to pay writers when, maybe, they actually don’t know how that works. It’s weird in this day and age to start a company without a viable business model — or, really, even a viable product — and then treat it like a startup and keep pivoting and pivoting and pivoting. At a certain point, companies have to take responsibility for actually being good at what they’re doing.

Medium’s just one example of companies like that. The combination of venture capitalists and media companies is very interesting, and so far, I think, has not yielded much that’s new, in terms of figuring out how to keep media companies economically and financially stable.

Owen: I had some similar conversations with Medium before I came to this job, and they were really amorphous. It was unclear if I did a project with them how much money it would be, how I would get paid, what I would have to do, how long any funding would last. Some people probably did have more concrete business plans with them, but I also think that they had a lot of conversations like that.

Martin: I had a not-dissimilar experience, and I think the fact that some publications who migrated their platforms to Medium didn’t find out that they were dialing down the publisher program until it was a post on Medium backs that up; it speaks to the lack of responsibility, I think, that the company feels for its publications.

I don’t want to put it all on Medium — this is a funny thing that happens when there’s fetish for quote-unquote disruption across many industries, particularly in our industry, where you have to really understand what it is you’re disrupting if you’re going to disrupt it. Disruption is not always a good thing. I’m not saying the old way was the best way. I’m just saying it’s so shocking to me — I mean we’re probably, what, a good decade, maybe, into VC-funded media companies? And people are still acting like college students about it. College students would probably even be more responsible about it.

Owen: We’ve seen a lot of the same kind of thing with digital book publishing — VC-backed startups coming around and being like, “Hey, we have a better way of doing this!” when they don’t know how the industry actually works.

Martin: I think it puts writers and editors in a really weird position, where we are expected to follow whatever the trend of the moment is in terms of financial models, but also, our labor is being totally devalued by those financial models. I was like, maybe I should bring my publication to Medium, you know, I don’t see any other good options. But, in fact, I knew that they didn’t really have a plan. Luckily, I followed my gut on that, because I wanted to do the book, and that was fine — but I don’t blame publishers who migrate to platforms like that. I do think that they’re being put in a really weird position, and it fundamentally comes down to who has the money.

Owen: And you’re like, maybe Ev Williams just wants to do this! And he has a ton of money! And he will just sustain it and that will be the new thing that we’ll do!

Martin: Yeah — and he will! Until he doesn’t. Insert anyone’s name in for Ev, too. But it’s an interesting conundrum. The idea of having a profit model for journalism is a little bit weird in the first place. I don’t know that the Internet has freed us from that. I think it’s brought more complications into it.

At the same time, the Internet has loosened up things for writers. You can live in a lot of different places now and still work online, and it doesn’t matter what city you live in, necessarily. I think social media, which we can talk about more, has been really wonderful for people finding community in some ways, but in terms of people’s labor, it’s a problem.

“If likeability equals profitability, I’m probably headed in the wrong direction. Not only am I incapable of keeping my niceness veneer consistent, I’m also increasingly not in the mood to do the work it takes to seem perpetually likeable in person…Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost always is.” [Emily Gould, pp. 146–147]

“I have a particular animus to the social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that.” [Jonathan Franzen, p. 266]

Owen: So let’s move on to social media. Gould isn’t totally talking about Twitter in her quote, but it makes me think of Twitter, and social media, so much. I wonder what you think about that — about writers on Twitter, especially women, and their social media quote-unquote responsibilities.

Martin: A lot of times, folks who are just starting in writing come up to me and they’re like, “I’m told I have to be on social media all the time and I have to build my platform on social media.” I think where we’re at with social media is that it is a part of the experience of marketing yourself as an author, but it is by no means a surefire marketing gimmick.

Franzen talks about how he hates Twitter and it’s so horrible and not a good discursive place for writers to be. People like to mock [Franzen] a lot, I think, in digital circles, but I actually think he’s kind of not wrong, in many ways. I think that Twitter has been a wonderful place, particularly for women writers, people of color, queer and trans people — people have been able to find communities on social media that maybe they haven’t had access to elsewhere.

But as the election season, has shown us, as Twitter becomes less of a safe space, and more of a hostile place, that conversation, and that discourse, is going to go away. I see more and more in my own feed — and obviously my own feed is highly curated to my own interests, and anecdotal — but it’s a lot of people talking about how they’re not having fun on Twitter anymore. On Twitter. Whenever I see that, I feel like it’s only a matter of time before that stops being the venue.

The other part of the equation is that Twitter is actually free work. Writers — and everyone, but specifically writers, because that’s actually our job — by being on Twitter, are writing for free, for a large company, that is theoretically making money off of this. I think it’s really important to remember that every time one goes on Twitter. [laughs] I’m not gonna tell everyone to quit Twitter, but I do think there needs to be a new thing, and we need to figure out what the new thing is, and I hope that people of letters have more of a stake in whatever the new thing is rather than just creating free content for some rando tech company.

Did you read the Lindy West article about leaving Twitter? It’s hard to say Twitter has been horrible for writers, because I, personally, have gotten a lot from Twitter in my career, and I know people, particularly more marginalized folks, who have found a real, actual community there. But I also cannot log onto that website without thinking that I am just working for free.

