$15 an article: sweatshop journalism and the cost of the free internet

This post was written by Reuben on August 25, 2010
Posted Under: Media

For a long time we have heard about the dearth of journalistic jobs. Newspapers have struggled to “adapt their business models” to the epoch of everything written being free. Meanwhile other kinds of businesses are arising to pick up the slack, and take on underemployed writers. And some of them offer a truly frightening picture of the future of journalism.

Demand Media Studios is apparently where you need to go if your a writer without work, or indeed a film maker. You apply to join them as a freelance writer, and if accepted will enjoy the chance to write about a subject matter of your choice. Operating in the UK as well as the US, they regularly pay $15 for a 500 word article – a rate that rips the shit of out union rates, and even minimum wage rates. What you write then gets posted on one of their enormous websites. They, in turn, make money not through selling on your work, but through getting top rankings for an enormous range of google searches.

A few months back, technology magazine Wired caught up with Christian Munoz-Dunozo. An experienced wildlife filmaker, he had come to find that jobs were increasingly few and far between, and was “trading speed for finesse”, shooting ten videos in a morning at $20 a piece for Demand Media. His story is somewhat emblematic of the current media age. If it was once important for producers, writers and film makers to offer content that people would pay good money for, the overarching imperative for making money out of online media is “content, content, content!”. Stacking up clicks, and appearing a lot of searches arguably matters more than developing reader loyalty – a concept that has been somewhat problematized by the advent of google searches as the great gateway to the internet.

Of course freelancers in the media have always faced the difficulty of irregular work, and Demand Media – like similar companies – bills itself as a means to “fill in the gaps”. Yet Christian’s story is indicative of something else that is happening here. Namely, that the profession is being increasingly proletarianised: good journalistic jobs are being cut, and are being replaced by positions in content factories. Indeed Demand Media’s list of featured freelancers reveals an impressive array experienced and talented journalists who are now part of their system.

It was arguably naive for us all to assume that we could suddenly get journalistic content for free – with sales revenue being almost wholly replaced by advertising revenue – without the product itself being altered. Of course both a sales-based media and an ads-based media can be characterised as “market-dominated”, but there are nonetheless important differences between the two. Most importantly, a sales-based media business does have an incentive to focus on providing the kind of content that people are most interested in. Advertising revenue however provides a different focus. Rather than pushing media organisations to focus on the content that interests people the most, it pushes them to focus on content that is easily conducive to advertising: this might be because it is popular, but it might also be because it is connected with a wealthy or well defined consumer base, or because it is clearly connected with particular high value consumer goods. Why, after all, do you think newspapers have such enormous business and technology sections?

Moreover, while a sales-based media business will want customers to come back again and again, advertising revenue depends heavily on the number of unique visitors. As such getting people to click can be far more important than the quality of their reading experience.

The age of online freeganism could, then, prove deeply problematic both for journalists – with organisations like demand media increasingly making a mockery of union rates – and those of us who have an interest in quality journalism, or who think society benefits from a real fourth estate. It is a shame that the Murdoch press took the lead in pushing back for paid-for content, since this inevitably pushed most progressive opinion into a defence of everything-for-free. But if we do not want journalism to be reduced to a bi-product of the marketing sector, then we really do need to think more critically about whether we should be paying nothing for online print.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net


Reader Comments

It’s not just ‘factories’ that want people to churn out copy for very little – though these rates are horribly low.

Some professional sites pay pretty feeble amounts, and the area where I write (tech journalism), I’ve not had a rate increase for several years, let alone anything that would be an increase in real terms.

Meanwhile, readers assume that most journalists are crooked; in the area I operate in, it’s commonplace to be told in forums and elsewhere that the results of reviews depend on who advertises.

The real issue, of course, is that good copy – that’s accurate, well researched, looking in depth at a subject, whether it’s a product review, politics, or local news – costs money. And the rates that people pay simply don’t make it economical for a lot of people.

I wrote (at some length, in four parts) about this from my perspective as a freelance; the first part is at http://gonedigital.net/2010/07/27/everybody-knows-how-reviews-work/


Written By Nigel Whitfield on August 25th, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

Reuben’s post and Nigel’s comment are both very accurate descriptions of what has happened to journalism. I have been a freelance journalist for many years and rates have stagnated or even gone down across the board. This obviously affects individual writers, editors, designers and so on, but the more invidious problem is what Nigel touches on: that no one will allocate proper budgets for investigation and research, with the result that even supposedly serious media outlets just rehash press releases and PR puffs. It drives me to distraction to receive marketing material and then see it, more or less word for word, the next day on the pages of supposedly serious newspapers or on the BBC news.
I teach my journalism students how to detect this cheap, nasty, money-grubbing travesty of what writers and editors ought to be doing and mark them down for similar practices. I know, though, that if they ever manage to find work in the media, they are unlikely to be allowed to fulfil their journalistic responsibilities, and shine a light on such shoddy practices.

Written By Julia on August 25th, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

I recently came into the world of freelance writing. Finding jobs on the internet is a minefield, and building up a client base is hard.
I have found sites where employers regularely offer $1 per 500 word article. Completely ridiculous, but they get replies. Naybe their “writers” are hoping to get their work published, build up a portfolio, and get well reviewed.
This naivity can only lead to more and more employers taking the same route, and more and more hopefuls being swindled.
The standard of writing is falling through the floor. Even spending just 10 minutes to writ a 500 word article, will only get you $6 per hour, assuming that you go from one to the other seamlessly and without pause.
Ever the optimist, I do believe that there always will be a niche for quality, and that this period of saturation by drivel will pass.

Written By Michael on September 8th, 2010 @ 11:34 am

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