It’s hard keeping up with the internet sometimes

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keeping-up-with-internet

So last week’s post touched a nerve. But it also stimulated some truly amazing discussion in the comments. And for me, what the comments showed is there is nothing black and white when it comes writing (or creating) for free. Especially on the internet.

Given all the interesting thoughts and questions raised in the comments I figured a follow-up post was required.

So here goes (I can’t cover everything raised unfortunately – my attention span doesn’t go much beyond 1000 words)

Don’t you think ‘exposure’ as ‘payment’ is the biggest load of BS known to man?

Well, for sure it can be. Certainly as a graphic designer, if a client suggests to me that I work for them in exchange for ‘exposure’, I will politely escort them to the door. But I believe writing, blogging, and even photography to be different kettles of fish here because you know … the internet.

If you read Darren Rowse’s response to last week’s post you will see that his contributors have told him they have benefited greatly from exposure on his sites. And no, Darren is not just trying to justify the way he does things at DPS and Problogger in his comment, he is simply giving insight into the evolution of content creation on these sites. It is very enlightening.

Maybe exposure isn’t even the right word here – maybe we should be substituting it with credibility. When I started out trying to gain paid writing work I deliberately sought publication on sites like Mamamia and The Hoopla so that I could say I have written for Mamamia and The Hoopla when pitching stories to other publications. Since then I have written for Marie Claire and Mindfood magazines as well as Kidspot (all paid gigs) so I believe the Mamamia and Hoopla freebies were quite worth it for me from a credibility point of view.

Is everyone who is writing for Mamamia for free being exploited? Of course I say no because that argument assumes the only form of compensation that should be offered for writing is money. And I don’t agree with that. I think Mamamia and other blogs/sites of its ilk have much to offer in reach and credibility and sometimes, this is worth much more than money.

What about when Mamamia gets sold for a tidy profit – will you be pissed?

There were lots of comments saying Mamamia’s business model is based on the Huffington Post business model which relied on contributions both from paid writers and unpaid bloggers. The HuffPo bloggers were (apparently) supremely pissed when Arianna Huffington sold out to AOL for $315 million and felt they should have got a cut of that payoff. If you want to read more about it, this is an interesting place to start.

Mia has made little secret of the fact that she is building Mamamia into a saleable asset. And yes, if I got nothing out of being published on Mamamia, and if I was so silly to keep writing for Mamamia when I was getting nothing out of it, and if I didn’t like and admire Mia, then I probably would be pissed if it got sold.

But since none of these things applies to me, I will high-five Mia and say well done – you’ve worked your mother-loving ass off and gainfully employed many people (including writers) over the last six or so years. Go have yourself a lovely holiday now as you ponder your next move.

Mamamia contributors – community members vs ‘real’ writers

As mentioned in my first post, 70% of Mamamia’s content is produced by (paid) staff writers. The rest of the content is produced by a mixture of community members (ie readers) who have a story they want to share with the rest of the MM community …. and professional writers.

Should the community members be paid for their contribution? No. Because they are being given a rather large platform from which to share their thoughts and their story. That’s payment enough.

Should professional writers be paid? If their contribution is a one-off and is related to a barrow they want to push (like say a new book or tv show), then no. If they are a regular contributor to the site – then probably. But I don’t know enough about the regular contributors to the site and the reasons they continue to contribute for free to make an informed comment here.

Mamamia is setting a bad example

I do get it when people suggest that, as a leader in the Australian online market, Mamamia should lead the way by paying all contributors. This however is an easy statement to make, but an administrative nightmare to carry out. If MM decided ok we’re going to pay every contributor a token amount like $30-50 then the cost of administering this would just about equal the token amount they are paying. It does not make good business sense.

To figure out just how little business sense it makes I will ask you to please point me to just one independent online publisher that:

  1. Runs at a profit AND
  2. Pays all staff and contributors (including the person/people who have founded the site)

Honestly – I would be delighted to hear of someone doing the above and I’d love to have a squizz at their business model.

The Hoopla does this and Daily Life does that

My mother always said comparisons were odious and that applies here too. Mamamia is a completely different publication to The Hoopla and they are both completely different to Daily Life. Sure they may all tackle similar topics, but as entities, they are totally different in backing, business models and readership. So please don’t compare what each does and doesn’t do as it adds nothing useful to the argument.

What are some of the key differences? Well as Rachel points out here Mamamia is far more of a community driven site than the other two (and that’s just a start).

Would greater transparency help?

Darren Rowse says that when it comes to guest posting on DPS:

We publish info for guest posters saying what they get in advance so they only ever submit if it is acceptable to them.

