Who knows if I’ll ever again have as many comments as my “Freshly Pressed” article on freelance journalism (reblogged again, today, as one of the three best from the 40 that ran this week) brought in. But at least for this week, I’ll make a feature out of recapping (and perhaps rethinking) some of the things I wrote about, read about, and responded to in the time that’s passed since their original run.

So, appropriately enough for an article about the merits of writing for exposure (as opposed to pay), here’s the change brought about by having my article mentioned on the front page of WordPress:

The previous spike, if you’re interested, came after I posted a positive review of the play Clown Bar, which was, I’m assuming, reblogged or linked through on Facebook by members of the cast/crew. One of the dangers of a writer not being paid, as I’ve mentioned before, is that those with questionable ethics might write to the traffic, throwing positive reviews — or negatives ones — so as to stand out from the average and thereby draw the more curious readers who are looking for a devilish advocate. I should also add that I’d only just taken this site from Blogger to WordPress; on the strength of its archive of content–dating back five years–it still manages to get about a hundred hits a day, even though I no longer post there. I just want it to be clear that while traffic can be driven by any number of factors, the stats you’re looking at here are almost without exception due to this post about freelance journalism.

In an ironic twist, I learned that despite me writing it for free and making no profit off of it, advertisements did actually appear at the bottom of this “heavily” trafficked post, on account of the fact that I have not opted into WordPress’s “NoAds” Freemium service (which costs $30.00/year). In the event that I was actually making money from this blog, I’d actually invest in a bunch of WordPress’s pay-tier services, but it feels a little chintzy that this is even a policy at all. In theory, it’s reasonable: they host blogs like this for free, and I understand that they aren’t a non-profit. Had they told me up front that they were going to be running ads because my traffic had gone over a certain threshold, I’d have probably given it my blessing. Still, my only real complaint is that having a mysterious ad pop up at the bottom of my post devalues some of what I’ve actually written, and at the very least, they ought to differentiate between users who choose to participate in the WordAds program (so as to earn money) and those who are simply being called upon to cover the costs of operating the site.

So now let’s talk about the benefits of this exposure. I have received 141 likes, 96 follows, and 61 comments, of which at least 20 are probably from me, “engaging” the audience that I’m supposed to one day “ask” for donations. It’s too early to tell how many of these users will continue to actually read articles on the site (many of the likes/follows appear to be spammers who hope that I’ll click through to their sites, having seen that they’ve clicked through to mine), but from the fact that the next two posts have comparatively generated 0 comments (OK, my celebratory Veronica Mars: The Movie: The Kickstarter post got one reblog) and a dwindling series of likes: from 4 to 3. Mind you, this isn’t me whining — I’m honored to have been “Freshly Pressed” — and I know that we’re talking stats within a very limited window of time and with a sample size that doesn’t compare to the traffic that The Atlantic was offering (a supposed 13 million eyeballs, which, even if The Atlantic is being slyly literal and only means 6.5 million people is still on an entirely different order of magnitude). But if I were to extrapolate data and say that my 650 views in a day were scalable to 6,500,000 (multiplying everything by 10,000), then writing for exposure for The Atlantic would net me a pool of roughly 100,000 followers, of which maybe 2% would become regulars, or 2,000 readers. 

Thanks to Nate Thayer actually stopping by to comment on my post (and to update a few things), I know that the math I’ve done isn’t entirely off-base. Writes Thayer, “The day before my blog averaged less than 100 readers a day. Within a few hours, 150,000 people had checked into read, almost all from Twitter followed by Facebook.” Admittedly, he didn’t use The Atlantic to get exposure, but he did go viral, much of which was spurred on by sites like The Atlantic‘s reblogging his original post. None of this actually clarifies that benefits, however, of having my mathematically plausible 2,000 earned readers, because how do you monetize them and, more importantly, when? The tip jar I mentioned earlier is brought out only on occasion; in my comment exchange with paulaptr, who asks “whether we consider our paid work to be art — and if so, are we willing to ask our patrons to support us?” I noted that they occur rarely; they key is that when they do, it is an opportunity for you, the reader, to actually give. In another exchange, rolark suggests that “the industry has come down to publish for free and get “exposure” or become your own marketer… I’m definitely choosing the latter,” but as I replied, I’m disinclined to invest in an entirely parallel set of skills — marketing — that would eat up the time I need to actually generate content. As kawaiitimes notes, “I’ve had much better success working with a small group of professionals who recognize that my time has value.” We’ve sort of glossed over that in our discussion of freelance journalism so far, but time is extremely important; we don’t get paid for the overtime we spent trying to hit a perhaps unrealistic deadline — even when uncontracted “additions” are thrown in — and a set rate doesn’t necessarily cover the incidentals that go into research. Having someone else handle issues regarding to timing is a huge benefit; I know, since I’ve worked as a project coordinator before.

