How many pears can you buy with exposure?
Do you know what I use to feed my children?
No, not air! You’re so silly. I use money. I take the money to the supermarket, and I give the machine with the gentle woman’s voice the money and in return, I am allowed to take my groceries home without being arrested.
Today, an online women’s editorial-style site announced that it would pay its contributors. Evidently the whole notion of paying someone for a service they provide was so staggering to this website that it warranted a whole announcement. Worse still, the announcement came with a kind of reluctance, a justification as to why previously it had not been deemed necessary to pay writers.
That part of the announcement has been removed now, but it read:
“Many of you will be aware that newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content. Consequently, Mamamia has always followed that same rule.”
That’s right. There is evidently a rule that magazines and newspapers not traditionally pay writers of opinion content. Which, of course, is not only not what this particular site comprises, but also mostly bollocks.
The revised announcement refers to this enormous, profitable website as a “start up”. Apparently start ups are exempt from paying for services rendered, which is also news to me, and probably to you.
What goads me about this whole stupid mess is not the fact that they are “only” paying $50–other comparable sites also pay this sort of figure for feature writing, though it’s still well below what’s standard from most media outlets–but the fact that they seem so sore about it. Rather than saying, “Hey, now we’re in a position to pay our contributors, and we’re really excited about it because they are awesome and maybe now they can buy some groceries instead of just scooping dirt from the side of the road,” they post the rubbish I’ve quoted above. As though writers are somehow putting the publishers out by asking that they be paid in return for providing good work.
I have written for Mamamia. For free. My first piece there was the second thing I had ever pitched in my life, and I was grateful for the exposure and especially grateful to this lady for taking a chance on me. There was value in it for me, in that it gave me something for my CV and helped me generate paid writing work. I know many other writers who have done the same. And then never written for the site again. Creating a community of loyal contributors who really want to be part of a buzzing, thriving, engaging site like this relies on rewarding the contributors. Exposure is only a reward for as long as it takes until you no longer need the exposure. The end result is a kind of revolving-door site on which writers can cut their teeth but develop no real long-term relationship with, as a contributor or as a reader. If the by-lines are constantly changing, and if the content is always coming from first-time writers (some of which are excellent, by the by), with whom are the readers supposed to establish a rapport?
Loyal contributors are good for the publisher, not just the contributor.
Participating in that kind of portfolio building exacerbates the problem. It’s easy to say “don’t work for free”, because sometimes exposure is better than nothing. But if no one works for free, publishers will have no choice but to pay for content. If they have to pay for content, they will have to build business models that take into account paying for services. Perhaps they won’t generate as much profit. Maybe they need to rethink their revenue models and income streams. Maybe there actually isn’t money to be made by forcing new media pegs into old media holes.
Today, more than once, I’ve heard the argument that at least they are providing a platform while old media dies out. But there is no value to writers in the mere existence of new media outlets. What’s that old adage? You can’t put money on your Debit Mastercard with exposure alone.