Freelance frustration: same as it ever was

Freelancer Ben Adler has penned a lament on the field in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Piecemeal Existence.

The article spells out how bleak it is for many freelancers. Sites offer pittances for blog posts, sometimes based on the number of views a freelancer gets. He might be asked to just plain write for free. One editor, Choire Sicha at The Awl, defends the practice:

“I think working for free was always the case in journalism,” says Sicha. “You had to pay for graduate school, know the right people, or hustle your way up. There were slightly more paid newspaper internships, but they always went to a certain kind of student.”

I freelanced in the 1980s in Chicago. I didn’t do it for the right papers. I sometimes made $20 an article. I wrote regularly for a place that paid $100 an article, and some of my articles ran more than 2,000 words (that works out to 5 cents a word). But my rent at the time was $280 a month. I remember an ad for a writer that promised $500 for 10,000 words of supposedly simple prose. Even for me, that was a bit much (probably because I hadn’t done the math on those 2,000 word, $100 stories).

What I did not do was write for free. It took a while to make a living without having to supplement my writing income by waiting tables and working as a legal proofreader. Yes, there were unpaid internships that went primarily to trust fund babies. But the world today looks grimmer than the one I started in, the recession-plagued 80s.

The real challenge to the profession is that “free” does not create incentive to do actual reporting, as Adler notes. He also questions whether people who write will be able to sustain their current pace for the next 40 years, or when they have kids. He profiles three people piecing together a living of sorts by writing, none of them doing much more than surviving. This kind of subsistence journalism did exist 30 years ago, and I recognize the world Adler writes about. In some ways, things aren’t that different.

But where Adler strikes a hopeful note, looking at the evolution of Gawker from sweat shop to a place that offers salaries, it’s clear he isn’t confident about it. He fears the collapse of the path that leads away from subsistence journalism. It’s a fear shared by many, and his article is worth a read for anyone thinking about or currently freelancing.

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