Owen: I mean, that’s not the only problem. My colleagues and I have been talking about this, too: For journalists, it’s become, essentially, a requirement to be on Twitter since a lot of news breaks there now. But it can be a very anxiety-provoking, stressful, awful place to be. We are required to do this for our jobs, but what is it doing to our heads?

Martin: Right. What is it doing to us? As people. I think that’s really valid. I also think that’s the same in publishing. Most industries and corporations are a few years behind the actual humans who work for them, in terms of adopting new technologies and stuff. The publishing business has sort of just discovered literary Twitter and it’s huge. You put it in your publishing proposal, how many followers you have on Twitter. It’s a big part of your platform, and publishers really rely on it for marketing. Nobody can afford to do a book tour anymore; publishers won’t send you on a tour anymore, they’ll just tell you to tweet.

But it’s never really been proven that that works. I mean, it works in terms of, like — I’m doing it right now for my book, and I’m getting a lot of great interactions and great responses. The word seems to be spreading within my particular echo chamber. But I don’t know, actually, that tweeting about books sells books. It’s no different from any other advertising or marketing in that way; it’s not easy to prove.

For writers, journalists as well as novelists and such, there’s also the other question: Not only what is Twitter doing to us, inducing anxiety and worry and making us feel just emotionally bad whenever we log on. But what is it doing to our work? It’s distracting us and I personally feel it actually changes the quality of my work, and it changes the way my brain works, for a few hours after I look at it. I should maybe say that of the Internet in general, not just social media. I haven’t been on Facebook for at least five or six years, probably, and I’m convinced that it has not hurt my writing career one bit.

So I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before that happens with other networks. The Internet sets you free, but it also sets you free to, like, dive into a giant flaming garbage pile, and at some point you just have to decide not to do that.

Owen: I know. I’m kind of like, what if somebody said that as of tomorrow, nobody can go on Twitter anymore? I think I’d be kind of relieved. I might be really relieved.

Martin: I would be relieved if someone said I couldn’t go on Twitter tomorrow. I mean, I wouldn’t be relieved because it would probably be because our new government has decided that we aren’t allowed to access sites that they don’t want us to access. But barring that sort of crackdown-on-free-speech scenario, I would be relieved if it wasn’t part of my job to do social media.

And I would also miss it.

“Late capitalism is confusing…the grift economy is the fear, the gift economy is the lie, the gig economy is the reality, and the guild economy is the dream. But the big economy is still a mystery. The technological disruptions that swept us from one economy to the next, that facilitated the means to steal and exploit, are the same ones that prompted us to connect and to share. A job isn’t what a job once was — but what was so great about those jobs, anyway?” [Susie Cagle, p. 168]

Owen: I’m wondering if, by working on this book, you’ve developed ideas on what kind of digital writing economy you think we are headed toward. Say, like, a year or two from now, how are things different? What do you think it looks like? I’m wondering what you’ve learned about how digital freelance writing pays online. Who pays the best? Was there ever any sort of consensus on what should be paid for what kind of work? Does funding make a difference — do VC-funded companies pay more?

Martin: Following Who Pays Writers over the years, I’ve definitely been looking for those types of patterns. I think the biggest, clearest pattern that I’ve seen, which is perhaps not quite answering the question, is that print pays better than digital. [laughs] Always. And we know why that is — it’s because they have a model of advertising that, while imperfect, does function.

Leaving aside print: I was looking at Who Pays Writers the other day — it’s been up since 2012 — and I caught myself looking at the rates and seeing a bunch of places that were paying $0.25 a word and thinking, “Ooh! That’s good! I think rates are going up!” and then stopping and realizing how sad that was, that I thought that was good. But I will say that in the past five years, I’ve seen [online] rates go from $0.10 a word to $0.25 a word. I don’t know if that depends on who’s reporting [to Who Pays Writers] the most — writers make different amounts — but it does feel like it’s kind of solidified around the $0.25-a-word mark for digital-only publications.

What I see on Who Pays Writers is that funding does make a difference — very briefly. Like, Fusion was paying big, big money to everyone — for a minute. We’ve replaced any sort of sense of security with a little bit of extra cash up front. That said, the amount of cash is still not nearly sufficient. Just because you pay slightly better than other people doesn’t mean you’re paying enough. Or well.

In terms of being a person who writes on the Internet…God, I don’t know, because what few staffers are left, they have some sense of job security but they work 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, it looks a little grim. I think the people who are making money writing online are also doing other kinds of writing online to make more money — copywriting, PR, which I think is ethically a very murky place to be at, and unfortunately, I think it’s one that people go to out of necessity.

In Susie’s piece, when she’s talking about that, she’s talking about it as a freelancer. As a journalist, as a writer, you feel like you’re struggling so hard just to get to a place that’s even a baseline of what other people would consider normality when it comes to your work, in terms of job security, or pay, or peace of mind, or having a vacation. I do think there’s something really valuable in what Susie’s doing in that statement, which is questioning: Is that place of normality the right place to struggle to get to? Can we envision something that’s better or that works differently? Beyond [the question of] just having a full-time job, staffer vs. freelancer?

