Piecemeal Existence: For Today’s Young Freelance Journalists, What Will Traffic Bear?
In 2009, an editor for a new website called The Faster Times, which sought to be “an edgier Huffington Post,” emailed to ask if I was interested in a part-time job. I didn’t know it was possible to be edgier than HuffPo, but their payment scheme was certainly more innovative. Whereas HuffPo paid staff reporters the old-fashioned way, with a salary and benefits, while paying freelancers nothing at all, The Faster Times was creating a third way. Instead of staff writers, it had contributors who spent roughly 10 hours a week blogging and aggregating news on a given topic. In exchange, they would receive a majority of the revenue generated by ads sold on the pages they created. It took me a while to realize the editor was suggesting that I promise to perform a regular amount of work in exchange for no guaranteed payment at all.
At the very beginning of my career, I did a few articles for free to get reporting experience, and some unpaid blogging for The American Prospect to raise my profile. But I thought my writing-for-free-days were behind me. At 27, I had covered a presidential election as a staff writer for Politico and written features for a number of prestigious national magazines. Although I was shocked by the Faster Times proposal, I wasn’t offended: They had gotten my name from a former colleague at The New Republic who was working with them, and other writers, some more accomplished than I, had signed on.
The Faster Times is not unique. In recent years, a number of sites have tried similar business models, or started offering writers bonuses based on traffic. True/Slant, a website that launched in 2009, paid contributors a small monthly fee in exchange for a set number of posts, and bonuses for hitting traffic targets. Some sites don’t pay for freelance content at all, while others, such as The Awl, didn’t start paying until they were up and running for a year or so.