Writing for free is the root of all evil

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A couple days ago I started following an interesting debate on twitter. I use the terms ‘interesting’ and ‘debate’ loosely actually because really it was an all-out attack on an individual person – Mia Freedman. (If you want to see what it was all about, read Mia’s response here).

Regular readers of this blog already know I am a Mia fan so I was going to stay out of this whole thing because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to present an objective viewpoint. But really, this isn’t about Mia – this is about writing, blogging and business models. And I can be totally objective about those. So here goes …

As far as I can see there are two major ideas/suggestions at play here:

  1. OMG there are people writing for FREE. NO ONE should write for free. Us creative folk should value our time better.
  2. Mamamia is a blog whose whole business model is built on people writing for free.

Us creative folk should value our time better

Back when I was starting out as a graphic designer I did absolute boatloads of design work for free. Honestly, the hours numbered in the thousands. I did this for two reasons. The first is that I needed to build a portfolio of work to show potential paying clients. The second is that I loved being a designer and I loved helping people. When I did stuff for people for free it made me happy and it made them happy. Yay!

Fast forward to now and I have been a graphic designer for 12 years. And you know what? I STILL do stuff for free. Why? Because I love being a designer and I love helping people. Some of the people I do stuff for free for are commercial entities (gosh I hope Ant isn’t reading this).

Are they exploiting me? No they’re not because I am not stupid. If I provide my services to a commercial entity for free, it is because I see some benefit to myself for doing so. That benefit might be exposure to a new set of potential clients, increased credibility, or simply the ability to call in a favour down the track.

As a writer, all of the above applies. Any publication or website for whom I write for free, I don’t do it out of the goodness of my heart. I do it for exposure and credibility. I have written for MANY websites and publications for free and every single time I do so, there is a cost-benefit analysis involved. Once the costs to me (in time and creativity) outweigh the benefits … I stop doing it. Simple.

On to Mamamia

Many people look at the publishing juggernaut Mamamia is today and don’t realise that it started life as Mia’s personal blog. She wrote on that blog for near on three years from her living room and made stuff-all from it in those three years. Then she (with her hubby) figured out how to monetise the blog so that she could make an income from it.

Sound familiar? That’s because it is the story of how ALL the mega blogs of today got their start. Off the back of an individual slowly and organically growing a following over a long, unpaid period of time.

In the last 2-3 years Mamamia has grown from a blog with one writer (Mia) who made no money, to a blog that now employs 30 odd people and has multiple income streams. Comparative blogs include Digital Photography School (DPS) here in Australia and Copyblogger in the US.

When someone submits a guest post to DPS or Copyblogger, and either of these two websites publishes that post, that person is thrilled. Because both these websites have readerships in the millions and suddenly that person is being exposed to a readership of millions.

This is why whenever Mamamia (with their readership in the millions) publishes a piece of mine I am thrilled. It gives me great credibility as a writer and that credibility has led to other opportunities which have been paid.

Should DPS, Copyblogger or Mamamia pay for unsolicited contributions to their websites?

No they shouldn’t.

If I submit pieces to these sites, I do soknowing fully that I won’t be paid for it … but that I will be getting some other tangible benefit. No tangible benefit for me? Then I wouldn’t do it.

As Darren Rowse from DPS said to me today, it’s all pretty transparent stuff:

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

Some of our guest posters who have submitted semi-regularly have gone on to launch themselves quite successful careers from the profile.

As these three websites make more and more money should they look at paying for unsolicited contributions?

No they shouldn’t.

All of these organisations have full-time staff to pay. If there are profits left over after paying these full-time staff, those profits should go towards growing the business. OR those profits should go to the site founders who worked thousands of hours for free to get their sites to where they are today.

On to business models

When I hear Mamamia being accused of having a business model that relies on writers providing their services for free, I have to laugh. Mamamia have a team of paid writers who produce the bulk of the site’s content (same as DPS and Copyblogger). For all three of these sites, their business model is heavily reliant on their founders and their paid employees. There’s no doubt unsolicited content adds in a positive way to all these sites, but the sites would also happily survive without this content.

But they should still pay! Even if it is a token amount

If you can get paid for your writing elsewhere, then for Pete’s sake, go there and get paid! There are several sites paying a token amount like $30-50 for 800 word pieces. I think it’s nice they are paying a token amount as it’s better than a slap in the head. But for me (and this is just me), $30-50 is almost like writing for free. Especially when those sites sit on the pieces you have submitted to them for several months, before telling you whether they’ve decided they’re worth publishing or not, and then take another month to pay you.

Another thing  I find amusing is when people compare Mamamia to new lifestyle sites and magazines that have started their life as commercial entities. These sites are not being grown organically over 3-5 years by someone happy to make nothing until a certain level of readership is achieved. They are aiming to make money straight away.  And the irony is that they are not making money. And they are asking their readers to contribute to funds that allow them to pay their writers.

I have always wanted to start a magazine or lifestyle website but every time I did the feasibility analysis, it returned this: it takes a LONG time to grow an engaged audience/readership. And during that time, I would not be compensated adequately for the hours I was spending.

