I used to work all day in a steel shop, pretending I was a writer. I’d get off work, come home, realize the stink of rust and dust and cigarette smoke permeated every bit of me, shower it all off, sit down at the computer and not write.
Working construction felt like work: it was hard, and I only did it for the money. I punched a time clock when I came in, again when I went home, and got paid for every half-hour in between. Writing? Writing was a fun cool thing I thought I’d like to do someday—maybe all day—instead of work.
Not quite ten years later, I started a blog in hopes of writing for real. I set goals, schedules, deadlines. I thought about marketing and promotion, tools and platforms. I scoped out competition and sharpened my craft. I treated writing like work: I showed up every day and did the thing, even though I wasn’t punching a clock—or getting paid.
Last week, IGN senior editor Kat Bailey posted a call for freelancers “to assist with the daily flow of stories” at a base rate of just $20 per piece.
She got ratio’d to the moon:
Just about every flavor of professional writer balked at the pittance being offered by multimedia giant Ziff-Davis: newspaper journalists, fiction authors, screenwriters and feature-writing freelancers like me—who know that if you have a “portfolio” of writing clips to present to an editor, you shouldn’t be writing anything for twenty bucks.
Bailey—as far as I can tell from reading her writing, subscribing to her podcast “Axe of the Blood God” and interacting with her on Twitter—is absolutely a good egg. But she was getting buried for this offered rate. A few cautious souls started to pipe up and note that, well, depending on how one defines “story,” $20 might not only be fair, but on the high end of decent.
I especially enjoyed this thread by Game Developer senior editor Bryant Francis, explaining how skilled journalistic writers can crank out quick news hits in far less than an hour:
$20 per piece, a piece or two every hour…that sounds pretty good! And as Bailey clarified in a reply, the rates IGN is offering for longer articles and reported features are also quite competitive.
But IGN’s freelancers aren’t getting paid by the hour. How much a writer could earn in a day, week, or month is up to the editors—and there’s likely never any promise of anything beyond the last $20 bill. No matter how quickly a writer turns pieces around, no matter how much quality they manage to squeeze into a couple-three hundred words, that dripping-faucet income stream could stop dripping any second.
Game Developer handles this in a way that, to me, makes more sense: pay writers for their time, rather than their output. But this is tricky, too. If a site picks up a few full-time-equivalent permalance contractors (as opposed to actual W-2 employees), then the outlet can’t legally set the writers’ schedules.
How can you pay someone by the hour if you can’t set their hours?
This is the situation I found myself in when I launched Lions Wire with USA TODAY Sports Media Group. I was paid a flat monthly rate and given suggestions for what (and how much) I should write. But my vision for the site—a little more quality, and necessarily less quantity—didn’t entirely jibe with corporate’s. And because I was never truly On The Clock, I was never really off it, either. At any waking minute, Adam Schefter could Tweet a thing and my boss would expect me to run to my laptop and get something up on the site.
For me, stressing like that 18 hours a day for not-that-much money was no way to live. Yet as Francis pointed out, the stress of trying to grind out 16 super-quick articles a day, every day, is not anything most sufficiently skilled writers skilled would want to do for very long.
Even worse, there are plenty of newbies out there—like I once was—willing to do this thankless grunt work for free. A lot of companies built fortunes on unpaid writing (including Bleacher Report, which hired me on a permalance basis back in 2012 as part of a sitewide effort to raise their quality bar).
This kind of squishy, nebulous, you-don’t-work-here-but-we-don’t-mind-if-you-act-like-you-do routine got Vox Media sued for unfair labor practices in 2017, and inspired some well-intended but questionably executed state laws.
There’s no one right way to square this circle. People will always want timely content about stuff they care about, and corporations will always seek to pay writers as little as they can get away with. People will always be inspired by their favorite creators, and many of those aspirants will be willing to accept little (or nothing) in return for their labor.