Wendy Harmer was kind enough to clarify The Hoopla business model here.

Would people get less angsty if Mamamia published some firm guidelines for contributors? If Mia was more open (she’s already pretty open) about her business model and plans for the site? Maybe, maybe not. As Jo says in her comment here, things are already pretty transparent:

We know that unless you actually ‘work’ for Mamamia, you don’t get paid – take it or leave it. If the resulting kudos and links back to your own blog are worth it … that’s worth more than payment itself.

CONCLUSION: Keeping up with the warp-speed evolution of the online world is bloody hard work

The prevailing (and I believe sensible) opinion of most of the commenters from last week was everyone just needs to figure out what works for them and do that. And what works right now may not be what works in a year’s time. So everyone’s position will naturally evolve. That’s why I think broad, sweeping statements of you should/shouldn’t do this or that are pretty unhelpful. As Sandi says below everyone is just doing the very best they can in an environment that is evolving at a rate of knots:

I write everywhere from my blog to Forbes, Onya Magazine to indie publications. Some are paid, some are not. I choose to still write for free, so I don’t complain about it. No one has ever forced me to do so.

As the Editor of a successful publication that’s three and a half years old, I can say that businesses are not created overnight. They take hard work. A lot of it.

I see both sides in this argument – all make valid, honest points.

People are very quick to talk, judge, jump and critique, but it’s not a black and white issue; there is a hell of a lot of grey.

The biggest issue is that using the traditional media advertising model is not sustainable online – heck, the biggest newspapers in the world can’t even figure it out themselves.

We all need to start being more inventive, supportive and creative – and we all need to stop judging the choices others make, get off our high horses and get stuck into some work instead.

Well said Sandi. Well said :)

 

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t know that this quite wraps it up so much as confirms your affection for Mia Freedman.
    No one is suggesting she is anything other than a smart business person, only that publishing (print and online) is changing and perhaps so should her attitude towards paying freelance professional writers to contribute to her site.
    Comparisons between online Australian publications are useful, because no one fully knows how to make this work. Just because the internet started out as a bunch of IT geeks writing stuff on blogs for fun (see Darren Rowse’s comments), doesn’t mean it should stay that way now everyone is moving online. If a website is real estate on the internet, then Mia is probably in the best position to pay her peers what they deserve.
    My point is that writing online is now serious business and perhaps it’s time to treat it as such.

    • says

      I wasn’t so much trying to wrap up as I was trying to answer some things that were brought up in the comments. This is a conversation that cannot be wrapped up!

      I agree that it’s not good enough to throw hands in the air and say ‘ this is what everyone does so we’re just going to keep going with that’ – and perhaps MM can be a leader in this regard. But as I said above … paying contributors is easy to say, harder to do – for a variety of reasons and not all of them financial. For example – who gets to decide where the line is between community contributor/emerging writer/professional writer and which of these people should get paid?

      There’s not an independent site out there paying every person involved in an appropriate manner (ie Wendy Harmer has already indicated she makes nothing from The Hoopla which I think is noble, but diabolical. But then maybe it is the equivalent of Mia writing on her blog for three years for no income).

      So every independent site is currently trading in both hard currency … and other forms of ‘payment’. Will this stand the test of time? Who knows.

      All I know that this is both a terrible and wonderful time to be starting out as a writer and THAT is the subject of my next post!!

  2. says

    I read your previous post on this and found the comments intriguing. It’s like Philosophy of the Internet! Right now, we are all stumbling about in the dark, trying to make sense of this strange new world, trying to figure out the best way of navigating ourselves. This is what humans do.

    I didn’t feel informed enough to comment before myself because I don’t read MM often (I’ve probably been over there four or five times?) But your post did make me think harder about why I don’t visit MM often – why I don’t find myself going back. And you know what? I couldn’t come up with a good reason, I just don’t feel engaged while reading the content there.

    So the main real concern for me is the quality of writing. I worry about what will become of the original purpose of old school journalism, about ethics and credibility, about truth versus sensationalism. As for professional writers versus contributors who are bloggers or community members – it kinda reminds me of “Real Life” magazine (I think that was the name??), the magazine that paid “regular” people for their stories. Obviously this magazine also had regular paid employees who were no doubt professional writers/publishers/editors. It was a cheaper mag with less quality content. But I believe even the members of the public were paid token amounts for their contributions?? Content is content. It is up to the publisher/editor to decide if it is to be published and to negotiate pay. Emerging writers offering their services for free, to get a foot in the door, is one thing and I say why not to this.

    But for online writing to become a profession that is taken seriously many guidelines need to be considered, not just payment (although this is important). With time these issues will probably resolve themselves. As long as we don’t go all “Lord of the flies” we should be right. Eventually.

    • says

      Heh I know it’s you Gill!

      And to be honest, I am the same as you – I hardly read MM at all these days as the bulk of the content on the site holds little interest for me. That said I will read pretty much anything that Jamila, Mia, Kate and Bec write … so maybe I read more than I think.

      As far as paying contributors … look I am all for it. But I would rather these sites make money first, THEN set about paying everyone involved. And there is a hierarchy for who gets paid first once the sites start making money. People think MM is just swimming in money and thus should be sharing the riches with everyone who is contributing to their success. I reckon they’re probably going alright, but they have their fingers in a lot of pies and those pies have high overheads. So I reckon they probably not quite killing it just yet.

      Having had some involvement with magazines, both online and off, I know just how long they take to turn a profit … much less be able to pay every contributor (ie designers, writers and photographers). So I know that what looks easy and simple from the outside (just pay all contributors/writers dammit!) if often not as easy as that :)

  3. says

    I might sound naive here but I’m genuinely wondering why it is that you would rather see sites such as MM making money before contributors are paid??

    I understand that businesses take time to turn a profit but I don’t think it is okay to not pay contributors UNTIL that business is earning a profit (big or small)? If your business requires outside contributors than I feel payment is deserved. MM is obviously a business and therefore at the end of the day,it is the owner of the business who will reap the rewards – isn’t this also a question of business ethics? I think token monetary payment should be considered.

    • says

      Good question (and when you say ‘contributors’ Gill I am assuming you mean ‘unsolicited contributions’ as opposed to staff writers who account for 70% of the site’s content and are already paid right?)

      Now it’s going to take a blog post to answer and hopefully the below makes sense because I am running out the door!

      I guess the reason I am a bit obsessed with the business models of all these lifestyle sites is because I have always wanted to start one up myself – but every time I sat down and worked up some numbers what I came up with was the below (neither of which appealed to me).

      There are two-ish ways to start a site like this (unless you’re a Daily Life with the backing of a giant media corporation):

      1. The Mamamia way

      The typical ‘mega-blog’ model where the site founder starts a blog, writes on it for no pay for 3-5 years, slowly and organically builds an audience and then after 3-5 year starts to monetise that audience. The start-up capital for this type of undertaking is the founder’s time.

      After 3-5 years they will start getting unsolicited contributions for their site because there are people who want access to that blog’s audience for a number of reasons – exposure, the ability to share an important idea or message, the ability to drive traffic to their own website etc etc And the site founder benefits from those people wanting to access their audience by being able to publish additional content on their site that they can’t produce themselves.

      So given that the people submitting unsolicited contributions to the site are doing so because they feel they are getting a tangible benefit, that’s why I would like to see the site’s founder and staff get paid first … then down the line look at paying every contributor (which as I have already said isn’t as easy as everyone likes to think it is)

      2. The Hoopla way

      This is where seed capital for the site is put up by the site founders. So the seed capital is cash as opposed to years of unpaid time.

      When The Hoopla started, it had no profile to trade on. So they HAD to start paying writers straight away. Wendy said it was a point of honour for her to pay writers and of course that is lovely – but aside from the point of honour, there is the practical aspect: for a brand new site to produce content that is good enough to attract eyeballs to the pages which then attracts advertisers – the writers kinda HAVE to be paid.

      And as a reader, this is great for me as the quality of content on the site reflects the fact that all writers are being paid (even though they aren’t really because I and many others I know have contributed to The Hoopla for free because we were told they had no budget for unsolicited contributions).

      That aside … 18 months on, the site founders have not made a penny and things are tight because paying bills via advertising income is bloody tough. I think it completely sucks that the site founders have not seen any return on their significant investment. Maybe it should not be expected that they see a return on their investment in something as short as 18 months. But it has been proven again and again that the traditional advertising model is not the way for these sites to make money … so how and when is The Hoopla going to be able to pay their investors?

      Now that the site has enough of a profile in the market that people (like me) want to write for them for free (for the tangible benefit of “I have written for The Hoopla”) – I would like to see Wendy and Jane draw some kind of income from the site first ahead of paying for unsolicited contributions.

      —————————————–

      Once both these sites are paying staff writers and founders, and also putting a little money in the bank … THEN sure, it would be really nice if they started paying EVERYBODY involved. But as I said in my post – is there one single independent online publisher paying every single person involved in the success of their site? And I believe the answer is ‘no’.

      So clearly it is logistically and/or financially impossible.

      So what’s the solution? If they can’t pay every single person maybe these sites shouldn’t even exist? I don’t like that solution.

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