That’s why you’ll never hear me criticising the business models of highly visible online ventures who ARE making money and managing to pay staff. Because I know it took years and years of thankless hard work to get to the point of ‘success’.

And as far as being responsible for the stress and responsibility of generating sufficient turnover to pay 30 staff? Well thanks but no thanks. I will happily leave that to you Mia ;)

 


Comments

  1. Mrs Woog says

    Coming from this from the angle of the writer and personally, I would not write for free. But that is just me!

    Great post as usual

    xx

    • says

      Thanks Miss :) I have paid writing gigs which I am ever so grateful for. But if I see a clear benefit to me for giving my words away for free, I will always do it. Perhaps it helps that I don’t need to make money from my writing so this also informs my cost-benefit analyses!

    • Craig says

      Also remember, the unpaid contributors to mamamia are not professional writers. They are unlikely to be trying to build a portfolio or use the contribution to gain paid work. They are just people with something to say.

      • says

        Mmm not necessarily Chris. It all depends – how do you define a professional writer? Is it somebody who has published a book? Makes money from other writing gigs? Because a friend of mine is what I would call a “professional writer”and I know she has written for Mama Mia purely for the kudos.

      • says

        I know MANY professional writers who are unpaid contributors to Mamamia. Obviously they do it knowingly and are happy to do so, but I think it’s an important distinction.

  2. says

    Contributors often handed over their work to Huffington Post for free and they all lost their minds when Arianna Huffington sold the site for a $315 million. Writers were miffed because she profited from their words. I’m not saying either was right or wrong but if Mia Freedman ever sold her site, I wonder what reaction it will receive.

    Love & stuff
    Mrs M

    • says

      Ooh that is a very good point Maria! Especially as Mia has made no secret of the fact that she is a building an asset for sale.

      But I will come back to the fact that 70% of the articles on Mamamia ARE paid for (ie done by staff writers). The rest, well people KNOW the deal when send through a submission for editorial consideration – they KNOW they won’t be paid. If this is an issue for them, they should not do it!

  3. says

    Payment is important to keep the quality of the pieces high; if you accept pieces simply for the amount of attention they will garner, rather than trying to open up and steer an intelligent discussion of issues then it’s bound to fall in a heap. Perhaps this is why Daily Life is the most read women’s website in Australia, because they keep it clean and respectful and high brow, and they pay their writers well. The Hoopla pay too apparently.
    Mamamia has a big enough audience they should be able to pay their writers, even a token amount like $50. To me it shows Mia, as Chief, doesn’t fully believe in the legitimacy of the online world . She argues that readers don’t pay for content, so why should she? Well then how do television and radio business models work? Viewers receive free content there too.

    • says

      The Hoopla have only recently started paying a token amount for unsolicited contributions that they publish (their regular writers are paid better than token of course) – and they are asking readers to donate so they can pay their writers.

      Daily Life I believe is different as it has more journalistic than lifestyle content and their audience is quite different to Mamamia.

      But again, what everyone is missing is that Mamamia does have a paid team of writers. And if they commission specific pieces they pay. But for unsolicited content sent to them by people who KNOW they don’t pay … I am not sure why people get so riled up when they publish it and don’t pay the individual. I think the equation is simple – if you want to get paid for your work, don’t send it there?

      Also, Daily Life has the backing of Fairfax to pay people. Mamamia has 30 staff to pay (not just writers) before they can even contemplate paying token amount for contributions.

      • says

        I think the difference is The Hoopla have always had the intention of paying for unsoliticed content, this is part of their view for building their audience and their niche market.
        Freedman herself has said she wants to ‘keep writers mean and hungry’, so basically she has no intention of paying contributors. I daresay the only reason she keeps permanent staff is if she didn’t, she’d have zero content.
        I think with the death of print, more and more journos and writers will be writing online demanding to be paid for their work. And so they should.

        • says

          And so I believe The Hoopla should as they were not started as a blog, they were started as a commercial proposition. Also, they are not an 8 year old blog with millions of followers that can offer exposure like MM, Problogger, Copyblogger etc

          FWIW I see the Hoopla model as totally distinct from Daily Life model and both miles away from MM model. Problems occur when people think they are all the same.

          I do completely agree with your last comment though! It’s going to make for interesting times. As Anna has said here in the comments … the most insidious problem with the MM model is that because of the site’s success, everyone who starts a new lifestyle blog type publication thinks it is ok not to pay their writers. They miss the distinction that MM DOES pay their staff writers. And the bulk of the other 30% of content are not from writers having their words taken for free, but from regular Jane’s who have something to say or share.

          PS: That bit about keeping writers mean and hungry … Mia was being sarcastic!

    • says

      Ahem, I believe our friend Kidspot us actually the most read women’s site in Australia… but anyway.

      I guess i never really understand why such venom is directed Mia’s way over this. If she had a gun to a writer’s head, then maybe. But people submit stuff of their own free will and whether they get paid or not is between them and the company. x

      • says

        Heh – I did see that they announced they were the most read by women and wondered what metrics they were drawing from to be able to make that claim.

        And your second point is what I guess is the point of my whole post. There’s an awful lot of vitriol being directed at one person for something that is highly prevalent all over the internet?! Mia didn’t exactly blaze the trail of publishing unpaid content!

