November 30, 2013

Dear generic freelance columnists: Please go away

A lot of freelance in today's brave new post-Internet media world are complaining about other people asking them to write for free, promising them the magic coin of "exposure" at some website, publication arm, or whatever, allegedly more high-profile than what they do now. This even happened, infamously, when a Scientific American blogger (already a pretty high profile there) was asked to write for free by a staffer at a mid-level (I think, certainly no higher than that) science journal, then called her an "urban whore" when she said no, along with SciAm totally bungling its response to that, in part because of pulling down a previous blog post about sexual harassment claims, then, a week after this, its blogging editor resigning over harassment-related concerns.

There's plenty of other cases, and I agree with telling freelancers, "Don't sell your soul for 'exposure,' no matter how honey-dripping sweet the sales pitch is."

And, I know the Internet has exacerbated writer's pay problems.

But, there's a flip side to being asked to write for free.

It's asking to be paid for writing that ... just ain't worth it!

For example, per my header?

I got three emails in a week from a would-be freelance columnist, writing generic "lifestyle" columns, asking for $15 a week.

Let's say, out of the 350-plus small community daily plus community non-daily papers in Texas, this person gets 25 to sign up. Let's say in the neighboring states plus Kansas and Missouri, she gets 15 more.

Forty papers at $15 a week? That's $600 a week, or $30,000 a year, for spending 3 hours a week, if that (not counting time you spent on the initial bombardment of unsolicited emails), on a generic lifestyles column that you won't tailor to old, white readership at old, rural, small town papers, nor to suburbanites at suburban newspapers, nor to minorities at some minority-heavy small towns and suburbs.

So, go away, please go away, and stop emailing newspapers asking to run content that's not relevant and not needed.

If you want your name in print, or the online equivalent, it's called a "blog." Blogger and Wordpress will set you up for free. If you want to try to make money, sign yourself up for Google Ads at Blogger, or whatever equivalent Wordpress has. If you're in it for money, and you're that egotistical about what you think you're worth, set up a PayPal tip jar.

And have fun counting your pennies.

None of this is meant to be sarcastic or rude, though if it's blunt, I'm fine with that.

First, in case you haven't read the news, the modern newspaper is not some money-making machine. As more of us inside the business get laid off, face stagnant salaries or whatever, we're not in the mood to slit our own throats by handing out some of our money to a non-local person writing a generic column. Period. End of story.

Second, to the degree we have space in the paper, if we haven't had to tighten up page counts, and the degree we have time, we the editors and publishers sometimes like writing those lifestyles or feel-good columns ourselves, addressing our local readers as their local newspaper leaders.

Third, I suspect that many of you know exactly how much you stand to make if you can get just a relatively few sucker newspapers to buy. This isn't like the purely local columnist who might want a free subscription to the paper for a year in exchange for writing for us or something.

So, again, please go away. And, please learn a bit more about the modern community newspaper business.

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