I hope we can. I don’t necessarily have the answers that will fix it. I think that is a very interesting idea of, like, if you’re a person who feels like you struggle just to achieve the status quo, sometimes you forget to question the status quo in and of itself. I think it’s valuable for everyone to do that, but particularly people whose job it is to ask questions professionally as a journalist.

The other thing I’ve learned from doing this book is: The election happened right before this book came out, and there is definitely a feeling of, like, God, if we thought it was hard to get paid before, just wait. While I do think that’s very scary and a lot of people are very scared about it, in terms of, like, you know, job securities and benefits and things that will likely be rolled back under the coming administration, not to mention potential suppression of free speech…I also think it can be somewhat clarifying, in some ways. I know a lot of writers, myself included, who are looking at what we’re doing with our careers and really questioning it and being like: Okay, shit just got really real. Is this what I want to be doing? Am I doing it in the way I want to be doing it? Am I putting out the work that I want to be putting out, and does the meaning of that work change when things take a giant step to the right in our country? And I think a lot of people are feeling that. Not just writers. I have a friend who’s an EMT and used to be an artist and they’re kind of like, you know, it’s a job doing good. It’s that kind of career crisis that I think a lot of people, particularly creative professionals, are having right now, due to the political climate.

“The Internet is no longer new; it’s old enough to drink legally. Writers whose work is published online should and must understand how websites work in general, as well as how the websites on which they are published work in the specific, so as not to be idiots. This particular pursuit of non-idiocy is sometimes referred to in journalism as ‘following the money,’ also known as ‘understanding the basic economic structure of the industry from which one earns a living, or hopes to.’ But to even speak to someone in advertising, you will need some background. They speak another language, with coded, dark, and impenetrable phrases.

Most websites, infamously, are supported by advertising. Boo, advertising! It’s so gross, right? Or…is it? What if everything you thought as a writer was backward? What if all the writing on websites was bad, and all the ads were really good? Well, that’s literally true at some websites.

Some sites are supported by hybrids of donation, subscription, affiliate marketing, and advertising revenue. It would be nice if writers started out by having a sense of what those things mean.” [Choire Sicha, pp. 175–176]

Owen: The Choire Sicha essay is pretty different from the other ones in this book — it’s funny and everything, but it’s essentially a big explainer of how journalism business models work. [If I had to pick just one essay in this book for Nieman Lab readers to definitely read, it’s Sicha’s.] Do you really think it’s true that most writers whose work is published online have no idea how sites’ business models work?

Martin: It’s true of myself, I can tell you that. I definitely learned from that essay. It’s funny, because I assigned Choire that essay and I had an idea around that topic and I thought he was gonna turn in like a standard, wry and witty decimation of the state of online advertising, and he went with a more sort of explainer method and I think it’s really wonderful and brilliant, and I’m so glad he did that. He was like, “I’m not gonna give you the Choire Sicha essay you think you’re getting! I’m going to give you this one instead!”

So, yeah. I think a lot of writers don’t really understand how different forms of advertising work, and I would include myself in that. What I think is really brilliant and useful about that essay is that, in a profession that is prone to lofty romantic ideals about what it’s like, it’s always interesting to actually find out what it’s like in detail. With the whole book, part of what I was trying to do was find out: Can we keep the romance alive? Young novelists wanna be young novelists and that’s great, young journalists want to save the world and expose the truth and that’s also great. Can we keep that alive but also not be really ignorant about our expectations of this profession? That’s not to be like, “Oh, you’ll never make any money, it’ll be horrible.” You can make money! But it helps if you know how publications make money. Any sort of edification like that is only of use to the people who are actually doing the work.

“There is a libertarian-hued rallying cry popular on the Internet that if publishers deserve to exist then surely readers will pay for them directly. This sounds wonderful, and is sometimes true, but not that often. It would be nice though, particularly because the ones who’ll suffer the most in the great consolidation and fallout to come in the world of Internet publishing will be writers. [Sicha, p. 182]

Martin: I have some experience with this! That was Scratch magazine’s business model, and it was very small. We had about a thousand subscribers. I assume that when you talk about readers supporting writers directly, you’re talking about subscription, or Patreon, where you would pay in to support a writer: I think that’s great but I don’t think that’s the only answer. It can’t just be that.

My experience doing Scratch editing was that people were really excited to pay us directly to sign into a website and obtain the information that we were giving them, but it actually just wasn’t enough money. It wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm or support, it was just that you would have to ask people to pay a lot of money if you wanted to fund actual journalism.

I also think that there’s something that makes me uncomfortable about displacing the responsibility from larger institutions and putting it only onto individual readers. That makes me feel uncomfortable. I think it’s generally something that Americans are somewhat fascinated by, charmed by — the idea of removing responsibility from institutions and delivering it into smaller units. It’s a little libertarian for my tastes; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, I just don’t think it’s the answer. I think it’s avoiding the responsibility of our society and our economy as a whole to figure out how to support the type of work that we need done.

You can buy Scratch here.

Dumpster fire photo by Ben Watts used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 24, 2017, 12:22 p.m.
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