First Person

Want me to write for free? I’ve got two one-syllable words for you.

December 27, 2016
Photo via Pixabay

An ostensibly professional journalist this spring told me he was on the prowl for freelance editors for his new investigative website. Intrigued, I eventually broached the question of payment.

He responded by rattling on about the great people who worked for him, how they came from all walks of life, that inevitably his site would grow, and that at some point he might possibly–no promises, I had to understand–be able to toss me a few coins.

After silently fuming for a few days, I politely told him that this was simply not viable. In retrospect, I should have responded with two one-syllable words.

The long-chronicled decline of print has gored many a writer and editor. It’s hardly a secret that magazines and newspapers are now leaning mercilessly on their dwindling staffs, unable to pay outsiders as much as they once did or take them on at all. Fair enough; as Hyman Roth stammered in The Godfather, Part II, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

But there is something fundamentally obscene about expecting anyone to work gratis. And that applies even to us ink-stained wretches.

The fiction writer Harlan Ellison–a master of what our mutual friend (and science-fiction writer) David Gerrold calls “the literature of amazement”–once tore into the idea of giving away your words for nothing. “I get so angry about this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs,” he explodes. “It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals.”

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“There is the mistaken premise that writing for free will lead to exposure,” says David Wallis, the chief executive officer of the syndication and reprint agency “Try to imagine making that argument to your plumber: ‘Think of what it would do for your exposure if you would fit this pipe for free.’ You’d find a pipe upside your head.”

Wallis allows one exception. “Maybe, when you’re starting out and need to establish yourself, you can do a piece for free,” he says. “But in my opinion, you devalue yourself and your work that way. You have to be very careful about being exploited.”

The eruption of online media has made the situation ever more intractable. “Everybody has a blog,” an accomplished and productive writer who begged anonymity tells me. “We’re ubiquitous. We are completely replaceable.”

Still, like Wallis, she was open to suggestion. “There’s nothing worth writing about for free,” she says, “unless you’re whoring your book.” She also says she might settle for nothing if she could get recompense of another sort. “If someone wants me to interview Barbra Streisand for free, I’ll do it,” she says.*

Occasionally, I’ve been generous. A while back, as a proud Columbia graduate, I wrote a satire about Harvard’s self-importance that failed to find a taker. Finally, an old chum who had joined Huffington Post took it. Silly me, I didn’t realize that HuffPo did not pay for what is now blithely called “content.” But because I was burning to make a smug point, and had taken only two hours to toss off the thing, I let it slide.

Today, I’m not quite as forgiving. On two occasions, a major Northeastern newspaper paid me a staggering $100 for my minor op-ed essays. When I last checked, they were paying zilch. I don’t think I’ll be doing business with them again soon.

“It is a mess but it has always been a mess,” says another writer friend who also demanded anonymity. “It’s just a new kind of mess now.”

So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done? Myself, I’m now going on the offensive. Wolcott Gibbs, the late theatre critic of The New Yorker, once told Jerome Weidman, the author of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, “For God’s sake, don’t ever stop battling us to pay you higher prices for what you write.” I recently took this advice to heart when, by deploying a bit of charm, I bargained an extra $50 apiece out of two websites.

There is also the increasingly widespread “page-view model,” whereby one is paid according to the number of online hits one gets on a story. Wallis is dubious about this approach because he finds it generally isn’t worth it. But, he adds, “There are enough exceptions that you can survive. It can be a lucrative enterprise.”

Of course, that depends on your definition of “lucrative.” This summer I gave an anti-Donald Trump piece to a left-leaning news website that employs the hit model. After a couple of months, the editor told me I had earned 69 cents . . . but of course, it was conceivable that more would come. Send me a dollar, I replied, and we’ll call it square.

A few weeks later I got a hand-written check for the dollar. I deemed it a victory.

*An earlier version of this story misspelled Barbra Streisand’s name.

Thomas Vinciguerra , a freelance writer and former CJR intern, is the author of Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker (W.W. Norton). He has published approximately 170 articles, essays, and reviews in The New York Times.