  4. says

    Great piece, Kelly.

    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. It takes 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.

  5. says

    The main problem I have, and you’ve touched on it here, is that if any publication (in this case MM) is able to justify not paying writers, what is stopping other publications from doing the same? Then you go from writing for free because it will open up opportunities for paid writing later, to writing for free because that’s your only option.

    This can’t be seen as a sustainable model, surely?

    • says

      I think what you have identified there Anna IS a real problem. Because new online ventures ARE starting up with business models based on not paying writers because they think that is what the Mamamia business model is.

      But that is NOT what the Mamamia business model has been built on and these new online ventures are misguided in that expectation.

      But as I have said in my post – Mamamia is a blog with a paid team of writers. They accept and publish guest posts. Just like most of the uber blogs the world over.

      • says

        I think what will help them in that regard is more clarity around how much content is produced by staff writers. If you’re ‘freelancing’ for the same company for 80% of your time, you’re an employee. If 80% of your content is written by ‘guest writers’, they’re not guests.

        Mia’s mentioned just how much does come from staff writers in her post, but I don’t think it comes across on the site, which doesn’t help. It’s not as if even MOST of her content is written for free, but there’s a PR disaster brewing and this is the kind of information that would help people to understand how the business is structured and why.

        I also liked some of the ideas suggested in the comments thread, about giving some revenue share to professional writers or posts that generate a lot of traffic / allowing for direct donations to the writers. Almost impossible to actually execute, but they’re in the right spirit.

        • says

          yes I think it is true that it’s not immediately clear just how much content on the site is produced by paid writers (ie staff writers).

          And I too kinda liked the idea of allowing people to directly donate to writers/articles they particularly love. As you say, administratively almost impossible, but still a kind of good idea!

  6. says

    This was a really well thought out and written piece which explored this whole grey area of paid writing.

    On one side, having worked in commercial television for over 11 years, I know for a fact that budgets are getting tighter and times are getting leaner.

    I also know that, having been published a few times on Mamamia myself, that the exposure is a good thing.

    However, as we move towards a whole new world of media I think as creative workers we do need to value ourselves for the greater good. I know that sounds a bit trite, but the general trend to rely on interns, unpaid writers or creative workers ultimately waters down the value of the content.

    When I look at Mamamia these days I do get concerned about the quality of the majority of work on there in comparison to past years. It reminds me of some of the TV shows which are produced on the smell of an oily rag – severely underwhelming in creativity and quality.

    It’s really sad to see so many good journos, writers, and producers being put out of work, or forced to take lower pay merely because there’s a young, hungry graduate willing to work for low or nil pay.

    Internships/work experience and providing work for free to get your foot in the door has been around forever. It’s a great way for people to learn from others and gain experience. However there does come a point where experience and talent needs to be valued to keep the quality of a show or publication high.

  7. says

    I’ve left a similar comment on a number of sites dealing with this topic. And I come at it from a couple of angles – me the writer and me the publisher.
    As a writer, a strategic guest post can work. Mostly it hasn’t for me but maybe that’s from lack of strategy ;) I know it’s beneficial for a lot of other people.
    As a writer, my time is precious, so I concentrate that time on income-producing work so I no longer write for free. But that’s my decision.
    I also contribute to a Fairfax news site – and a fee comes to me should they post my already published blog post on their home page (no extra work to me but recognition for it being my work!).
    As a small-time publisher, this year I started to pay a regular freelancer for certain posts. As it was not one-off or irregular guest posting, I felt that that was the right thing to do.
    I happily accept guest post pitches (thanks Kelly!) but my site does not rely on them for regular content.
    A bit of a ramble … but that’s how I contribute to the blog writing merry-go-round.
    x

  8. says

    As a trained journalist and now freelance writer I rarely write for free as I need to pay my bills. I’ve put in the hard yards learning my craft and articles can take up a lot of time to write. Generally, I will only allow no payment if I have already published the column on my site.

    I have offered up a number of articles to Mamamia as I believe the posts will resonate with her audience. Taping into a new bunch of readers can only be helpful for me to grow my site and then in turn generate more writing gigs for me. However, when I write something from scratch – which I often do for The Hoopla and other sites – I ask for payment. I can not afford, financially or time wise, to spend all that time working for free when I can be doing paid work or spending time with family.

    What I would like to see is some intention by Mamamia to pay contributors in the future as the business grows even further – I think that is fair. And I hope other sites don’t start thinking it is ok to not pay writers because what will happen is the fabulous writers will be gone and we will only be left with poor imitations.

    • says

      I guess the way I look at it is that MM should pay both their staff writers (which they do) as well as regular writers/contributors (which they currently don’t … or so I have been told).

      But readers who offer up their personal stories because they want to share them with the MM community? I can’t see how it is viable to pay them? And if MM suddenly said ‘ok we’re not publishing unsolicited content any more because we can’t pay for it’ … then bloggers like you and me will miss out on some nice exposure.

      • says

        This is a really important point in this debate I think! There is a difference with someone who writes for a living doing 3 or more columns on a site versus a regular reader or blogger who wants to pitch a once off post.

        I think the latter are more than fine with exposure/getting their message out whereas the former do deserve more.

