This new model is in some ways more meritocratic, as it relies upon objective measurements. And there are plenty of success stories. Choire Sicha, a former editor at Gawker who founded The Awl, maintains that The Awl’s model is no more disadvantageous to aspiring journalists than what it replaced. “I think working for free was always the case in journalism,” says Sicha. “You had to pay for graduate school, know the right people, or hustle your way up. There were slightly more paid newspaper internships, but they always went to a certain kind of student.”
The new approach has worked so far for Emma Carmichael, a 2010 Vassar graduate who moved to New York hoping to break into journalism. While working days at a public-relations firm, she wrote unpaid pieces for The Awl. She credits those clips with helping her land an unpaid internship at Deadspin, Gawker Media’s sports blog. That led to a job as a paid staff writer at Deadspin, and she has since been promoted to managing editor of Gawker. “Without Choire, I probably would not have the job I have right now,” she says.
What’s lost to aspiring journalists may be more than just financial security, however. Paid internships, stringer contracts, and entry-level jobs as a magazine factchecker or cub reporter at a newspaper provided training in the craft of reporting and writing, and clips from an established publication. Those lines on your résumé and clips in your file demonstrated a body of knowledge and a stamp of approval from an institution with credibility. It was akin to a journalism degree, except you were paid for learning on the job. A bunch of blog posts with little or no reporting or guidance from an editor doesn’t necessarily demonstrate to a prospective employer that you are a qualified practitioner of journalism. If you are an aspiring humorist or snark machine, that may not matter. But if you want to write reported features for a newspaper or magazine, it very well may.
It can be a grind. Clay Risen covered politics for The Faster Times for six months, filing one to five blog posts per week while holding down a day job as an editor and taking on other freelance writing gigs. All told, he made only $100. Freelance writers for The Huffington Post aren’t even eligible for a Faster-Times-like commission, but they have the same incentive structure. If you aren’t paid for your story, you are doing it solely in the hopes that people will read it and that it will enhance your name recognition. If no one reads it, you’ve wasted your time. You want to produce something sexy enough that the editors will put it on the homepage and other bloggers will link to it. So freelancers have reason to sex up their content in an effort to attract eyeballs.
Meanwhile, every editor of a website with one of these new payment models acknowledges a common quandary: People are willing to wax philosophical or crack jokes for free, but not to do real reporting. “One of the gaps we have is that I would like to have more reporting,” says Sicha. “The scale of the economics doesn’t work for that, necessarily.”
“It’s a huge problem,” says Sam Apple, founder of The Faster Times. “What we found is that people won’t work the phones and do a heavily reported piece—that won’t necessarily get more traffic—for what we pay.”
And speaking of hard news, even the worthiest of stories may not draw many clicks. Why would someone invest several weeks in reporting a story if he or she risks getting virtually no payment for it?
Instead of training a rising generation of reporters, we may be creating a generation of opinion bloggers and aggregators. “We had to start offering extra money for scoops,” says Apple. “I thought a lot of writers would jump on that, but a lot are bloggers by trade and have other jobs. A scoop usually gets more traffic and links, but there’s no guarantee.” (Apple says he recently abandoned the cash-for-scoops policy.)
Offering a bonus based on traffic creates an incentive to produce more work. Fans of such payment systems, including some of the writers themselves, point to that as one of the model’s greatest assets. “It can inspire you to work harder than you would,” says Paul Tassi, who blogged about movies and videogames for True/Slant and who now contributes to Forbes under a similar contract.