Then again, perhaps I’m wrong to look at the vast majority of readers — perhaps you really only need that mythical monied 1% or those who can afford to Kickstart at the higher tiers. On her site, freelance designer Kari Ryerson writes that success depends on continuing to work and making that work available. (My paraphrasing is butchering this: go to her site and read the post yourself!) Perhaps I really only need this pool of 100,000 to followers to chip in an average a penny each; that’d then be the $10,000 I use to get by (not for long in New York, so perhaps I should relocate), continuing to produce and share my work while looking for that mythic salaried position.

One final point that I’d like to reiterate, courtesy of Zac Davis‘s point that while “offering ‘exposure to some[one] who has already held a job in a field sounds like an insult,” he understands the prospects of “taking an unpaid internship at a local paper this summer.” They may not be promising exposure — which as we’ve already determined is difficult to analyze from a monetary perspective — but they are promising the chance to “be edited by a professional,” and that’s a value-adding experience. I’m sure a true statistician could give a precise value, much as they do for the amount of money you’re projected to make based on level of degree, but from personal experience, I know that being edited not only gives you more awareness and growth in your own writing, but also better material for the portfolio you’ll eventually be using to get work. If you’re not being paid and your editor sucks, you need to leave that position immediately, regardless of the exposure, and if possible, you ought to find a way to spread the word so that nobody else winds up being used in the same fashion. Nate Thayer brought my attention to the “Who Pays Writers?” site; perhaps there ought to be a RateMyEditor.com out there, too.

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6 thoughts on “Response: Week of March 15

  1. I’m pretty new to WordPress and found you via Freshly Pressed. The discussion was pretty interesting. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not famous ;P but I would find it hard to turn down the exposure — not so much for the exposure, but just for the fact that it is good practice not to burn bridges, so to speak?

    • This is perhaps the biggest danger, and one of the reasons why more people need to speak openly about the ways in which they are treated (and the rates at which they are paid): for writers, especially those who are new to the field, there’s exactly this sense, that we cannot turn down jobs, no matter what the pay is, and that we can’t talk openly about it, lest we “burn bridges.” But perhaps the magazines and blogs that rely upon us for content need to start worrying about “burning bridges,” too, by being shamed each time they attempt to take advantage of a writer, especially if it’s a long-standing practice that cannot really be justified as a budget-saving, once-in-a-while tactic employed by savvy editors. One of the keys that started this whole discussion here and on many other blogs stems from the fact that Nate Thayer *isn’t* a tyro journalist, and if they’re trying to get a professional to work for free, how far away are we from a point at which editors get the idea that maybe they can charge *us* for the privilege of posting to their platform, as if exposure is something you purchase.

  2. I know this is a few days late, but thanks for the shout-out ;). I’m intrigued by how you broke down the numbers and asked the real question, How are these views/followers/commenters/etc monetizable? because in business that’s what it’s all about, and for writers in business, it’s what keeps bread on the table. Having graduated and worked in public relations (not the same as journalism or English, but close enough for me), I’ve found that my job falls under the same category, as in, I need to show how what I do helps the bottom line or I’m outta there. I think getting conversations going about editors and other surveyors of written material is a great idea–I was a huge fan of ratemyprofessor, and I’d probably be a fan of ratemyeditor. You ever been to Preditors & Editors? (pred-ed.com) You might want to see it (I have no affiliation with the site, I’m just another aspiring writer).

    • I appreciate the link to the Pred-Ed site, and even if you were affiliated with it (as with the guy from iCopyright), I wouldn’t mind you referencing it, so long as you did a little more than merely self-promote.

      I’m actually a huge fan of groupthink, crowdsourcing, etc., and if you don’t mind me quoting from this post of yours:

      You just don’t have the time to take every class on novel composition, character development, and literature that’s out there, and neither do you have time to read everything by Anne Lamott, Stephen King, and Robert McKee. You also don’t have time to make all the mistakes novice writers make. Let someone else bump you ahead on the learning curve–believe me, it’ll save you a ton of time and heartache!

      I think especially in writing, feedback and external eyes are extremely helpful (which is why I stressed in my original post the importance of editors): it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether or not we’re conveying what we meant, especially since we all process information in different ways. Why not, then, try to take advantage of the work others have done, to attempt to share both the costs and the successes? The issue that we’re finding with unpaid journalism in The Atlantic is that it seems to be sharing only in the success — putting the costs onto the writers.

      In this sense, I can throw out an idea like RateMyEditor and then perhaps inspire someone else to create it, whereas if we kept our thoughts separate (or overly protected by copyrights), it’d be difficult to get anything new done. Even the most successful fiction or nonfiction out there is often built off the lessons of what has preceded it. (We’re none of us successful on our own; I believe this is one of the reason why people take such exception to CEO salaries, or the inheritors of the 1% who seem unaware that those who enabled them to get to where they were ought to gain some benefits from those at the top.)

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