        Great debate Kelly!

  9. says

    Dear Kelly…

    A clarification on The Hoopla model.

    We have, since we started 18 months ago as a wholly, privately -funded, independent site (launched out of the pocket of Jane Waterhouse and myself) striven to pay ALL our writers.

    We have a small, but limited, roster of feature writers who are paid fees commensurate with The Drum and Crikey. It should be noted that almost all the material we run is original. ie: it is commissioned and first-run on our site.

    Almost all other contributors are paid – except for those who offer pieces for free ( because they have been previously published elsewhere) AND some insist that they will not accept money ( because they are unable to, as academics OR want to promote our site and can afford to write for free.)

    The rest are paid from advertising revenues.

    Our weekly bill for writers is large – I have not taken one cent from the site thus far- it is an article of faith to me, as a former journalist, that writers are paid first.

    In our 18 months of existence The Hoopla has employed TWO interns recommended to us by tertiary media studies departments.Because interns are not paid, we know our responsibility is to train such people… and because we do not have the time to meet those responsibilities, we have not taken on more interns – much as we woud like to.

    We employ two full-time members of staff.

    Our model, which runs advertising, should be sustainable…but at present, margins are very tight, as they are in all online media.

    This is why we are hoping that our readers will value what we do and contribute – not to give me a wage – but because we are very keen to have MORE writers and pay them MORE. We do not seek people who will write for free. We also take our responsibilities on “cash for comment” very seriously indeed.

    This is in no way meant to denigrate the Mamamia site – it’s a terrific contribution for Australian women and Mia is doing a stellar job in bringing a diversity of opinion to the national scene .

    I just thought your readers might like to know what we are up to and that we are striving, in every way we know how, to support Australian writers and independent journalism.

    I sincerely hope that the debate about writing for free does not continue.
    In my ideal world, everyone who wants to write – and is good at it- can make a living from their labours.

    Best regards,
    Wendy Harmer

    • says

      Thanks so much for this Wendy as I think the big part of the problem with the debate is people not understanding that every online venture/website has a different business model and thus can’t really be compared.

      When people say ‘Well The Hoopla pays all their contributors” … I first find it a little disingenous because this has only recently started happening, and also a little unfair because The Hoopla is not MM.

      I see the two websites as completely different in style, audience and quality of content. Where everything on The Hoopla is very writerly and journalistic, my perception is that the bulk of unsolicited content that MM publishes is not from writers, it is from readers and the site has a bloggy feel. MM have always been clear that they don’t pay for unsolicited content/guest posts – like every other massive blog the world over.

      Some people on twitter have pointed out however that MM have regular contributors who ARE writers and I do believe these people should be paid.

      Ultimately I think it is unfair that Mia gets tarred with the ‘MM don’t pay writers, aren’t they terrible’ brush when a. they do actually pay their staff writers who account for 70% of their content and b. They do have something really tangible to offer the people who offer their words to the site for free.

      And to me it is really simple – if you are a writer who wants to be paid for your work and make money from your writing, then don’t write for MM?!

      {I do however realise there is something else at work here where people who think that MM don’t pay for any of their content then think it is ok to start their own site with a business model based on people writing for free}

      • says

        Thanks for this, Kelly.
        However, I still do not quite understand how you say that we only “recently” began to pay contributors. Would you mind elaborating?
        In fact, we have been paying our contributors since Day One.
        Just a bit puzzled by this comment…and how is this “unfair” because we are not MM?
        And as for the Hoopla being “very writerly” and MM “bloggy”… in fact, MM and The Hoopla have many writers in common.
        I like to think we both tackle the big issues, in our own unique style and sit side-by-side very happily.

        • says

          Hey Wendy I have written for your site as have many others I know of and we have not been paid.

          The ‘unfair’ comment was that Mia seems to cop all the hate mail for not paying writers when there are many many sites out there that operate the same way.

          And I consider the overall quality of content on The Hoopla to be higher than MM (so that is a compliment :) )

    • says

      PS In case I am not clear … I love both The Hoopla and MM … I think they both offer something very unique to the Oz market. I love The Hoopla so much I am a paid up friend ;)

  10. says

    I have just started my 2nd blog. This time it’s with the intent of (eventually) making some money off it and getting local businesses to advertise or pay for advertorial. But at the moment? I’m doing it for free, because to attract paying clients I have to demonstrate I have a readership. Catch 22.

    Fortunately I have other streams to my writing and editing business and they provide bread and butter income for the moment.

    But the blog is my first love, so my hope is that it grows until I don’t need the other streams!

    • says

      And I am sure it will Janet … but as you know already, it’s going to take a huge amount of hard work to get that blog generating that income for you!

  11. says

    I have so many thoughts swilling around in my head, but this comment would end up an essay if I let them all gush forth. What I will say is a person’s skill is their currency and unfortunately many writers lack confidence, which makes them vulnerable to giving away their talent for free in such a competitive industry. I get the whole ‘profile raising’ piece. I get the whole ‘gotta earn your stripes by getting stuff published’. But these reasons are easily exploited in the wrong hands. Now I’m not suggesting MM or any other site is exploiting writers – I don’t know the detail of their business models (although I do wish my own blog had a CEO) but I have to say how much I applaud the transparency of The Hoopla.

