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.