Piecemeal existence

For today’s young freelancers, what will traffic bear?

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.

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.

But is the pace sustainable? And will it leave anyone with the time to do in-depth enterprise reporting? Tassi writes upwards of 15 posts per day between Forbes and other outlets, including his own website. And that’s not all: He also uploads video for one website and serves as managing editor for another. Overall, he makes a good living, but he doesn’t get health insurance from any of his gigs, and he doesn’t know how much money he will make in a month until the traffic numbers and ad revenue have come in. Tassi is only 24, so for him it seems a manageable workload and lifestyle. But can anyone produce two blog posts per hour for the duration of a 40-year career? What happens if they have children to support?

It’s also unclear how linking pay to traffic will affect the labor-management relationship. The managers of websites that pay writers a bonus based on traffic have an obvious incentive to manipulate traffic statistics to avoid making those payments. One writer interviewed for this story said he considered the traffic numbers he was quoted by his editors to be suspiciously low.

Editors also have the power to affect a writer’s traffic by placing his stories on the homepage and promoting them through social media—or not. Writers I interviewed for this piece say that management has graciously paid them any bonus they were entitled to, and that they never worried their articles were being under-promoted—at least not for any reason other than pure editorial decisions. But the fact remains that they are putting their financial fate in the hands of someone who might have an incentive to undermine it.

Judging by Gawker, there is some evidence that incentives may actually encourage enterprise reporting. A few years ago, Gawker Media was widely viewed as an intolerable sweatshop. It hired writers as full-time freelancers with no benefits, and required them to post 12 items a day. On top of that they were given bonuses based on reaching traffic milestones. But there was an ironic catch: Your previous quarter’s traffic became your new baseline, and so the traffic target you needed to hit to earn a bonus was raised.

“It felt like you were getting punished for succeeding,” says Alex Pareene, a blogger for Salon who previously worked for Gawker and Wonkette, a Gawker subsidiary. Having to post 12 times a day and maximize traffic meant there was little time for original reporting. Traffic was measured by pageviews, which created an incentive to goose clicks through cheap tricks. Former Gawker Media bloggers joke about how they were being implicitly encouraged to make every item a slide show of “nip slips,” celebrities who accidentally exposed their nipples.

Gawker has since hired full-time, salaried writers. It eliminated the 12-posts-per-day rule and changed the bonus to a reward for getting the most unique visitors rather than pageviews. Leaders of Gawker sites, such as Jezebel, get a bonus pool that they divvy up among their bloggers. That means that a piece of original reporting or thoughtful analysis that brings links from other blogs will be the most-valued content. Focusing on uniques measures a post’s reach and appeal to new readers—while at the same time de-emphasizing the engagement of core readers, who may be creating additional pageviews by refreshing the page to participate in a conversation thread. Each metric has its merits from a business standpoint, but tallying unique visitors is, arguably, a better model for rewarding journalistic success.

“Nick [Denton, Gawker’s owner] was trying to reverse-engineer a system to make an editorial choice based on quality, and justify it based on traffic,” says Pareene. And that made it a more rewarding, if still very demanding, place to work. “One of the ideas was, you could spend more time on one really good post instead of doing four short posts,” Pareene explains. “The incentive to keep working was there, but it wasn’t about volume, it was about quality.”

At TPM, meanwhile, the bonus pool attempts to combine different metrics so that it rewards reporters with different responsibilities, both those who generate mountains of short news items for regular readers and those who produce enterprise pieces that bring in more outside links.

Ironically, the Faster Times model works best not for the hungry kid right out of college, but for someone with a full-time job elsewhere. Clay Risen says he would consider working that way again as long it’s a side gig, not the core of how he makes his living. “I wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to write certain things because that’s what the numbers told me,” he says, adding, “There’s a place for that kind of writing as long as it’s not the only system.”

A few months after interviewing with The Faster Times, my big-media ship came in. I got a job as an editor at Newsweek, and all the generous benefits and financial security that came with it. If you’re reading this magazine, you probably know what happened to Newsweek shortly after I started there in September 2009. Now I am a freelancer again, which is a lot more like being a traveling salesman than I ever thought a journalist’s life would be. But at least I don’t work on commission—yet. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.