  12. says

    I have done work for ‘free’ sometimes because I believe in the message or cause the organisation stands for, some because I needed to gain experience and some because of the exposure… which brings in PAID FOR JOBS! If you knowingly submit an article to a page that does not pay for articles I can’t see why you would then complain? Having your voice heard is quite often a reward in itself… If you feel you should be compensated for your opinion and the words you choose to write then you should submit your writing to the appropriate forum :)

    • says

      These are pretty much my thoughts Gab :)

      I understand there is a bigger issue here where apparently MM is setting the standard that it is ok not to pay writers. But I believe it is people’s perceptions that this is the message they are sending out, not a reality.

    • says

      In my head, if you started as a blog, then you will have had to evolve your business model gradually to deal with growth over the years. And I will excuse you for not getting everything right along the way because that’s how evolution works. Also – even though you may now be a massively successful blog/commercial entity – you can offer genuine exposure to people who guest post on your site for free.

      But if you start a news and lifestyle site from scratch and your business model relies on unpaid contributors in order to get the site off the ground (contributors who are not getting the level of exposure they would get from the mega blog) … well I believe you need to take a good look at your business model.

      Does this make any sense? Probably not – I think my brain is now officially fried!!

      I realise MM’s model needs eyeballs on the page and the sheer volume of content they can publish because of unpaid contributions greatly increases the eyeballs the numbers of eyeballs on their pages. But I still assert that people would not offer their work to MM for free if there wasn’t some other tangible benefit to them

      • says

        I totally agree that if your model requires writers to work for free to turn a profit then you are setting yourself up for all kinds of failure!

        What if you started as a blog but generate enough revenue to pay writers? Does that exclude you from doing it or mean that you should rework your business strategy? To play Devil’s Advocate, if I start a lemonade stand in my front yard and give away my lemonade for free, do I still have to pay my staff once I have a chain of lemonade shops?

        Webdesigner Depot, which is a large tech blog, was earlier this year paying $200 for posts. There’s such a big mix of structures and mechanisms at play, which might be part of the problem – no standardised model; no bloggers union!

        • says

          Well I think that is what Mia has done? Her blog grew to the point that she could afford to pay writers to create content? I am not saying what she’s done is perfect … after all it is only staff writers that get paid when I believe so too should regular writers get paid.

          But as I mentioned to Bianca, what if MM said ‘we’re not accepting unsolicited contributions any more as we can’t afford to pay for them and we don’t want people contributing for free’? Lots of people would miss out on sharing personal experiences that they don’t care about being paid for … they just want to share.

          And people like me who are keen to be exposed to their audience won’t be able to do that either.

          • says

            Oh, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the voices of the community offering up their stories for free. I just think they (editors of websites like this) are probably more aware of those people who maybe “deserve” payment (because it’s their job, or because they have written 15 pieces for them, etc.) than they’re letting on. If someone comes to you and says, “here, have this for free!” then how many sites will demand that they accept payment? That’s the culture that’s being perpetuated.

            Which is, you know, fine, because no one is forcing anyone to do anything :D

            x

  13. says

    Fascinating discussion and one I’ve grappled with a bit over the years – particularly on dPS (thanks for the mention above).

    Our model has definitely emerged. The site started as a place for me to answer the questions my friends were asking about how to take photos (mainly to save me having to say the same things over and over again). I was the only writer and I posted a few times a week. The site was set up with a free WordPress theme and was very basic.

    However it grew and evolved and after a while I decided bringing on some writers would be helpful to add other voices and expertise that I didn’t have. I advertised for writers and found 5 – all of whom I paid per post to write as well as giving them what exposure I could on the site with links to their projects, blogs, social media accounts and businesses.

    As the site grew some of those writers started reporting that the exposure they got was the most valuable part of their ‘payment’ – not because I was not paying enough but because they were driving traffic to their sites and building their profile and expertise. One author landed a book deal, another’s business became so successful she had no time to write for me any more and another developed products that he’s sold successfully.

    Also as the site began to grow in terms of traffic and exposure we started getting users submit content. They did it in a number of ways. Some submitted tutorials and comprehensive guides/comments in our forum area, others did the same in comments section of the blog and others began to email us their submissions in the hope of being featured in the site.

    This user generated content came with different motivations from different people – some were doing it to give back to the community that they’d gotten value from, others did it to build their profile/expertise, others did it to drive some traffic to their site and others did it for fun.

    I occasionally received a pitch from a writer wanting a paid writing gig (I’d estimate I’ve had about 4 such requests in the last 3 years) – but the vast majority had no intent of being paid.

    Perhaps this is partly because there’s a bit of a culture in the tech/how to space of people writing content for forums and blogs or perhaps this is part of the growing culture of ‘guest blogging’ in the blogosphere in the last 4-5 years – not sure which but we certainly get 10-30 posts a week submitted and we use the best (I’d say about 20% of the 15 posts we publish a week is guest posts).

    Interestingly we continue to hear from guest posters as to the benefits of appearing on the site. For example one recent guest poster launched an iPhone app off the back of his posts and made hundreds times anything we could have paid him simply from the credibility and traffic that dPS brought him.

