Writing for free

Max Read points to discussions by Cord Jefferson and Tim Krieger about people who write for free, thus depressing the wages of paid journalists.

The topic interests me because I’m one of those people who writes for free, all the time.

As a commenter wrote in response to Cord Jefferson’s article:

It’s not just people who have inherited money, it’s also people who have “day jobs” to support themselves while they pursue dream jobs in fields like journalism, fiction writing, theater and music.

In this case, I’m pursuing the dream job of blogging, but it’s the same basic idea.

I actually enjoy doing this, which is more than can be said of Tim Kreider, who writes:

I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work.

I’m lucky enough not to ever have had to bale hay or go door-to-door for a living, but I find writing to be enjoyable! So I can see how it can be hard for Kreider to compete with someone like me who will do what he does for free, while at the same time enjoying it.

Kreider also asks:

I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.

I guess he’s kidding here, because the answer to the above question is obvious. Editors ask people like him to write for free because people like me (or Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok, etc.) will write for free. You don’t need much empathetic imagination to figure that one out.

That said, I understand the frustration expressed by Jefferson and Kreider. I enjoy doing research, but it’s (typically) hard work. What if I didn’t get paid to do it because there was a reserve army of unemployed statisticians who could do my job for free, and I had to do something else to pay the bills? That would be no fun.

The interesting question, perhaps, is why it hasn’t always been this way. Somehow, until recently, publications were willing to pay the Tim Krieders of the world to write for them, even though the Andrew Gelmans of the world have been sitting around for awhile willing to write for free. Not all academics enjoy writing as much as I do—for example, a political scientist friend of mine has repeatedly expressed puzzlement that I blog every day for zero compensation—but there are enough of us sending our articles to journals and sending op-eds to newspapers, that you gotta wonder why it took so long for publications to make use of us. As noted above, even when I do get paid for writing, it’s not much. I think I got $350 for one of my articles for American Scientist, and each of those represented a lot of work. And, of course, that’s $350 more than I get for any article in the American Journal of Sociology or the Journal of the American Statistical Association or whatever.

It does seem that Cord Jefferson is right that there’s something new here, and perhaps the ability of newcomers such as Ferguson-bashing econ student Ashok Rao to reach large audiences for free is making it more difficult for people who find writing to be “shockingly unenjoyable” to get paid for it.

34 thoughts on “Writing for free

  1. I used a blog to throw out ideas I had as a graduate student (and also did some R tutorials through R-Bloggers). It was fun for me to be able to share ideas that I knew weren’t academic research level. At the same time–since I am a sports person–it led to emails from MLB front offices inquiring about interest in analyst/economist/capologist type jobs, invitations to write as you did at Baseball Prospectus’ Guest column, invites to do an R Meetup Talk, etc. As a young unknown academic, there is a lot to be gained from the blogging even if it doesn’t result in pay directly. One also needs to be sure–especially as a grad student–that they do not go making a fool out of themselves.

    As someone working his way to tenure now, the blog has been put a bit on the back-burner (actually, it is more so the teaching element than anything else that has increased my workload since grad school). But I’ll revisit when I see burning questions (mostly on Twitter) and write up something. And I still tend to enjoy it.

  2. I find it interesting that this post comes shortly after the one on PubMed Commons, the proposed centralized venue for commenting on journal articles, which also has at its core the idea that people will put in lots of work for no real reward (tangible or otherwise). Regardless of whether they will or won’t, I agree that “there’s something new here.” There’s a nice essay by David Byrne on free content killing music, which seems like far more of an issue for writing (as noted there, and elsewhere).

    • Of course, music has gotten measurably better, more of it is being made and more of it is sold since the rise of free content. The profits are lower, however.

      All of this is exactly what you would expect to happen when a monopoly is busted.

  3. Seems to me that your blogging for free differs from Krieger’s writing editorials for money in at least one important way: You can say whatever you want and know that it will be published, whereas he only has contingent access to the op-ed page of the NYT, and other people have some say in the end product. Given that, it isn’t surprising to me that he finds the writer gig to involve some drudgery: he’s doing it under really different conditions.

    Also: as a tenured professor, basically no writing you produce is done for free in the same way it would be for a self-employed writer. Your job at Columbia subsidizes all the other stuff you do “for free”; if you didn’t get paid for being a professor, you would have to find some other means of putting food on the table, and under those circumstances it wouldn’t surprise me if the quantity and quality of your writing decreased. (If it didn’t, I’d suspect you were crazy!)

