Will Write For Food, Payment Preferable

by Sarah Henry on February 28, 2011 · 17 comments

in bay area bites,civil eats,food flotsam & jetsam

[This post originally appeared on KQED's Bay Area Bites, where it has sparked some lively comments. Feel from to add yours here or there.]

Heads up readers: Want to know a dirty little secret of online journalism, including website food writing? It doesn’t always pay. Maybe you haven’t given the matter much thought, but read on to find out why you should.

First, some context from recent headlines: progressive online media giant The Huffington Post, which has a lively food section and set the standard for the new no-pay media, announced that it was being bought by AOL for a cool $315 million in cash and stock. That was fabulous news for the already fabulously wealthy Arianna Huffington and her cronies, but a slap in the face for the army of unpaid wordsmiths on which the HuffPo has built a blog empire using, essentially, the slave labor of journalists who wrote posts for free in the hope it may make a difference, including to their cash flow, down the track.

Mainstream media analysts like Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times even said as much: “To grasp The Huffington Post’s business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

Elsewhere other scribes parsed out the economics at play, including Nate Silver in a column for the New York Times, but the fact remains no matter how you run the numbers this business model is just plain exploitive. So much for Huffington’s liberal values. And don’t just take my word for it, as media maven Tina Brown told New York Magazine: “My stance is that as a writer, I like to get paid. That’s just the cost of doing business. I mean, you wouldn’t expect to not be paying anyone doing any other things.”

Indeed. It’s a brutal economy, and many writers and editors have lost their jobs or taken buyouts, as the print media implodes. Filling the void: online blogs pumping out content, journalism’s low or no-pay poor cousin. (Full disclosure: KQED pays me $40 to pen posts like this one. I retain the copyright for the stories I turn here and am free to run them on my own blog or use them as pitches for higher-paying pieces in other media.) Exclusivity and copyright questions can get sticky, as Politics of the Plate writer Barry Estabrook discovered in curt correspondence he received from Conde Nast Publications, which owned Gourmet. Estabrook, who wrote for the since shuttered magazine, was admonished for reprinting articles he authored for the mag on his blog.

It wasn’t always so. Back in the olden days, a phrase which here means just a few years ago, before the word blogging made its way into the popular lexicon, the activity was simply known as “writing for the web” and writers like myself were compensated — handsomely — for their time and talents at rates comparable to print outlets. We’re talking fees in the thousands for reported stories, usually at a rate of $1 a word or higher. (A rate, mind you, that has been pretty set in stone since I landed in this country as a novice reporter some 25 years ago. But that’s another story.) This meant that it was possible, with a lot of hard work and persistence, to make a modest living at the job.

Fast forward to today and we now have a band of self-styled “journalists” roaming the web writing off the cuff (and frequently about themselves, since this is the narcissistic age we live in). And yes, some of it is well done. But a lot of it is not. Regardless, it doesn’t do career journalists like myself any favors and it’s a disservice to readers, too.

Here’s why: Offering up content — or packaged information — is not the same thing as crafting quality journalism, which involves interviewing, analysis, and research, along with expertise, experience, and a modicum of style.

But I’ve taken to adopting the mantra “adapt or die,” and find myself — like many mid-career scribblers — struggling to find a way to make a living in a field where the landscape has changed dramatically. Although I shifted to food writing two years ago, a notoriously under-paid beat, I’ve been able to eke out an income by diversifying and carving out a niche.

The jury is out on whether this experiment will work, and there are days when I wonder if I should go fill out an application at Trader Joe’s. I know scores of writers, both freelancers and those who used to be staffers, who feel the same way.

Even folks on the inside feel our pain. “It eats at me every day,” says Corby Kummer, The Atlantic Food Channel‘s senior food editor. Kummer explains that once he learned about the business model for the site he would run, he was careful not to ask established freelance writers or new reporters to pitch because he couldn’t compensate them for their time.

Instead, he sought out people who were experts in their activities and businesses, like Ari Weinzweig and Larry Stone, or academics who write as part of their platform, such as Marion Nestle and James McWilliams, or writers with books who wanted to reach a wide audience. (The Atlantic, an intellectual magazine not known for bringing in big bucks, turned a $1.8 million profit last year, the first time in at least a decade that it hadn’t lost money, largely due to its digital presence.) In a sense, these were people who could afford to write gratis, since they already had an income source.

But once the site launched Kummer fielded numerous emails from writers — including this one — who wanted their stories to appear on the site. “I want nothing more than to be part of the solution to making web writing into the going enterprise that, for a time that seems so long ago, print journalism was,” says Kummer. “We hope revenue will follow, not just for us but for the people who create that work.”

