By Caitlin Kelly
It sounds so cool and sexy and 21st century, doesn’t it?
Those of us who have only published the old-fashioned way — you know, with an agent and a publisher who designs, edits and distributes physical books to bookstores — often now feel like fogies riding around in horse-drawn carriages.
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
The ending proved inglorious indeed, as both digital publishers crumpled beneath him like a shot horse. Ooops!
If Tony Horowitz — a writer whose best-sellers I’ve admired and envied — can’t make it work…
Writers have little wish to be the canary in the digital coal mine, so his is a cautionary tale indeed.
I attended a conference in December 2013 at the Columbia School of Journalism, a place that once launched many august careers, a building with a huge statue of Pulitzer staring down at us all.
The conference was ostensibly to discuss the future of “digital longform”, and 300 people — a mix of seasoned professionals, industry newcomers and J-students — showed up. We spent a day listening to old-school journalists with full-time staff salaries preen and digital publishers with expensive shoes and ponytails preen.
But no one dared ask the question we all wanted to hear the answer to: “What do you pay your writers?”
Because those of us who had already had a few conversations with digital publishers knew the answer.
The problem is basic: digital pay rates are, with a few rare exceptions, appallingly low, while the cost of living is rising daily. Even back in the 1980s, I was offered more money than today’s digital titans for my magazine work — and a week’s groceries didn’t cost $150.
There’s also a basic problem of speed/quality/price. Pick two!
When digital publishers pay so little, writers have to work much faster to earn a decent living. Cutting corners creates crap, but no one can lavish hours and hours on deep reporting and sourcing, no matter what lofty ambitions these digital folks cherish.
I occasionally write for Quartz, the digital arm of The Atlantic. I like my editor, but the maximum pay for a 1,000-word reported story is $500, the same pay rate as another site I’ve written for. Each story requires 3 to 4 original interviews, writing and possible revisions — while a print piece of the same length for a major publisher pays $1,000 to $2,000.
When I contacted an editor at yet another website, and was offered $300 for a reported story, I balked; and was told: “Some sites don’t even pay.”
That’s a compelling argument?
So I spend most of my time, still, seeking and pitching my story ideas to editors of print publications. Some you’ve never heard of and they don’t sound at all cool.
But their higher rates pay my bills. They’re not going away. They (usually) honor their contracts.
If I write any more books, which I hope to, I’ll also head back to that fusty 18th-century model.
Have you done any work in the digital “space?”
How did it turn out for you?