Writing for Free: Credibility and Practicality in the Blogosphere

 

The term “blogosphere” has been used so often and in so many ways that word is on the verge of losing all meaning. “Blog” no longer refers to something written by “someone in their basement” with no credibility. Today, blogs like Gawker and the Huffington Post are driving the national media conversation, often the subject of reports from old-media stalwarts like the New York Times.

That amount of influence doesn’t just come out of nowhere, though, and many of the writers those sites host today spent yesterday desperate for a paycheck. Generally speaking, bloggers that didn’t write for newspapers or magazines used to write for free, or they still do. It’s a practice that has no shortage of ethical uncertainty it, both for the sites and the writers. Questions abound as to whether it’s right for major sites to profit without paying writers a dime. For a writer trying to get started in today’s super-saturated market there’s almost not a choice.

One of the most popular targets for critics has been the Bleacher Report, a sports blogging site sold to Turner Broadcasting earlier this year for a reported $180 million on the backs of over 2,000 unpaid contributors. The site’s link baiting and editorial issues have proven that quality of content on the internet doesn’t always win out when advertising dollars are at stake. For a young writer looking to add to their resume, though, the Bleacher Report is a known commodity. Whether it’s respected or not is certainly another question.

In an article published last week called 21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves, The Awl’s Alexander Chee addressed the idea that writing for free can help someone get their name out there.

“Maybe. Find out, though. For example, is this site somehow making millions for someone other than the person writing? What is their traffic? Whenever I am asked to write for free I run the site’s numbers on someplace like Alexa before saying yes, to see if the site gets enough traffic to actually get my name out there. And if traffic is not high, ask yourself, is their small audience an audience you want? The answer may be yes.

One strategy I have used is to work out how much I can write for free a year and still pay bills, and stick to it. X times a year, and then that is it.

Lastly, if the site gets your work for free, it’s important to have worked out things like: who owns it after publication, how often can they use it, and so on. Don’t let writing for free be an excuse for there to be no contract on the content.”

Chee is not alone in his wary assessment.

During an interview on the Longform podcast Matthieu Atkins, who has contributed to GQ and The Atlantic, among others, described his take on the conversation around “writing on the cheap.” When asked if writing for free devalues someone’s work or gives them a step up because they’re able to have that freedom Atkins replied with:

It depends on what you’re getting out of it. I think there’s a lot of exploitation because people will work for free and they’re cranking out meaningless boiler-plate blog posts that aren’t interesting to them…

He also pointed out the absurdity around the idea that all people writing for free are devaluing the work of someone like, say, Bill Simmons. As if Grantland will lose readership because of something on the Bleacher Report.

The question of whether people shouldn’t write for free because [writers] are some sort of guild is problematic… that’s not going to work. If you’re doing something you love and what you’re writing you’re proud of and it’s interesting to you, then do it for as little money as you can afford to, I say.

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