And as Francis wrote, there are much bigger structural issues with labor, wages, and benefits in America that no individual editor or outlet can fix:
My favorite part of working in the trades, I’d eventually realize, was being able to point to my work and say I did that. If you’re ever hungry on the west side of Lansing, Michigan, you can go to Cheddar’s and see the custom liquor-cabinet grates I designed, painted, and installed over 20 years ago. Meanwhile, half the articles at my zombified Bleacher Report author page don’t even have pictures anymore.
If our hours are nebulous, our pay negotiable and our work product insubstantial, is what we’re doing even labor?
Of course it is. If writers’ time, talent, and experience didn’t have value, Ziff-Davis wouldn’t have a market cap of $4.3 billion.
The most obvious solution is the one trade workers came up with centuries ago: Unionization. But joining a union requires employment, and real staff-writer jobs are unbelievably tough to come by. As the executives controlling media outlets like IGN continue to slash staff and replace them with freelancers, they’re also reducing the influence any potential union might have.
But unionizing isn’t the only collective action writers can take.
We can tell newbies to withhold free or token-rate labor, encouraging them to build something of their own that’s unique and interesting instead of generating value for a corporation that will never value them.
We can build something unique and interesting ourselves, whether that’s a newsletter like this one or a whole entire worker-owned publisher, like Defector Media.
We can share the rates we’re earning with each other, exposing outlets that pay poorly or unfairly—and exposing each other to great opportunities we might not have been aware of.
And we can encourage outlets to be transparent about the opportunities they’re offering, letting writers make empowered choices (and listening to feedback when the rates being offered don’t match the output of the work being requested).
That transparency, by the way, is exactly what Bailey was trying to offer. If we want more editors to follow her example, we need to A) do as Future gaming editor Carli Velocci did and make sure we’re all clear about the rates being offered, and B) be smarter about where we direct our collective pressure.
The football-watching world suffered a stunning loss this weekend when 24-year-old Dwayne Haskins died after being struck by a dump truck. Though several well-respected sports-media figures acted with utter disrespect towards Haskins, FOX’s Laura Okmin shared a heartbreaking memory of a conversation they’d had:
Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, has been home to great writing about great writing since 1958. Vibbert is an SFF author whose debut novel, GALACTIC HELLCATS, is out now. This post chronicling Vibbert’s research into the vocations and socioeconomic status of primary characters in science-fiction novels, is fascinating.
Vibbert guides us turn-by-turn through her initial inspiration, methodologies, and results, old-school blog-post style; her insights and theories about which perspectives we include in our visions of the future are no less compelling than the results she found.
My friend and podcasting partner-in-crime Michael Schottey just took over as head of content for The 33rd Team, a “football think tank” founded by former NFL general managers Joe Banner and Mike Tannenbaum.
The football brainpower Schottey and his staff now have access to is amazing, and I already love how they’re using it. Wade Philips and John Pagano breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of this draft class’s three elite pass-rusher prospects? YES PLEASE.
The last outlet that needs my help getting clicks is The New York Times, and their Opinion section does not often host articles I’d bother directing my readers towards.
But that’s exactly why this one’s so notable.
Here we have a marginalized person—Boylan, a celebrated author and longtime NYT Opinion contributor who is also a trans woman—being given the keys to the platform to speak on their lived experience about the controversy of the day (Vladimir Putin grouping himself in with J.K. Rowling as people being “cancelled” for their anti-trans beliefs). As this piece doubles as Boylan’s announcement she is leaving the Opinion section, I deeply hope the Times fills this spot, and more, with a similarly marginalized writer.
I’ve written about Rowling’s transphobia before, but I urge you to read Boylan’s perspective on why it’s so meaningful for cis allies to stand up and visibly support trans rights at this moment in history.
I crossed the finish line, in many ways, last week. Having completed a spring deep-cleaning and mostly-completed a kitchen renovation, I have the time, energy, and drive to jump back into fiction.
Well, I will have it after publishing this far-too-late edition of Gimme Schalter.
Look for real progress here next week!