    We’ve since increased our writing team and now have around 15 paid writers as part of our team writing 2-4 posts a month. I’m committed to increasing the content coming from paid writers as they work to deadlines and quality submissions but also featuring reader generated content is certainly part of our approach and we provide readers with information about how they can submit it and the non financial benefits of doing so.

    • says

      Thanks so much for adding your thoughts here Darren as it is interesting and educational for everyone to see how the various business models develop … and to see just how complex everything is!! I think people think things are really cut and dried, but they are anything but we are all making this up as we go along!

  14. says

    Me again. Just another point. I wonder how many people haven’t been paid for their writing because they just haven’t asked? I know with MM the guidelines are clear, but in my case when I’ve finally had the courage to ask other publishers for payment, I have been. On every occasion. Just putting it out there.

  15. says

    another random thought….

    things are getting kind of grey in some areas of the web these days too. People are constantly generating content on social media, comments of blogs/news sites, forums, video sharing sites – some of it really good content too. Yet in many of these examples the people creating the content are not the ones getting financial reward.

    Not saying that this makes it right to not pay people – but I guess its a factor both in terms of writers and publishers trying to make sense of the fast developing web.

    Just another random thought to throw into the mix.

    • Mrs Woog says

      Good point Darren. For me, I came to the conclusion that I thought my writing was worthy of payment. *Insert wankery guestures here* If I write a commissioned piece I take that mega-seriously. X

    • says

      That’s the major factor at play here I think – things are much just so fast that as fast as we make a ‘rule’ for something … everything changes.

      Which is why I agree with my esteemed colleague Mrs Woog … everyone has to work out what is right for themselves and play by those rules.

  16. says

    Some people just want to be read by a bigger audience than they can reach from their own platforms.

    Let’s face it, it feels good. I would even go so far as to say it often feels better than getting paid, and the feeling lasts longer than the money too.

    • says

      You got it Paul. I can confirm that being published on certain sites feels a HECK of a lot better than getting paid :) And I guess when you don’t need to make money from your writing, it gives you freedom to go for the ego boost!

  17. says

    I think it’s a matter of each person working out what their goals are and where they draw their own lines. I used to write for free a lot, mostly guest posts on other blogs though, not sites like MM. As you say Kelly, it has always been done on my behalf because of something I felt I would gain from it, like exposure, potential contacts, or building my own brand.

    A lot of the time it was because I felt I was not good enough to be paid and so had to put in the “intern” years to build my experience and credibility.

    That has changed for me now and I rarely write for free (still guest posts on other blogs which I feel is a different strategy, it’s not freelance writing) This is because now I value my time and my expertise. So now I feel like I am at a level when I can ask for payment and if someone wants me to write for them and they don’t to pay or pay me small amounts, I will say no very confidently. If someone wants me to just write for them and pay for my words only then I will take less money then if they want me to write and promote it through my community because that is access to my influence and years of hard work.

    Every person’s situation is different, as are their needs and expectations so it is hard to say what is right or wrong and we shouldn’t be judging. What we should be doing is encouraging each other to value ourselves more and maybe that in turn will change things.

  18. says

    You’ve written a good piece here Kelly and provoked great comments. Timely for me as I had a guest post on Planning With Kids today, my second there. I love that site and it sends me really great quality traffic, people who visit my site and spend time there. I am keen to write for another blog which has also worked well for me, and very happy to do that for free.

    At the same time there are sites which I have provided a couple of articles to but won’t again as the quid pro quo is not working, and there isn’t a warm fuzzy in it for me either.

    As ever, other people can do whatever they like. Doesn’t bother me, I will write for nothing when it suits me, and not when it doesn’t.

  19. says

    A great post and great comments. I do think it comes down to choice – as a commenter said, maybe the writer jus hasn’t asked about payment. As an inexperienced writer I know that I have probably let payment slip because I did not know how to go about approaching the topic.
    As I wrote on my blog, the exposure MM has given me has been great, which has led to further paid work elsewhere. She supports diversity and that’s where I’m at.

  20. says

    This has certainly whipped up a lot of interest Kelly. Sometimes it is the prestige we want as professionals and sometimes we want profit. We have the choice. Bloggers are notorious for writing for ‘free’ but gain a link and a borrowed audience which sometimes is enough.

    • says

      That’s exactly it Carole – as Paul mentioned above … sometime as writers we just need to give our egos a good massage … and for me, that is easily worth as much as money. So long as I am not doing it all the time!

  21. GB says

    Something I have noticed throughout this article and its comments, and the article on Mamamia and its comments is that many people are using the term ‘for free’. This is grammatically incorrect. It should be ‘free’ or ‘for nothing’. I would have thought that writers would already know this. Obviously not.

