Free Journalism Has its Costs

When I was in high school I had a bunch of money-earning jobs. I raked yards in the Fall (leaf bags galore!), shoveled driveways in the winter, and delivered newspapers year-round. (I really hated those thick Sunday papers back then.) This meant I had cash on hand to feed my record-buying habit and enough to spare for other typical American teenager indulgences. The important thing to keep in mind here is that people paid me to rake the leaves off their lawns, shovel snow from their driveways, and deliver their newspapers everyday.

I had one more gig as a 16-year old: I worked as a sportswriter for my town newspaper. You might be surprised to learn that I was also financially rewarded (per article) for this work. My first bylines were thrilling, but being edited and paid to cover high school sports made it feel like I had joined the ranks of professional journalism. Looking back, I’m sure I would have done it for nothing. I didn’t think the editor would hire me, much less pay me. But he did both. And in doing so, he served as my first mentor and instilled in me this crazy idea that writers get paid for their output. Those were the pre-internet days.

Today, things aren’t so cut and dry. Professional writers compete with hobbyists and experts from other fields in a digital media landscape that is flush with content. On the plus side, this has leveled the playing field and created opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. The downside is that this surplus quantity has diluted quality and created separate editorial standards for the print and online product at newspapers and magazines.

The problem with this is that most readers no longer distinguish between what is online and in print, or between an article that was professionally vetted and that which was thrown online with minimal scrutiny. Some publications, it seems, don’t bother to make these distinctions clear.

Consider, for example, The Atlantic, an influential thought leader and prestige publication in the United States. I challenge anyone to scroll around its website and be able to distinguish between the professionally vetted articles (those that were fact-checked and underwent numerous edits and revisions) and those that received glancing attention.

Why is this important? Look at the article The Atlantic published online earlier this week, which was widely read and shared. It also contained many significant errors, which the writer (to his credit) owned up to after knowledgeable critics tore it apart. (I have discussed the article here, here, and here.) If you look at the editor’s note at the article, acknowledging its inaccuracies, you’ll see the piece is now identified as the author’s  ”most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites.”  That would be a food column.

However, in the article’s initial incarnation, The Atlantic did not make this clear. It’s fair to assume that many readers thought the piece, because it was stamped with The Atlantic’s prestigious imprimatur, had passed the high editorial standards of the magazine. That gives the article a gravitas it didn’t deserve.

Now there’s a related, equally troublesome issue that I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post: the matter of financial compensation. It is not for me to say whether the author of that particular Atlantic article was paid or not by the magazine. That is his business, as he has made clear to me. But it is my impression that a good many of the online-only contributors do not get paid. I’m ready to stand corrected (in fact, I’d love it if I was). So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.

The issue of writers giving away their copy for free is a sore subject for many of us who are accustomed to being paid for our writing. The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. Personally, I’ve alway been paid for blog posts or online articles that have appeared elsewhere. Recently, I reached out to Barry Estabrook, a writer I used to work with (and pay) regularly when I was an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, after I noticed that he contributed to various online venues, including The Atlantic. Last year, Estabrook published a book called Tomatoland. I asked him straight out if he was getting paid for his online pieces at The Atlantic and other sites. Via email, he responded:

I have a policy of not writing anything (other than direct promotion for Tomatoland) for free, a policy I would perhaps waive if the editors and executives at these websites were also working for free.
Like me, Estabrook suspects that many online writers, seduced by the prospect of a byline at a reputable publication (such as The Atlantic), do not have a similar policy.

The issue of science bloggers, I should hasten to add, is a different kettle of fish. I’m bothered by journalists and science writers who give away their talents at those network/group blog sites. That said, I’m aware that these outlets, with their free back-end support and brand name perches, offer intangibles that can’t be measured in a bi-weekly paycheck. Those who latch on to such places get a seat at the grown-ups table and can make themselves heard over the din. If they do it well enough, that might even translate into gainfully employed work from other grown-ups that are willing to pay. Additionally, if you have a book or some other pet project to hawk, then a bloghorn is virtually a must. So I get the value of free labor under those circumstances.

But let’s not kid ourselves, either. All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.

UPDATE: Ed Yong, via twitter, says it’s “worth noting that all sci-blog networks assoc’d w/ media brands do pay. Some pittance, others well.”

Category: Journalism, media