In 2009, an editor for a new website called The Faster Times, which sought to be “an edgier Huffington Post,” emailed to ask if I was interested in a part-time job. I didn’t know it was possible to be edgier than HuffPo, but their payment scheme was certainly more innovative. Whereas HuffPo paid staff reporters the old-fashioned way, with a salary and benefits, while paying freelancers nothing at all, The Faster Times was creating a third way. Instead of staff writers, it had contributors who spent roughly 10 hours a week blogging and aggregating news on a given topic. In exchange, they would receive a majority of the revenue generated by ads sold on the pages they created. It took me a while to realize the editor was suggesting that I promise to perform a regular amount of work in exchange for no guaranteed payment at all.

At the very beginning of my career, I did a few articles for free to get reporting experience, and some unpaid blogging for The American Prospect to raise my profile. But I thought my writing-for-free-days were behind me. At 27, I had covered a presidential election as a staff writer for Politico and written features for a number of prestigious national magazines. Although I was shocked by the Faster Times proposal, I wasn’t offended: They had gotten my name from a former colleague at The New Republic who was working with them, and other writers, some more accomplished than I, had signed on.

The Faster Times is not unique. In recent years, a number of sites have tried similar business models, or started offering writers bonuses based on traffic. True/Slant, a website that launched in 2009, paid contributors a small monthly fee in exchange for a set number of posts, and bonuses for hitting traffic targets. Some sites don’t pay for freelance content at all, while others, such as The Awl, didn’t start paying until they were up and running for a year or so.

The opportunity these sites offer—if you can call it that—is a chance to build your brand and hone your skills. As I discovered, any income that may come, directly or indirectly, from all that building and honing is more of an unexpected windfall than a way to actually earn a living.

Writing for free can indeed pay dividends. For example, some editors at Feministing, an influential blog of politics and culture, have gotten book deals thanks to the popularity of their blogging. The ad revenue generated by the site’s 500,000 monthly unique visitors is barely enough to pay for more than operating costs, so Feministing doesn’t guarantee its writers income. But everyone keeps track of her hours and if there’s money leftover at the end of the year, bonuses are paid based on those hours, not traffic. “We think that is more fair because of the uncertainty of what gets traffic,” says Samhita Mukhopadhyay, an editor at Feministing.

Linking payment to traffic can give a publication a competitive advantage, because it doesn’t risk paying a writer more than his content will earn for the site. More established websites, such as Talking Points Memo and Gawker, adopted bonuses linked to traffic, though the bulk of their writers’ compensation is from salaries. In 2010, Forbes bought True/Slant, and many of its features were integrated into Forbes.com; Forbes now pays some contributors in a similar traffic-based fashion.

This is not the career path I envisioned when I graduated from college and applied for an internship with The Nation in 2003. My father was a senior editor at Newsweek at the time, and I set out on the traditional path to national magazine writing: Intern for at least a small stipend, freelance for at least a small fee, and apply for staff jobs until you got one. Today’s aspiring magazine writers might be better advised to start their own websites, promote them on their Twitter feeds, freelance for no paycheck, and hope for good things to happen.

These days, you might start out by writing an unpaid piece for HuffPo or The Awl (and hope it goes viral), or blogging 12 times a day, as a job I interviewed for at Curbed last year required. You might be working from home, without an editor to mentor you. You might be earning no money, or never knowing what you will earn, month to month.

Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR