On getting paid (or not) to write

Danielle Lee writes the Urban Scientist blog for Scientific American. In 2013 she wrote a post about an ugly incident in which she was invited to write for Biology Online, asked about payment, declined the offer when she learned there would be none, and was called a whore. Scientific American took down the post an hour after it was published, late on a Friday, and then restored it the following Monday after verifying DNLee’s claim. The Biology Online editor’s name-calling was horrific. But his email also included a lesser insult:

You will enjoy a great deal of exposure from our 1.6 million monthly visitors.

I heard the same thing from Wired a few years ago, when I was invited to write an online column. They weren’t paying. But I was otherwise employed, I missed writing for a wider audience than my blog attracts, and I bought the claim that appearances on Wired.com’s home page would yield useful visibility, feedback, and engagement.

It didn’t work out that way. That was the loneliest writing gig I’ve ever had. On-site comments were few and far between. And reaction elsewhere — on Twitter, in the blogosphere — was anemic as well. I felt like I was talking to myself in an empty room while, below in the engine room, machines were talking to other machines, spinning page counters unconnected to any real audience.

Now I’m writing for InfoWorld again, and it’s a much more pleasant experience. That’s partly because InfoWorld does pay contributors. It’s not a living. The world has changed since I left InfoWorld 8 years ago, when there was still a print magazine. But there’s a real exchange of value.

As important to me, if not more important, is the connection to an audience. With InfoWorld I’m feeling that connection again. I can see conversations forming around my columns and features, and those conversations lead me to new ideas. That’s a dynamic I cherish.

Could I still earn a fulltime living writing about technology? Probably not, and I’m sometimes wistful about that. It’s something I do really well; arguably it’s my strongest talent. But the world’s supply of creative talent far exceeds the commercial demand for it. The vast majority of writers, artists, and musicians need day jobs. That can be a good thing. In my writerly niche it certainly is.

The kind of technology journalism I’ve practiced didn’t exist until BYTE came along in the 70s. Like all the tech publications that followed, we faced a dilemma. Do you hire practitioners who can learn to write? Or do you hire journalists who can learn about technology?

The best answer, of course, was (and is): Hire practitioners who are also reporters and writers. Then make sure they keep developing their practical knowledge and skills. At BYTE, and then at InfoWorld the first time around, I was blessed with the opportunity to do that. Such opportunity may not come again. That’s OK. I need to be able to deliver value in other ways too. Doing so will keep me from devolving into a pundit.

What’s not OK is writing for commercial publications that don’t pay. If there’s no market for something I want to write, I’ll put it here instead of on Medium or Facebook or some other site that earns in the currency of dollars but pays in the currency of (presumptive) attention.

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One thought on “On getting paid (or not) to write

  1. Well — for good conversation, I guess the question is whether or not it has to happen in your house. If not, all your requirements are met by finding someone else’s good blog or forum or what have you, and becoming part of the commenting community.

    I’ve been thinking about the sci/journalism thing a lot the last few days because I’ve been playing unlicensed PIO – a student came to me with an accepted paper and wanted publicity. So I read the paper and helped out — successfully; a major sci-news magazine took the story. The thing is, though, this is working because I went specifically against what one is supposed to do in these circumstances, despite some pressure from the scientific journal’s usual helper, and for a reason. There was some flashy content in the paper that might’ve made a flashy journalistic story, one that was also substantially misleading and generative of more heat than light. The findings, which are more difficult to understand than they look at first blush, are important, but not terribly meaningful on their own. They’re one piece of what has a good chance of being a much larger and more consequential story, but it will be consequential only if handled intelligently. Which means that this story needs to be written well, fully and intelligently enough to serve as a crib for future journalists covering the larger story, and who almost certainly will not have the requisite background to read the original paper well. The same student will have other papers and we need them written up well, too, so I’m looking at a body of work leading to a longform story for a broader audience.

    So I found a writer capable of handling the story and handed it off as an exclusive. The placement was lucky, but I’d have been more than satisfied with a long, solid story in some more obscure-but-findable spot. The point will be that it exists under a label that says “credible” and is findable. Again, I know that this is not how the game is supposed to go, but I don’t mind, because I don’t think the game serves science all that well, and that the breathlessness in breaking-news journalism is largely self-generated. It also seems to me that science does this to itself. We complain all the time about terrible science journalism, but do very little to foster serious and illuminating science news writing.

    There’s a lot in — well, any field where people are doing serious work that works like this. All the serious stories are incremental, which is why it’s so hard to find genuinely informative stuff in the dailies. But people get hung up on circulation, rather than audience or the shape larger and more helpful stories might take. I guess it’s all right, the journalist’s approach, if you’re in a long-running conversation with a bunch of knowledgeable readers, but otherwise I don’t really see that it’s all that helpful — you dash off something you don’t really understand and toss it at people who have even less context for the story, and then you’re on the next thing. Unless you’re IF Stone, but we don’t have so many of those.

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