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Doing It For Money

This week, mediabistro takes a look at the economics of producing content.

By Elizabeth Spiers - November 30, 2004

I get paid to write.

I could say that in the mirror every day for years, a lá Stuart Smalley, and I'd never fully believe it. It's not that I find it unbelievable that I, specifically, get paid to write; it's that I can't believe anyone gets paid to write—which is moronic, obviously. But there's an explanation.

If you live in central Alabama and your electricity goes out, there's a decent possibility that someone would call my dad to fix it. The process would involve him climbing an electrical pole or rerouting the current elsewhere at a switching station (those ominous-looking complexes of wires and metal you sometimes see by the side of the road surrounded by chain link fences.) He's been doing that job for over thirty years. He doesn't love it, but he doesn't hate it, either. "It's a paycheck," he says. The company's been good to him and the union's been good to him, and that's good enough.

So it's not surprising that when I called him shortly after graduating from college, complaining that I didn't like my job, he was initially confused. They were still paying me, right? How was whether I liked it relevant? Sure, in the best of all worlds, it would be enjoyable, but at the end of the day, it was a paycheck. He tried to be sympathetic, but probably thought I was just being a whiny brat. To some extent, I was. I was professionally qualified to have a job I would have enjoyed, but I certainly wasn't entitled to one.

A few years later, I got my first paycheck for writing a weblog called that was mostly satire, media gossip, and random observations about New York culture. I was essentially getting paid to write fake letters to Santa from Harvey Weinstein and tongue-in-cheek pieces about the economics of selling cocaine to Wall Streeters. It was fun, and there were parts of it that I'd have done for free. There's something about that that seems deeply absurd to me because for the most part, I think that work is not supposed to be enjoyable and when it is, it's just a happy coincidence.

Then again, in my relentlessly pessimistic worldview, people who think the glass is half full are just being naïve. There are actually legitimate reasons to believe that getting paid to write is bizarre, and unlike my reasons, they're completely rational.

Some of those reasons were discussed in a thread on the mediabistro bulletin board a few weeks ago that began with someone asking about mediabistro's policy for compensating writers who compose the first-person essays for the site and I felt compelled to respond to it because I had just taken over as editor-in-chief of mediabistro. (Until late October, I was a writer and editor at New York Magazine, where I spent a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop on this whole "writing for money" thing, so I could go back to crunching numbers for hedge funds and doing other things that are completely unenjoyable and therefore more closely resemble my idea of work.) You can see the thread here, but to summarize: I state the policy, which is that we don't pay writers for first-person essays but sometimes compensate them in other ways; some people don't like that; I masochistically continue to respond and someone compares me to a sweatshop owner. It sort of goes downhill from there.

That said, there are points to be made on both sides, and I thought it was a good way to start a discussion about paid content in general. It's easy to start with paid writing because it affects so many mediabistro readers, but the economics are relevant to many other types of creative output—music, art, etc—and if Napster has taught us anything it's that those economies can change materially when price points drop to zero.

So this begins Paid Content Week (or Weeks, if it gets interesting) at mediabistro. Here's what you can expect:

The Future Of Paid Writing (The Very Distant Future, That Is)

What if the advent of easy publishing tools means that everyone's a potential writer and publisher and editor? How do people write for money in 40 or 50 years? mediabistro's Greg Lindsay outlines one possible scenario for writers in the year 2048.

To Write Or Not To Write (For Free, That Is)

As a direct response to the thread mentioned above, we have two essays, one in defense of writing for free and one against it. Afterwards, the Fors and Againsts can duke it out on the bulletin board.

Economics of Content

We'll take a look at how the markets for various types of content are changing and what happens to the media industry culturally and economically as a result.

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