  22. says

    My brain is fried too Kelly after reading all those comments. But I really enjoyed your post, and lean towards your way of thinking. As you… or someone else… it was many scrolls ago…. said, the Internet has disrupted traditional media business models and everyone – even the biggest of players – is trying to work out how to make money. I’m just watching with interest. If the market tells us we are producing too many ‘professional writers’, then we will have to adjust and new, different jobs will be born. Everyone is focusing on the responsibility of the writer and the business owner, but the readers play the biggest part. What do readers want? If a reader can’t tell the difference between a piece written by a punter versus a professional paid writer, and doesn’t care, then writing as a paid profession might be about to change dramatically. Those people who want to read “real” journalism by writers who are compensated for their years of experience and training may choose to pay for it, which is what Crikey et al are banking on. Postscript: I kind of think that Mia could possibly pay $50 ($500 a week?) a post to make this whole issue go away and may not notice it too much. But I’m not necessarily saying that she “should”. It’s her business model, and I’ll be watching how it all plays out over the next few years.

    • says

      It was Sandi’s comment that summed things up so nicely Rachel … but I love your comment and you introduce some great thoughts too. I think I am going to have to write a wrap up post next week to summarise all the wonderful thoughts that have been left here in the comments!

  23. Squirm says

    Online media & access to technology has changed the publishing world. Whilst I don’t so much think its a problem, people writing a ‘guest blog’ free for an online service – it’s not the only medium in which it happens.

    My partner is a photographer, and very similarly with writing, “anyone can do it”. Anyone who has a digital SLR can be a “photographer”. Whilst submitting photographs I magazines for free absolutely a way to get into market, it prices real photographic (our journalistic work) out if the market. There are a lot of people out there who work full time in high paying jobs, that take photographs for their “hobby” and get a thrill having their photographs published on a regular basis, but see no need to seek payment for it.

    However, there is a roll on effect. I guess the photographic industry may be a little different where some mags may rely on contributions with having a few or only 1-2 photographic staff on their team… but advertisers and publishers alike take the free content & often professionals are priced out of the market, despite the difference in quality. It can, and does reduce the quality of work that is being published, and makes it very difficult for a professional freelancer, whose income depends on published photos.

    • says

      Squirm, what you have mentioned above is going to be the bones of another follow up post I am going to write about the above. I am going to ask whether creative careers make good financial sense given the state of play you describe above!

  24. says

    I became aware of the Internet’s ‘Culture of Free’ when I kept getting asked to work for ‘exposure’ instead of payment and decided to not follow that path as it would have a slippery slope effect. I have specialist food knowledge such as ANZFood Standards and it can cause problems if not utilised. So if I can add something of value to a site that will bring paid advertisers, why is free an option?

    Around the same time, Google was sending out a call for designers to design their famous logo for no payment but ‘great exposure’. This was a company who at the time (2009) was earning BILLIONS! One top New York designer said ‘exposure’ was easy on the Internet ,was generally overrated and rarely helped life as much as a cheque! Google approached artists well trained in their craft and could well afford to pay them. It provoked very serious opinions and has had far-reaching effects.
    (see: Some artists say no to Google New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/business/media/15illo.html?_r=0)
    Their work helped embelish Google’s brand and make them even more money yet they received no share of the financial gain.The feeling lingers that designers who put their work up without getting paid set the scene and really did injustice to the entire creative world. It is a valid arguement that is worth visitng all the time or the Creative soul will become lot in an Internet world of medicore work.

    I am pleased to see your discussions Kelly, as that is how change comes about. I believe ‘reading’ on the Internet will change, as people realise they only want to spend so much time scrolling through vast amounts of information randomly trolled from other sources or poorly written. It will take time but cream rises and I look forward to when quality paying sites become successful because of quality creative talent.

    • says

      I think what you’re touching on here Fiona is an important point Rachel has mentioned:

      “Everyone is focusing on the responsibility of the writer and the business owner, but the readers play the biggest part. What do readers want? If a reader can’t tell the difference between a piece written by a punter versus a professional paid writer, and doesn’t care, then writing as a paid profession might be about to change dramatically”

      If consumers can’t tell the difference, or don’t care bout the difference between amateur and professional creative work … Then the entire creative community needs to re-assess how they make an income in this very rapidly changing world of ours

      • says

        Thanks for your reply Kelly. I do agree with Kelyy who made those excellent points. There has to be adustments in every type of career.
        But the point I am most concerned about is the ‘expectation’ of so many commercial industries that ‘everything is free’ and will reamin so! The slippery slope effect is that it has stretched over into serious money-generating areas.
        Web content and design for product brands for example – this is an area that is about commerce. The specialised words, graphics and pictures will sell your product – and in return you should pay for the service. If it is not a continued practise, and creative people give in just for the sake of ‘exposure’ , all you will end up with is even more ‘exposure’, because there will be no industry left who pays!
        However, as time goes on and the ten years olds of today become business owners – what will their mindset be?

        • says

          Yep, I don’t disagree with anything you say here Fiona, and I wish this wasn’t the way things are going – but it seems they are. If there’s something we can all do about it, then we sold, but I think the tipping point has been passed.

          So now we all have to figure out how to adjust. Maybe Penelope Trunk isn’t far off the mark when she says ‘If you want to be a writer, the best thing you can do is marry a banker!’

  25. says

    Hi Kelly, as you’ve gathered from my blog post I don’t quite agree with you about Mammamia, but I do think the writing for free topic is much more nuanced that plain “do” or don’t.

    http://paulwallbank.com/2012/12/15/pulling-up-the-drawbridge-why-arianna-huffington-chris-anderson-and-mammamia-unpaid-journalism-is-hypocritical-and-doomed/comment-page-1/#comment-29170

    There’s a great infographic on whether you should write for free at http://www.shouldiworkforfree.com/ – I particularly like the line “NO – this is the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you” as a response to the exposure question.