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is a professional writer and not a professional something-else, made an interesting case for “writing for free” here: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/03/i-didnt-think-about-being-ripped-off-i-thought-about-whipping-ass/273937/

    • The problem is that the old business model of journalism came from lots of market power in advertising: “you want to advertize your cars to local residents, you must advertize in our newspaper.” The Internet and other technology ruined that. The old business model for journalism used those profits to cross-subsidize lots of great journalism and writing. People much like the upset authors made a reasonable living. Not any more.

      The answer to the problem–or rather one of many new answers–is that a lot more writing, at least the stuff that is hard to produce and socially valuable, should be produced by people in academia, like Andrew Gelman and the rest of us academics who already have health insurance, pensions, etc. For most of us, those are paid for by our teaching, not research or statistical consulting. Just like the teaching subsidizes “unfunded” research, it can subsidize journalism and other writing. If the writing and journalism is hard to produce, not likely to be done by people for free for their enjoyment, requires training and in the public interest, then the case for subsidizing it is like the case for subsidizing research.

      My co-authors and I have produced a formal proposal for that:
      Some of what we advocate is already happneing automatically, as described by Andrew and some others, but some policy changes in higher education are needed to make it serve the social interest better.

      If these writers would make good teachers in higher educaiton (even of writing), then this could work for them. If not, then they should see if their work is worth philanthropic contributions or see if they can do advertizing writing or something else to cross-subsidize what they do. Or perhaps they are good enough to be one of the increasingly few who make a fine living selling their writing freelance. If none of those work for them, they will be just complaining about the world being unfair. That might be true but it’s not useful.

      • I see why you are proposing this, but there are three things I don’t like about that solution: 1) It puts a lot of burden on professors, who by and large are already busy enough people; 2) It reduces the diversity of the population contributing ideas to the public sphere, which if we take Ta-Nehisi’s essay at face value is already extremely low in some respects; 3) It presumes that a substantial number of professors have the inclination and the ability to write in an accessible style, an assumption I am not sure is warranted.

        I admit I don’t have a perfect solution either, but I wonder why you seemingly rule out collective action on the part of writers — unions were a thing, once. I don’t know enough about union history to understand the rise and fall of that phenomenon, though I do live in a state where the fall has been particularly precipitous so I certainly do know the zeitgeist isn’t in favor. Regardless, even outside of unions many professions do have guild behaviors that protect them as a class — witness the success of doctors at gatekeeping — so collective action of a sort remains possible, under some circumstances. (In fact I could argue that your proposal is actually itself another example of guild behavior: acquiring turf for members of your own professional class!)

        • I think what @Dahlia Remler proposes is a solution in search of a problem. We are mis-characterizing the complaint: No one’s saying that good writing does not get produced these days since traditional newspapers won’t pay for it. To the contrary. Lots of academics are blogging and writing and making their work more accessible than ever was before.

          The real complaint is not that good writing has dried up; but that the people who used to be able to make money from writing as a career are finding it hard to do so any more.

          Subsidizing academics to write more is hardly going to help the Tim Krieger’s of the world from being out of a job.

      • But your value to the Times – correct me if I am wrong – comes as much from your credentials and reputation within the field as the writing itself. For the same reason that a former Prime Minister can write something that is not all too exciting on a Sunday Opinion. (This is not to say the piece is not compelling, only that it is not as insightful to the right audience as your blog may be. This is also the case for Krugman, Cowen, and almost any other academic). So it’s not really fair for professional writers to compare themselves with the side activities of top flight academics.

        “If the writing and journalism is hard to produce, not likely to be done by people for free for their enjoyment, requires training and in the public interest, then the case for subsidizing it is like the case for subsidizing research.”

        I think that’s precisely the point, though. The writing and journalism a lot of people talk about is not hard to produce. We’re not talking about academic journal manuscripts or essays. We’re not talking about anything that requires mathematical intuition or a liberal arts education. That there are so many people writing for free is testament to the fact that most opinion writing just isn’t that hard. The people you see in the blogosphere that make a living out of it are just really, really good (plus network effects).

        For example, as far as economics journalism goes (I am no expert, but know much more about this type of writing than anything else) it just doesn’t take all that much background knowledge or brilliance to be good at it. Tons of people do it. Most of it isn’t high quality. The few pieces you see from writers consistently linked by certain aggregators are high quality. But that’s not the right comparison to make for a would-be professional.

        On the other hand real reporting is something that ought to be paid, and does require hard work. There’s a reason you’d never see me write about something that requires more than a trip to the library.

