How many pears can you buy with exposure? – Anna Spargo-Ryan

How many pears can you buy with exposure?

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.

18 Comments
  • Laura

    July 18, 2013 at 12:03 am Reply

    Bravo, Anna!

  • John James

    July 18, 2013 at 9:41 am Reply

    Yep, as someone who has written for MM as well, I get where you’re coming from…

    Writing for MM gave me enough exposure (and confidence) to co-found KiKi & Tea ( http://www.kikiandtea.com ) with Miss T (as she was known on the MM community) so I didn’t mind not being paid at the time… but I wouldn’t submit to MM anymore, not even if I got paid…

    I think you’re right about loyalty – reader loyalty and contributor loyalty – it’s something we tried to nurture on KiKi & Tea when we first started the site (and I know Miss T continues to now that I’ve largely left KK&T to go solo). I know my disenchantment with MM was one of the reasons I wanted to start KK&T…

    I wrote about my MM experience on my own blog recently: http://johnanthonyjames.com/post/53225818315/i-need-to-talk-about-mamamia

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm Reply

      Very interesting JJ! My experience as a contributor to MM was positive (bar the lack of pay) and the things I wrote were fortunately well received, but I agree that its brand is heading in a direction that doesn’t resonate with me on really any level.

  • Deb @ Bright and Precious

    July 18, 2013 at 11:13 am Reply

    I’m sitting here saying ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’… and applauding. Well said, Anna. I don’t think anyone could have articulated this better. xx

  • Nicole Madigan

    July 18, 2013 at 11:42 am Reply

    Totally agree Anna. Writing for MM was also the one of the first things I had published after leaving television journalism and wanting to develop a freelance writing career. In that sense it had its place. I wrote a couple until I did develop said career and now I simply wouldn’t have the time to write a lengthy piece and not be paid for it. I have to say though, although I mostly write for print magazines now, I do write for several other websites and the pay is more than what you’ve mentioned above, in one case four times more for a 300 word piece.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Agreed. Writing for free for MM helped me to get my writing in front of eyeballs, definitely, but my objective in doing that was always to then make money from writing. I have a lot of issues with a business model that relies on free content to make a profit (though in this case I’m not sure that’s been true for some time, which might be worse).

  • Jodi Gibson

    July 18, 2013 at 11:55 am Reply

    *Stands and applauds loudly*

    I’ve been sitting here trying to articulate my thoughts as concisely as you Anna – don’t know why I punish myself really!

    Anyhow, I totally agree!

    It is a topic that I debate with myself internally all the time. I see the value in writing for free in exchange for exposure and getting your name out there but still inside it still irks me.

    Writing is a tough gig. It takes time, research, talent and a chunk of soul and it is a job that like everything else payment should be expected for a service rendered.

    Unfortunately the writing game is a competitive and crowded field so there will always be those who will write for free (I have been one of them).

    But at this stage in my (non) writing career I am leaning towards working hard towards only freelancing to paid publications/sites and leaving my free writing to my blog!

  • Kelly Exeter

    July 18, 2013 at 12:41 pm Reply

    I really like the concept of encouraging loyal contributors because YES, that goes a long way to building a loyal readership.

    As for the rest, there is nothing above that I disagree with :)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 20, 2013 at 11:53 am Reply

      It really does. We are creatures of habit, we need familiarity on our websites, and people to build relationships with!

  • Kate

    July 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm Reply

    Anna, you had me at the second paragraph.

    Loved it. Best piece of writing I have read about this ‘whole stupid mess’. You make it all sound so simple.

    And really, it is that simple.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 20, 2013 at 11:55 am Reply

      Thanks Kate. It seems simple to me, too. We’ll see how it plays out.

  • Kathryn

    July 19, 2013 at 2:22 pm Reply

    Well said. I remember when I did my Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT and they wanted submissions for the literary mag. I asked what it paid and was told exposure. If that’s the case what does the ‘professional’ part of the course name mean? You are writing what is sometimes your first published piece and you learn straightaway you don’t get paid.

    Even a small amount (because a lot of mags can’t afford to pay more) puts value on your work and helps you build the belief that your work is worth something.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm Reply

      Exactly! Obviously it’s preferable to get paid at market rates, but for me the primary concern should be to demonstrate that being a writer has economic value.

  • amber

    July 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm Reply

    I’ve been away from Internetz for a few weeks and am just trying now to sift through my RSS backlog in the wake of Reader buggering off.

    I found this post really interesting (but, then, all of your posts are interesting!) because I missed the Big Announcement completely.

    I used to really enjoy reading Mamamia daily, but, as many others have noted, ‘something’ changed — either at one point or over time — that has altered the culture or the soul of the site irrevocably… and now I can take it or leave it. More often than not, I leave it. I find the articles sensationalistic and empty and stupidly polemic when they don’t necessarily need to be.

    I also feel that, if the site is now so profitable, the managing editors ought to invest some of that money towards improving the quality of the writing and editing. It’s a small thing, but knowing the difference between contracted ‘it’s’ and possessive ‘its’ should be on the résumé of any editor worth their salt, and that’s exactly the type of basic, technical housekeeping that Mamamia still somehow lacks.

    As a freelance writer and editor, I do a hell of a lot for free. I’d dare to suggest that many — or most — others like me have started out the same way: doing stuff pro bono, as favours, in exchange for services, or at a cut price. Over time, if you still allow your work to float about for free or bottom dollar, it can become truly demoralising. Editing is such an invisible job, and writing can certainly feel that way too.

    It takes time to produce good content. For Mamamia to maintain its rapid turnover of articles, they need a stable of good, productive writers. If they don’t support those writers, however, the relationship won’t thrive or even survive.

    Maybe that’s old news: the site seems to already be experiencing the ill effects of its protracted what-you-get-is-exposure dealings.

    So, I’m curious to see what happens now that some dollars have been thrown into the mix.

    Except that I can’t be bothered reading the site any more!

  • Lila

    September 9, 2015 at 9:40 pm Reply

    Found this article while looking for response about Mamamia’s new writing competition and I do wonder if the seeds were sown way back when you wrote this, and before – they don’t pay their contributors, the contributors move on and now they have to lure new ones through a competition? Think about how many articles they can get out of this that they only have to pay $150 (that’s from a princely 12 cents a word!) for.
    And they get to frame it in terms of a self-congratulatory ‘aren’t we so great to give a platform for new voices! And look, donations for the ILF!’

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