    The final word on writing for free should be left to Harlan Ellison in “Pay the Writer.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

    • says

      Hey Paul I am with you on thinking the writing for free topic is highly nuanced. But I have seen that ‘Should I work for free’ info graphic and as with any othe grand sweeping statement, I disagree with the ‘this is the most toxic line of bullshit’ line – specifically with regard to writing.

      For instance with design – I would design for free (when I was a new designer) for experience and to add to my portfolio – but never for ‘exposure’. Because that IS BS!

      With writing however – as a relatively new writer, writing for people like Mamamia and The Hoopla here in Oz for free HAS given me exposure and credibility and has lead to paid writing work. But now that I have established myself, writing for anyone for free becomes a game of diminishing returns for me and if I do it from here, it would have to be for a very good reason.

      I personally think everyone needs to do what works for them – blanket rules just can’t apply. I do get that people are saying that people writing for free lowers the standard across the board and I don’t disagree but as Rachel says above – it all comes down the readers now – if they’re happy to accept ‘sub-standard’ writing, then what motivation do publishers have to produce high quality content?

  26. says

    Wow, great post Kelly and well done for sparking such a lot of interest. I also agree that this cutting down of what people seem to perceive as Tall Poppies is wrong. I think Mia deserves her success, and she’s open about her business model, so why not? We know that unless you actually ‘work’ for Mama Mia, you don’t get paid – take it or leave it. If the resulting kudos and links back to your own blog are worth it, then as Darren has intimated, that’s worth more than payment itself.

    I’ve written freelance features for over 30 years, and up until about 4 years ago I would never write anything for free, and I couldn’t understand why bloggers or anyone else would want to. It seemed a crazy notion. You spend years learning the craft, and then give away your words for free? Nah! In South Africa and England I encouraged others not to write for free as well, and based on my own experience developed a series of writing workshops showing people how to go about getting paid (print) work. BUT when I arrived in Australia the GFC had struck and it was hard to get freelance gigs in unfamiliar territory where nobody knew me. Enter the world of the blog, and all the rules about freelance writing were turned upside down. I was not happy :(

    I think it’s great that there are larger entities in the online world who are paying writers – if they can sustain their business models, what a way to go. I also think that in order to build an online business you have to play by the online rules and write for free (a lot) in order to get noticed. I don’t think it’s right, but it’s the way it currently is, and the plus side is that there is payback, but of a different kind. However, as Seanna above mentions, some writing for free does not give you ‘warm and fuzzy moments’, whereas other free writing does in bucket loads of alternative compensation. You just have to be savvy and know where to look – enter Jon Morrow!

    I’m still learning, and making mistakes, and writing lots for free. It’s not easy. But who said building any kind of business was easy?

    All hail Mama Mia! I think she deserves her success – and for the record I’ve written a piece that will soon be published there … for free.

  27. says

    Such a great discussion!
    I do think, like many above, it’s about individual choice, what your goals are and what type of career you’re trying to carve for yourself. But in saying that it’s also very much down to each persons financial situation.

    When I started out in journalism, I had left a career where I had already carved my way to the top, but for health reasons had to leave and find a new career path. I knew I had to start at the bottom again and go through the motions. This meant minimum wage in my full-time role, with writing for free on top, for exposure. Sure it was slightly soul destroying at times, but also hugely exciting to have a hint of a totally new career, one that I had secretly lusted after. And I knew there was no way I would have been able to do it without the support of my partner. I had a mortgage and other ties, so without him it would have been impossible.

    On the subject of writing for free: personally it was very much worth it. I didn’t just get writing experience, I found out how print and online media work (and differ), how to deal with different editors, how to commission pieces, how to deal with advertising and PR and how accounts departments *really work*. I sucked up all I could about SEO tactics and social media (a totally different ball game five years ago) from those willing to share their knowledge freely and learnt so much more than I thought I would in many of those free or cheap writing roles.

    So I would say writing for free … for exposure and experience is always worth it. And while there are people that need to cut their teeth in the writing sphere MamaMia is such a great place to do it. Everybody has to start somewhere.

    • says

      It’s funny Linda because I experienced the very same thing when I started writing “Oh man, I have to start from the bottom again and do stuff for free – just like when I was a new graphic designer”.

      But like you, I have found it has help me cut my teeth and I have learned a lot. And all without the pressure of ‘OMG, they are paying me for this, I has to be AMAZING’!

  28. says

    I have faced this dilemma since I started freelancing and in order to build my portfolio I’m happy to write the occasional article for free for the exposure. I believe a free article shouldn’t in any way sacrifice its quality and should be as well written as though you’d be paid for it. However it’s also important to raise the payment question say after one may have written for a publication at least twice. If they say no, well at least you got two good clips to show editors.

    • says

      Totally agree Rashida. I have heard the ‘only two free articles for any one publication’ rule a few times. I have to admit I haven’t stuck to that rule myself but when I break it, it’s for a very good reason :)

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