And that’s exactly what we want to hear, since there are still rents or mortgages to pay, food to get on the table, and kids to raise in (public) school. Meanwhile, there’s a core of mid-career professionals — including many women who are the family breadwinners or head of households — who have seen their freelance writing income literally slashed by 50 to 75 percent. We’re all working harder and longer hours than we ever have for much, much less.

In certain circles I hear rumblings about a potential uprising among writers; some even talk about starting a new union to protect online workers.

That may sound far-fetched but really what we have going on here is sweatshop conditions akin to the old economy’s industrial capitalism: Poorly paid piecework and huge profits for the owners. Something has to shift.

Full disclosure: While I continue to derive decent income from food writing for print publications such as AFAR, California, and San Francisco, I also contribute regular food coverage to online sites that offer token compensation, including Bay Area Bites, which is based on the concept of citizen media, and the local start-up Berkeleyside. And, of course, nobody sends me a check for the pieces I pen on my own blog, Lettuce Eat Kale.

On rare occasion I turn an original post for non-paying Internet outlets such as the wonky website Civil Eats (where nobody, including the editors, makes a dime) and The Atlantic Food Channel (where the editors, presumably, are well compensated for their work) as part of a strategy that I trust will pay off in financial terms in the future — a phrase which here means “I hope very soon.”

Lest you think I’ve lost my sense of humor, I leave you with this video, “Adventures in Freelancing,” part of a series on YouTube by the talented Lauren Lipton that amusingly sends up the current state of affairs that resembles reality for many writers. Food for thought:

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Krampner February 28, 2011 at 10:18 am

Very nice piece. As a professional writer and author (who now makes his living teaching English as a Second Language in adult school), I empathized with your well-written piece. Am not sure what the solution is beyond people refusing to write for exploitive bloodsuckers like Ariana Huffington.


Sarah Henry February 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

Nice to see you here Jon, and thanks for weighing in. Part of the solution, I hope, is in starting open discussions about the state of play, like this one.


Jon Krampner February 28, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Glad to participate — I learned about your blog on Twitter, by the way.

What do you think the (or even “a”) solution might be? Writers are notoriously individualistic; it’s hard to get us to close ranks, even for something as worthwhile as making sure we get paid decently for our work.


Sarah Henry March 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm

It’s complicated as you point out, Jon, as writers are indeed individualistic souls.

That said, I’m heartened by this recent action by art’s writers, who are standing up to HuffPo and just saying no:



Mrs Q February 28, 2011 at 7:05 pm

I don’t know how you do it! Good on ya! :)
Mrs Q´s last [type] ..Lunch Literature Book Club


Sarah Henry February 28, 2011 at 7:19 pm

High praise indeed, coming from a public school teacher. But then you get paid a salary, albeit I know that education professionals are frequently underpaid too.


Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple March 1, 2011 at 7:38 am

Wow, that was very informative. I just recently discovered Huffington Post, and have been impressed with the quality on the site. Sheesh. Not so impressed anymore.
Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple´s last [type] ..Beans!


Sarah Henry March 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Hi Marcia, Good to see you here. And sorry to burst your bubble on the HuffPo model. Sometimes the truth is painful.


Bonnie Schueler March 1, 2011 at 8:12 am

That was a wonderful article. I am not sure what the answer is. I have a daughter heading off to college who is interested in Journalism. She has sat in on some local “citizen journalism” classes. With the upswing of social media I am not sure how to advise her.


Sarah Henry March 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Thanks Bonnie for adding your voice to the mix. It’s a transitional time in journalism — and anyone who says they have all the answers and know what’s ahead aren’t being honest. I see many wonderful things happening at the UC Berkeley J School, where I live, so I remain optimistic despite the great odds.

I have a son and both his parents are writers. He’s showing no interest in following in our footsteps, and I’m glad for that. It’s a tough way to make a living and the deadline life can be grueling. And yet there are so many rewards from this profession.

The only advice I have as far as your daughter is concerned is whether this is something she wants to do or is it something she HAS to do. That may help her — and you — in her decision-making process.


Aleta March 4, 2011 at 9:58 am

Hear, hear, Sarah! Since I left the Mercury News in the great diaspora I find myself writing mostly for nonprofits. It pains me to see our profession so devalued by operations that think we should be grateful just to see our names in print. Writing is the way we earn a living and, contrary to popular perception, it’s real work.
Aleta´s last [type] ..Mini muffulettas for Mardi Gras


Sarah Henry March 4, 2011 at 11:13 am

Thanks for writing, Aleta. You raise good points and I’m almost sorry to show you, if you haven’t seen it already, how little Arianna Huffington values writers:


Of course, this is the same woman, let’s not forget, who got dinged at least three times by claims of plagiarism. So, clearly, she likes some people’s way with words:



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