    • Erin:

      You write that I can say whatever I want and know that it will be published. True, but I also write for free (or nearly so) for the New York Times, the American Journal of Sociology, and other outlets, and it’s typically a struggle to get published at these places. I work hard in order to write for free for these places.

      But, yes, your second paragraph is basically what Cord Jefferson was saying, I think: People like me who can afford to write for free, make it difficult for would-be professional writers to make a living out of it.

      • Andrew:

        I think the model increasingly looks like writing for NYT etc. by you, Tyler Cowen, Tabbarrok etc. is a loss leader for other more remunerative activities. Think of it as free advertising with a very wide reach.

        Plus the credentials it yields; for the average reader a NYT article is a sign that this author is worth reading.

        How many more copies did Tyler Cowen sell because he was writes for the NYT? A lot, I think. In other subtle ways I think your NYT writing sells the Andrew Gelman brand that you could then monetize in other ways e.g. Consulting? Expert Witness work? Speaking Engagements? Grants?

        • Malcolm Gladwell is the most obvious economic model. According to New York magazine in the mid-2000s, his annual New Yorker contract paid him $250,000 annually. But his articles were practically a loss leader compared to his speaking fees.

  4. There was another period of history when people wrote for free: when the printing press first became viable, and for a while afterwards until distribution channel control became sufficient to re-impose economic rents. There was a period of early American history, for example, that is full of women writing in magazines, because women were willing to write for free.

    Which is the other piece that this article misses: part of what they are complaining about is that there is not longer the judgment that their writing is more valuable than everyone else’s. Their voices are less privileged.

    There are places where capitalism does not work well, and non-scarce goods are the classic case. You might as well complain that it is impossible to privatize the air. The ultimate solution is guaranteed income, so that work that is more valuable than having people sit around all day will be compensated sufficiently to incentivize it and work that isn’t more valuable than having people sit around all day will only happen if it is enjoyable for the workers.

    • Another thing this reminds me of is free software. Imagine a programmer cribbing against Open Software coz’ they write code for free. Very analogous I think.

  5. Andrew:

    A part of this is people sometimes enjoy what they are paid to do less than what they do as a hobby.

    I’ll wager that if, say, Columbia changed your job description to “professional blogger” and required you to blog a certain amount it’d start feeling like a chore and in six months you’d not love it so much.

    • Rahul:

      You’re probably right about that. To put it another way, I enjoy teaching (which is pretty much the only part of my job that I have to do, but there are certainly days when I don’t feel like doing it.

  6. There’s probably an argument to be made that a culture of free writing crowds out diverse opinion with those privileged enough to write for free. But the people who rely on this don’t acknowledge that even if writers were paid good money from the beginning, children of the affluent are sufficiently more advantaged by their early 20s that it wouldn’t matter.

    The premise that writers get ripped off is ludicrous to me. By definition, those asked to write for a publication are either influential or unknown. (You can demarcate this in any way you please). If you are an unknown, you are probably getting way more out of the transaction than the publisher. Famous, smart people are reading you. If you are influential, then stop complaining about not getting paid – just say no, since the value you get is considerably smaller (people have already heard of you, etc.) I’m sure no one asks Paul Krugman to speak or write for free. Tim Krieder should learn that he is no Paul Krugman.

    The New York Times piece was one of the worst things I’ve read. It is moralistic – demanding those who do write for free stand for a higher purpose that doesn’t exist to subsidize those that hate the process anyway. I actually like writing, but I’ll just wait around until someone offers me the charity. (See the irony?) But more importantly, it would achieve strictly the opposite of what the author wants. If writers must be paid, then they are either slave to ad revenues or paywalls. Personally, I think writing for ad revenues has done wonders in improving the quality of journalism, but it certainly restricts the scope and depth of the work. Paywalls force the writers to target a very particular audience. That doesn’t work well for everybody. Surely they are not demanding the end of creativity in writing?

    In journalism we will see that two types of people get paid (relatively) well. The stars and the reporters. The stars – say Paul Krugman (or even David Brooks and Tom Friedman!) – because they are worth more to the publication than the other way around, and the reporters because they actually do real stuff.

    People with opinions and little else (like me) will continue to write for little. The Tyler Cowens might manage to make good on ad revenue, but by definition very few blogs will ever garner that audience. I imagine Tim Krieder – and all other people whining about writing for nothing – live in an expensive town in coastal America. But intellectualism in the age of the Internet doesn’t require the amenities of a city. I suggest they move to the midwest. Or Asia.

