Over past few days I have been dealing with a flu-gone-wild. It is not exactly the way I wanted to spend my days, but sometimes cold happens. The good news, if there can be any, is that I had a lot of time on my hands to watch a lot of video. In my case it is usually one of the four shows: Wallander, Sherlock Holmes (with Jeremy Brett), Poirot and House M.D. It is mostly House MD, because well, I am a House MD junkie.
As luck would have it, I was watching season one (for probably the 25th time) and came across probably my favorite episode — DNR– where John Henry Giles, a saxophonist, falls sick. He goes to the hospital. There is a lot of drama, and somewhere along the way he tells Dr. House:
The reason normal people got wives and kids and hobbies, whatever. That’s because they don’t got that one thing that hits them that hard and that true. I got music, you got this. The thing you think about all the time, the thing that keeps you south of normal. Yeah, makes us great, makes us the best. All we miss out on is everything else.
When I look back at my own life as a writer, I somehow related to that “one thing” theory. Sometimes I wonder if that is my curse. But mostly I think of it as my blessing. Thinking, obsessing, composing — writing it all down on crevices of my brain before putting it to paper (or computer.) There are days when I fall asleep thinking about a story, only to find the entire story appearing magically which I am asleep and getting up in the middle of the night and writing it all down on a piece of paper that always is next to my bed. It is a process that is all-consuming.
It is that “one thing” that made me read and re-read magazines, books and anything I could get my hands of in the 1980s India and learn how to write. Not just write, but think and write and write. It mattered to me more than anything — love, family, home and even my own identity.
I didn’t do it because I thought I would make some money or get paid to do it. Thirty-five years later, I still do it because I don’t really have a choice, because I don’t really know any other way. Writing, painting, creating –creators don’t do it because they want to make money. Creativity is not a profession, it is a gift. It was, is and always will be a very selfish act.
And the reason why I bring this up is because of the raging debate around writers, freelancers and how they are getting paid. I am bringing this up because of all the handwringing about the changing landscape. When I see all the arguments — whether it is Nate Thayer’s story about The Atlantic editor asking him to write for free in exchange for exposure, or The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal’s story of being a digital editor/writer or Felix Salmon’s unvarnished truth about the problems of online journalism — I empathize with each and every one of them. (My colleague Mathew Ingram has his nuanced take on the situation, and is worth reading.)
End of freelance?
Why? Because I sat on all four sides of this table. I have been an unpaid freelancer. I was a mistreated poorly paid staffer. And I was also employed by a magazine that was gorging at the dot-com orgy. And thanks to a lucky set of circumstances, I have been an employer. I have written for the paper and I have written for digital. I have been paid and I have been the payer. I have been a writer and a businessman.
What my changing roles have made me aware of is the reality of today’s media business (something we’ll be talking about at our paidContent Live conference on April 17 in New York). Back in the day when it was an all- print business, the newspapers were always looking for ways to fill pages to support more advertising. More advertising meant more broadsheets to fill and more money to spend on whatever went next to advertising.
Magazines charged a heck-of-a-lot more money than papers. The more ads they sold, the more money they doled out to the writers. If I remember, one of the Red Herring issues in 2000 put Bride magazine to shame. It was full of so many ads that I had to work on four stories for the issue — just to support the advertising. I was not privy to the freelance budget but the freelancers at Red Herring were getting paid quite handsomely. Then, advertising vanished and so did the freelance money and eventually the publications themselves.
In other words, the spending on editorial was in direct correlation with the advertising dollars. Today, the ad dollars are hard to find, both in print and on the web. Sure, more dollars are being shoveled towards online properties, but then there are more zebras around this pond. Media publications are fighting with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon for ad dollars. But, then you knew that already.
Frankly, it sucks. Not just sucks, it royally sucks. It boils my blood just thinking about the changes — but change it is and one has to live with it. And that is the biggest reality of our times. Maybe the reality of this post-blogging, post-Twitter world where words exist for mere minutes, freelance writing isn’t an option anymore. As Felix Salmon so eloquently writes:
The lesson here, then, is not that digital journalism doesn’t pay. It does pay, and often it pays better than print journalism. Rather, the lesson is that if you want to earn money in digital journalism, you’re probably going to have to get a full-time job somewhere.
My personal view, shaped by the my own experience, is that if you are going to take freelance contributions, then pay something — just as a sign of respect (if not the true worth) of a writer’s capability.
We have used freelance writers in the past and have always paid them — not a lot because we didn’t have a lot — but then we came to the conclusion that it didn’t really make sense in today’s always-on, constantly updating media ecosystem. We tried the monthly contract model but in the end decided that we want to adopt an in-house model. Today we have a few guest writers who write because of their love of our site and they do it for free. But we are still a team of our own.
Brave old (new) world
The reasons are actually pretty simple. Our roots are in blogging and we have a certain view of the world. In order to keep a consistent voice (not editorial style), we need to have a team that has an ability to look at the world through the same lens. That identifies us to our community of readers and it also helps us stay true to who we are and what we believe in. And most importantly it allows us to build a metabolic rate that suits us and create products that make sense to us.
We know that advertising isn’t the golden gateway, so we decided to go the way of paid content via our research business. And because we don’t put all our eggs in advertising, it means that we don’t have to be beholden to the heroin of page views and pray at the temple of traffic. Others chose to do things differently — but we have decided to go down a different path.
Tomorrow, if they take everything away from me — the company, the job, the fame, the money — and leave me with a piece of paper. I know I will be 15 again, I will still write. And I still will have a reason to live. Just like Nate, Alexis, Felix and every other writer who gets up every morning to do that one thing… just one thing.