If you’ve ever worked on a blog or for a publisher with online content, you know that it can be nonstop, frantic work. The online editors I’ve known have been chained to their desks and phones, fueled by caffeine drips, trying to churn out interesting and timely content for voracious readers 24/7. Voracious readers are great! Don’t get me wrong. But our insatiable appetites for free information in real-time are starting to look like our Wal-Mart shopping. We want it fast; we want it on the cheap; we want more of it! And this is creating a huge problem–for us.
As consumers of media we need to realize we’re driving market forces that are driving down writers’ and editors’ salaries, shuttering thousands of publishers, and in the process reducing the scope and quality of the content available to us. It’s natural for people to want cheaper items, goods, and services as quickly as possible. If we value quality reporting and writing, however, there is a bottom line to how much time and money it takes to provide publishing and reporting services, and I think we are crossing that line right now. You know that when The New York Times is defending bad decisions about which stories to run, it’s an epidemic.
I got pretty excited at the chance to write for a high-profile Web 2.0 startup site this week. I knew they didn’t pay all that well but was considering the gig to gain visibility and experience. When I watched their tutorial on how to pick an assignment, though, it became obvious from their screenshots that six months ago the company paid two to three times as much for the exact same content. It wasn’t great pay then, and an editor admitted to me that pay had been a “real sticking point” lately. No shit. Not only was it insultingly, prohibitively bad pay, but they were literally advertising the fact because of their sloppiness in editing the tutorial videos… which probably occurred because they laid off the majority of their in-house editorial staff a month ago due to financial pressures. Anyone else feel the pull of that downward spiral?
The editor politely laid out how much time it took writers to put these assignments together, and it boiled down to below minimum wage for research, writing, two to three rounds of edits, wiki coding the article, an extensive style guide to learn, AND only being paid for each article on acceptance. Basically, high-profile companies are beginning to offer third-world wages because they can or have to to stay afloat. What kind of content do you think that pay is going to buy for their organization and readers?
How much do you value quality reporting and writing? Are you happy to accept writing and reporting from people who either are paid $2 an hour or have to cut major corners in order to make their living as writers? What information might you as a reader miss out on because no one is being paid to find it for you? There is a debate raging right now about the entire business model media is built around, and my lil ol’ blog post isn’t going to resolve that issue. (See Mitch Ratcliffe’s post about the economics of journalism at ZDNet for a great analysis.) It seems important to me, though, that readers realize there is a cost to the free and constant flow of online content. Maybe awareness of this fact will help engage people in finding a solution that serves both industry and consumers.