Writing Wrongs: Freelance Writers Struggle For SolvencyS

Freelance writing has always been a stressful pursuit, but with fees dropping and some outlets offering, say, sailboat rides in lieu of payment, it's getting even harder out there for a scribe.

Writing in the LA Times, James Rainey bemoans the demise of "the common conception that writing is a profession — or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage." He writes,

Freelance writing fees — beginning with the Internet but extending to newspapers and magazines — have been spiraling downward for a couple of years and reached what appears to be bottom in 2009.

The trend has gotten scant attention outside the trade. Maybe that's because we live in a culture that holds journalists in low esteem. Or it could be because so much focus has been put on the massive cutbacks in full-time journalism jobs. An estimated 31,000 writers, editors and others have been jettisoned by newspapers in just the last two years.

I'm not sure that our culture actually holds journalists in low esteem. When I was in college, the general line was that journalism was a "cool" job, meaning there were more aspiring journalist than available spots for them. This was always the explanation for relatively low salaries and that bane of the poor but ambitious college student, the unpaid internship. Still, when I was in college I was able to start making money as a freelance writer with relatively little experience, and although the checks were neither huge nor timely (waiting forever to get paid is a common freelancer complaint), I never had to accept the chance to "participate in regattas all over the country" or "extend your personal brand" over actual money. I do know other writers who did more unpaid work, but the goal was always to build a resume in hopes of future paid gigs. And if Rainey's article is any indication, these are becoming much harder to find.

The reasons for this are pretty obvious — not only are we in a recession, but people have become accustomed to getting their news for free. While some who used to have steady writing gigs are finding themselves unemployed, freelancers, whose jobs have always included not only sniffing out stories but also finding people willing to pay for them, may have been hit especially hard. Blogs, of course, are part of the reason readers now expect free content, and it's a little disturbing that the job that pays my bills now may be helping to destroy the one that helped pay them when I was in college. Rainey does mention some possible solutions, including nonprofit sites and micro-payments, the latter of which has always seemed like a reasonable alternative for publications with limited ad revenue. And some have argued that we're entering — or have entered, depending on how you feel about the blogosphere — an age of citizen journalism, where lots of people will do a little writing for little or no money. But some reporting requires serious time and financial investments, the kind people can only make if they expect to be compensated. It's possible that we'll reach a point where no one is doing this kind of reporting at all anymore — and at that point, I hope we're smart enough to realize something's wrong.

Freelance Writing's Unfortunate New Model [LA Times]