In 1896, Richard Harding Davis went to Cuba to report on what his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, fervently hoped would be a war. Hearst offered the 32-year-old writer $3,000 for a month of work; Davis expected to collect another $600 freelancing for Harper’s Magazine. Davis was a well-known and popular writer. But even the most famous print journalists today would have a hard time duplicating his earnings, which would amount to six figures in today’s money.
A quarter century later, John Maynard Keynes often earned the equivalent of thousands of dollars freelance writing for newspapers and serious periodicals. Indeed, earnings from newspapers were at times a significant part of his income. Keynes was famous and controversial in addition to being brilliant, which surely elevated his earning power. But he also benefited, as Davis had, from a marketplace in which reporting, analysis and opinion—that is, writing—was not relentlessly dirt cheap.
The advance of the web, and the flip side decline of newspapers, has occasioned a lot of discussion about the value of content. Not all content is suffering; despite rampant piracy, Hollywood box office is up, and the movies just had their first billion-dollar January. Yet judging from what I paid this morning to read a slew of expert reporting and commentary online, the value of journalistic writing in the marketplace is not at all high.
Everyone knows the consequences of that for newspapers—it’s killing them. And for some of the same reasons, magazines aren’t exactly robust, either. But if publishers are failing because they cannot charge readers for words, where does that leave writers?
By some lights, this a golden age for writers, who can launch a blog, post their views online and reap the rewards of community, commenters and cross-referencing colleagues. This is all true. In addition to expanding the audiences of experienced writers, the web has created a showcase for extraordinary young talent like Matthew Yglesias, Ben Smith, Marc Ambinder, Ross Douthat, and Ezra Klein. On the web, no bureaucracy makes them wait their turn, no dunderheaded editors hold back their talents.
But for a host of other young writers, there is still the problem of getting paid. Newspapers are no longer an option. The New York Times pays $300 for an op-ed piece today, less than it did a decade ago—and it wasn’t real money then. With more than 1,000 submissions a week, The Times’ opinion pages (for which I’ve done short stints both writing and editing) really needn’t pay anything at all.
After all, the number of people willing to write for free is vast. In 2007, I was in charge of recruiting writers for the expansion of The Huffington Post. I calculated that I would need 75 unpaid blog submissions per day, Monday through Friday, in order to make the site work. That target seemed absurd at first. Yet within two months, hundreds of willing bloggers had signed up, the majority of them credentialed authors published by major publishing houses.
The high end of publishing—books, magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—has always contained a contingent of wealthy worker bees who don’t actually live off their often meager salaries. But even a couple decades ago, a writer without independent means could still scrape together a living writing about something other than movie stars. Not a good one necessarily, but a living.
It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.
There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all. (In contrast with another industry under siege—music—in which rising from the hood or the farm still seems plausible, even stereotypical.)
The Internet has brought the newspaper business to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?