    You said:

    “That said, I understand the frustration expressed by Jefferson and Kreider. I enjoy doing research, but it’s (typically) hard work. What if I didn’t get paid to do it because there was a reserve army of unemployed statisticians who could do my job for free, and I had to do something else to pay the bills? That would be no fun.”

    Opinion journalism is a little like acting, I imagine. The successful ones are rich, impactful, and generously compensated. But run-of-the-mill journalism, the kind Krieder is talking about, is really easy. Most editorial pieces could be written by a very dedicated high school freshmen, if a little less efficiently. Opinion pieces derive their value from the academic expertise of the writer, in which case the compensation comes from audience.

    There’s something we need to worry about: the wages of real journalists. The kind that actually travel to interview people and spend time writing a story. But the intellectuals like Krieder don’t seem to care about this.

    • Ashok:

      To be fair, Kreider is also a cartoonist. And cartooning really is hard (or, at least, it seems that way from my perspective)! I’m guessing that this particular essay does not show Kreider at anything close to his best.

  7. Tim Kreider writes: “The economy is still largely in ruins, thanks to the people who “drive the economy” by doing imaginary things on Wall Street, and there just isn’t much money left to spare for people who do actual things anymore.”

    Pot calling the kettle black? How is what a writer does any more “real” than what a Wall Street banker does? It’d be a tad more palatable if Kreider was a bricklayer or steelworker or some such profession.

  8. Perhaps related – The Cochrane Collaboration actually had a policy (or least guidance) not to pay statisticians to help with the statistical analysis in Cochrane Reviews. This was part of the culture of physicians not being paid in their work on Cochrane reviews.

    The reason this worked well for physicians, was that they already got significant clinical income and very often leave from clinical responsibilities to undertake research. So in effect they were being paid or could afford to not need to be paid. Statisticians with academic appointments would sometimes volunteer early in their careers to get experience or make connections with clinical researchers.

  9. I have no sympathy for these people and their attempt to portray writers who produce content for less, or nothing, as “privileged”. They’re just trying to spin the loss of their own former privilege as if it’s some kind of oppression.

    Where were they when it was, to use Rahul’s examples, bricklayers and steelworkers whose wages were falling because the employer class could buy what they do cheaper from someone else?

  10. Andrew,

    Thanks for posting this & linking to Tim’s & Cord’s pieces. What these two guys are complaining about is really not a complex problem to analyze: (a) the type of writing / expression being discussed is essentially entertainment & duly classified as consumer-discretionary spending; (b) natural selection is at work all the time; and therefore (c) we’re just seeing a new type of selective pressure, which not all current writers are well-adapted to “survive”.

    Tim’s attitude is a little schizoid. He mentions doing free gigs when there was booty potential, so he really did get “compensated” after all! And hasn’t the suave artist been an archetypal pick-up success story forever? So where does this leave us– “Oh well, it’s still nice to be creative, too bad the money’s dried up” –?

    But as Cord points out, it really hasn’t. He writes that Amanda (“F-ing”) Palmer found the right arguments to go into today’s cultural selection function & she got the machine to pay out over $1MM — amazingly, despite a shrill & unpleasant voice!

    For my part, I got a BA in English & have never earned a dime from writing. OTOH, I’ve become quite effective in email, once even achieving (metaphorically) life-saving results! So I see Tim’s NYT piece as completely sour grapes, but of course the steady decline of that paper itself is a much larger-scale scale example of failure to adapt to “the times”, lol.

    Evolution is harsh when it’s not brutal, or for that matter, lethal. Let’s all try to remain humble & thankful for the small or great successes we do achieve.

  11. But, Prof. Gelman, I remember you were outraged by suggestion that you pay money to get your research published. But if other people do it, why not ask you, right?

  12. Sorry, I don’t mean to troll anybody. I was commenting on this
    “I guess he’s kidding here, because the answer to the above question is obvious. Editors ask people like him to write for free because people like me (or Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok, etc.) will write for free. You don’t need much empathetic imagination to figure that one out.”

    • D.O.:

      Yup, I stand by that statement. I don’t think it’s a surprise that, if people will write for free, that some editors will ask people will write for free. I also don’t think it’s a surprise that, if people will pay for publication, that some editors will ask people to do that. In fact, the NYT will publish op-eds if you pay them—they’ll just put them as ads on the op-ed page. In response to your earlier comment: No, I don’t recall being outraged by the suggestion that I pay money to get my research published. Actually, I have paid for it: some journals that I’ve published in require a fee just to submit an article!

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