Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Meanwhile, Newspapers Online Ain't Doing So Hot, either

The argument goes something like this: newspapers are losing subscribers by the boatload, sure, but their online editions are flourishing and growing steadily and they'll be just fine.

That's sooooooo wrong.

The new edition of Advertising Age magazine says that while newspaper Web sites attract a third of Web users, their advertising revenue share doesn't reflect anything like that number: 16.2 percent in 2005; 11.4 percent last year; a project 7.9 percent in 2014. That sounds like circulation figures. Meanwhile, advertising revenue outside newspapers is expected to increase by more than 56 percent in 2014. Even as a comeback mounts, Ad Age says, newspapers will still fall 16.3 percent sort of 2007 levels in 2014. That ain't growth, brothers and sisters.

A significant problem is that newspaper advertising rates online are higher than the industry average, by a lot. Newspapers got fat on 14 to 20 percent profit margins for many years, were unable to adjust when those rates tumbled and apparently are still living in a dream world.

The news gets worse if you write for a living. Ad Age says papers will likely go to "content mills" to get their stories. Content mills are sweat shops, often paying so much less than minimum wage that somebody's bound to go to jail at some point. But these are contract workers whose jobs pay by the piece, not by the hour. I've seen offers of $5 per 1,000-word story on Craig's list. The national magazine industry standard a few years ago was $1 a word. My friend Keith Ferrell, who's been at the top and at the bottom of the pay heap for freelancers (earning as much as $3 a word), says 5 CENTS a word is pretty common now. A quarter a word is closer to standard.

No, you can't even pay your insurance with income like that. Locally, it's worse with some publications paying nothing--nothing at all--and others paying so late for stories that it feels like they're paying nothing. When I was between retiring from my old gig and starting Valley Business FRONT some months ago, I got an assignment from Bella Magazine in Roanoke to write two stories for its green edition.

I completed the assignments (with photos) far ahead of deadline and they were accepted. A couple of months later, I asked about payment and was told I wouldn't get paid because the stories weren't being used. They'd decided not to do the section. No kill fee, no notification, no nothing. Try treating a plumber like that. Trashy behavior toward people who work for you is unethical, unforgivable and becoming the standard, as non-journalists get into publishing. Bella is owned by a designer.

Groups of these content mills--Associated Content, Demand Media, Seed, Examiner--sell content and Examiner says it has 12,000 contributors ("examiners"), one of which could have been me. I was asked to write a column called "Salem Vegetarian Restaurants" and when I protested that the topic was a little narrow, since I wasn't aware of a vegetarian restaurant in Salem, I was asked what I would suggest. I made some suggestions, "examined" the contract and finally decided that if I wrote for Examiner--and built my own audience on my own time--I'd be doing a disservice to every other freelance writer in the country. So I opted out.

If you're a freelance writer without other income, though, opting out on principal isn't always a choice. You write because you're addicted to it and you write for anybody who asks. More's the tragedy for all of us, including newspapers, who are eventually going to depend on this army of starving writers who'll write anything for anybody for a nickle a word.
(Photo: searchenginewatch.com.)


  1. I wrote for Associated Content for some time. Some folks build up a pretty good income there but I didn't have it in me. Constant-Content is another content mill but one that pays very well and much more selective. They have a highly sensitive editor and their articles get top dollar. Some print magazines use them as well as a websites. If I were freelance writing again, I'd go with them. (though I realize that finding a content mill was not the purpose of your post)

  2. Lisa: Actually, getting feedback like yours has as much value as any intent by me. Keep it coming and thank you.