Freelance writing's unfortunate new model

The list of freelance writing gigs on Craigslist goes on and on.

Trails.com will pay $15 for articles about the outdoors. Livestrong.com wants 500-word pieces on health for $30, or less. In this mix, the 16 cents a word offered by Green Business Quarterly ends up sounding almost bounteous, amounting to more than $100 per submission.

Other publishers pitch the grand opportunities they provide to "extend your personal brand" or to "showcase your work, influence others." That means working for nothing, just like the sailing magazine that offers its next editor-writer not a single doubloon but, instead, the opportunity to "participate in regattas all over the country."

What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession -- or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage.

Freelance writing fees -- beginning with the Internet but extending to newspapers and magazines -- have been spiraling downward for a couple of years and reached what appears to be bottom in 2009.

The trend has gotten scant attention outside the trade. Maybe that's because we live in a culture that holds journalists in low esteem. Or it could be because so much focus has been put on the massive cutbacks in full-time journalism jobs. An estimated 31,000 writers, editors and others have been jettisoned by newspapers in just the last two years.

Today's reality is that much of freelancing has become all too free. Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50% or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers.

Low compensation

The crumbling pay scales have not only hollowed out household budgets but accompanied a pervasive shift in journalism toward shorter stories, frothier subjects and an increasing emphasis on fast, rather than thorough.

"There are a lot of stories that are being missed, not just at legacy newspapers and TV stations but in the freelance world," said Nick Martin, 27, laid off a year ago by the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., and now a freelancer. "A lot of publications used to be able to pay freelancers to do really solid investigations. There's just not much of that going on anymore."

Another writer, based in Los Angeles, said she has been troubled by the lighter fare that many websites prefer to drive up traffic. A new take on any youth obsessions ("Put 'Twilight' in the headline, get paid") has much more chance of winning editorial approval than more complex or substantive material.

The rank of stories unwritten -- like most errors of omission -- is hard to conceive. Even those inside journalism can only guess at what stories they might have paid for, if they had more money.

Media analyst and former newspaper editor Alan Mutter worried last month about the ongoing "journicide" -- the loss of much of a generation of professional journalists who turn to other professions.

Writers say they see stories getting shorter and the reporting that goes into some of them getting thinner.

A former staff writer for a national magazine told me that she has been disturbed not only by low fees (one site offered her $100 for an 800-word essay) but by the way some website editors accept "reporting" that really amounts to reworking previously published material. That's known in the trade as a "clip job" and on the Web as a "write around."

"The definition of reportage has become really loose," said the writer, also a book author, who didn't want to be named for fear of alienating employers. "In this economy, everyone is afraid to turn down any work and it has created this march to the bottom."

One Los Angeles woman who also requested anonymity writes frequently for women's magazines and fondly recalls the days when freelance pieces fetched $2, or even $3, a word. Though some publications still pay those rates, many have cut them at least in half. And story lengths have been reduced even more drastically.

The writer, who once could make $70,000 a year or more, said she is now working harder to bring in half that much. "It's just not a living wage anymore," she said.

Los Angeles freelancer Tina Dupuy gained acclaim last year when she posted a YouTube video to shame editors at the Tampa Tribune into paying her $75 for a humor column on the "birthers" -- the political activists who contest President Obama's U.S. citizenship.

Up for a challenge

She said many other papers have stopped paying for opinion columns altogether --narrowing op-ed contributions at some papers to those already in syndication or those with day jobs at chambers of commerce, corporations, think tanks and the like.

"These corporate-sponsored pieces threaten to push people like me out," Dupuy said.

That's not to say that she is getting out of the business. After an earlier career in stand-up comedy, Dupuy has learned to hustle and to be "psychologically very adept at rejection."

It can be challenging, but Dupuy makes a living. "For someone who had to drive for hours to get to a gig -- to get $100 and a beer bottle thrown at them -- this is heaven," she said.

Indeed, relative newcomers like Dupuy or those who have spent their careers as freelancers -- like Matt Villano of Healdsburg, Calif. -- sound much more resilient about the revolutionary changes in publishing than the former staff writers and longtime freelancers.

The 34-year-old Villano -- whose outlets include the San Francisco Chronicle, Fodor's travel guides, Casino Player and Oceanus magazines -- said some writers struggle because they have fuzzy, arty notions about their work. They need to act more like small business people, Villano said, diversifying their skills and the outlets they write for.

Despite the endless hustle, Villano said he would not give up a career that has taken him from whale watching in Maui to the baccarat tables of Las Vegas. "I like the diversity," he said. "I like doing it on my own terms."

Villano strikes me as considerably more resilient, and sunny, than most people who write for a living. To make a go of it, the majority will require not only his flexibility, but a return of a more stable financial base for journalism.

With the advertising-driven income in a state of disarray, the source of future freelance dollars remains in doubt.

Philanthropic, nonprofit sites (ProPublica) will take up some of the slack, while other new models (Spot.Us) ask consumers to make micro-payments to put writers on specific local stories. Other websites (True/Slant) pay bonuses for stories and commentary, with writers getting paid more as they deliver bigger audiences.

It's hard to say if any, or all, will succeed. But the sooner they can take the free out of freelance, the better. Until they do, we can only imagine what we'll be missing.

On the Media also runs on Fridays on A2.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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