In all things in life, you get whatever standard you set. When you lower standards, you will get low quality. The cliched phrase, “you get what you pay for,” applies to journalism as well. As more and more blogs depends on free content (and to be completely open, outside of our grad student contributors, we are one of them), you get lower and lower quality. While some people might argue that the very idea of eyeballs on words scares people into turning in better work, in general, this is not necessarily true. There is a huge difference in the type of writing and reporting you will get if you pay $2 a word versus .20 cents a word “or worse, none.
Part of the problem is that journalists consistently undervalue themselves and their skill set. Freelancers, in particular, are constantly living in fear of rejection, and the way the publishing field is set up, it allows for abuse of the system by publishers. Contracts only guarantee a kill fee if a story is rejected, but nowhere in the contract does it state that the magazine has to kill a story within a reasonable amount of time. I had one friend who wrote a piece for a prominent New York City publication, only to essentially have her story held hostage for half a year. She was lucky that a news event kept her story viable in the interim.
The etiquette also dictates that a pitch has to be sent to each publication one at a time, before turning to the next publication on your wish list. You are not allowed to pitch more than one place at a time. This is ostensibly to prevent your idea from being leaked to different publications, whose editors then might all decide to cover it, but I believe that the process is simply built to be in favor of the publishers. If the story is hot, it could create a bidding war, and you would have to be paid lots and lots of money. And the publishing industry isn’t interested in paying for content. They are interested in just generating content. Any kind of content. Generate, you bloggers! Preferably for free.
In the UK, at the Wordcamp UK conference for WordPress bloggers, Nick Garner, head of search marketing for Betfair told OJB.com something I found to be disturbing, and all-too-true. “Journalists are cheap.” OJB paraphrased their follow-up conversation with him, writing that he expounded on our cheapness.
“Journalists underprice themselves, he said. They are in huge demand in his business, and his business is in demand in its turn. The only solution is to stop working for cheap or for free. Unless you are trying to build your resume or get a leg up in an area you aren’t familiar with, writing for nothing shouldn’t be considered. If you are going to write for nothing, at least do it for yourself or for a powerful, preferably large audience. Can you imagine any doctor or lawyer worth his or her salt giving you services for nothing?” Unfortunately, this practice of bloggers undercutting the professionals by offering similiar-seeming services for a lesser price isn’t likely to end soon.
But on the bright side: I can cut your hair for free, too! No guarantees what it’ll look like.