What are words worth? This is the question I found myself pondering over the course of the last few days. We have had our fair share of media-based discussions here at WFNY, most recently within the podcast with Brian Spaeth where he and Craig discussed a bare-bones cure for what ails The Plain Dealer. But just as a good portion of print-based media finds itself in self-made quicksand, it has become even more apparent that this is far from a “print” issue as much as it is one for all of journalism.
For those who have not been following, Nate Thayer has been the protagonist of a recent debate. Thayer is a highly-decorated freelance journalist who has made his name over the course of 25 years. He has won, among other accolades, a World Press Award, a Francis Frost Wood Award and a Peabody. He has won the SAIS-Novartis “Award for Excellence in International Reporting.” He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Earlier this week, Thayer published a correspondence between he and the global editor from The Atlantic wherein said editor was interested in running some of the author’s work. Their compensation for what was looking to be roughly 1,200 words: nothing.
In Thayer’s response, he said “I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps misspoken.”
The “insulted” part rang loud. Here is The Atlantic, a very well-respected and revenue-generating venture, offering a Pulitzer Prize nominee what boils down to “page views” as compensation for his work. Over my years of writing in various capacities, I have been offered similar arrangements — some I have taken as I felt that the time working with renowned editors would be worth the lack of financial compensation; others I have politely (and sometimes not-so politely) turned down as there is a value proposition of “worth” involved with any type of labor. But even I know that I do not hold a candle to Thayer, especially given his knowledge of global politics and socioeconomics.
Not only is The Atlantic one of the few outlets to have conquered the ever-changing landscape and be compensated for their hard work and willingness to take risks when the rest of the world was standing still, they have apparently built themselves up to a place where they can fish for Pulitzer-worthy dinner without paying for a license. Naturally, this left my mind spinning. And where do you go when you want to gauge whether or not your feelings are outliers? Twitter, of course.
The Atlantic is a globally focused site (and magazine) that covers politics, entertainment, arts, technology and business. To compare them to a channel that distributes sports, let alone a níche like Cleveland sports, may be a fruitless exercise. But I felt that this was more of a supply-demand discussion surrounding the on-line marketplace than it was a this-versus-that debate. If an organization is going to pay for freelance work, it has to assume margins on their returns. What they receive in revenue has to outweigh what they paid for the content – Business 101, return on investments. Alas, I asked my followers — who, if anyone, would you pay to read within the Cleveland sports-writing landscape?
@WFNYScott in today's world none. if you wiped out all free content and made me pay people that I wanted to read, that'd be a good q.
— Dan Whitmyer (@dwhit110) March 7, 2013
The results were eye-opening. The majority of the responses were rooted in absence. While some of this absence was predicated upon entitlement and an unwillingness to pay for things, the responses were indicative of something else: a deficiency of worthy material. Of all of the scribes to write about Cleveland sports — there are, by my count five newspapers as well as two radio stations who publish written content and a handful of established blogs — only The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto and Indians.com’s Jordan Bastian consistently received votes. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince each received several “if he was still writing about Cleveland” nominations, but that is the end of the short list. I found this — a columnist, a baseball beat reporter and a former basketball beat reporter — incredibly interesting given that Cleveland often prides itself on being a “Browns town.”
There are countless web destinations that are behind a pay-wall. The New York Times rolled out a pay-to-read service a few years back — under much scrutiny — are are now prospering because of it. Same can be said for The New Yorker. The Boston Globe has introduced something similar, one that continues to be modified as issues/opportunities present themselves. ESPN has the ever-popular Insider on their web site. Sports Illustrated embargoes many of their print features so that subscribers can read them first. Andrew Sullivan made headlines this year when he decided to skirt load-draining advertisements on his website in favor of a more user-friendly, community-focused metered pay-wall. As much has been made of The Plain Dealer struggling financially, it would be safe to assume that a full-on pay-wall is one of the last things they have honestly considered implementing.
For disclosure: I’m not opposed to paying for content. I subscribe to Esquire, ESPN The Magazine, GQ, and Sports Illustrated. I have a subscription to Sirius-XM, ESPN Insider, and countless premium tiers on DirecTV. To me, it is not a matter of cost; it’s a function of worth. Howard Stern is worth my hard-earned money. As is Wright Thompson and Chris Jones and Gary Smith and Scott Raab and Tom Junod and Kevin Van Valkenburg and SL Price and… The list goes on. But for all of the solid (and often amazingly researched and composed) content that graces the web every day, the vast majority of readers — at least those who spoke up on Twitter — claim they would not be willing to pay more than their time spent on absorbing the words. How many people would have read Zack Meisel’s amazingly heartwarming story on Shelley Duncan and his family had it been behind a pay-wall? How much would a third-party have paid to publish it if it were a freelance piece?
Elasticity is an economic term that quantifies how much the demand for an item changes when price is altered. Due to the vast array of compliments — blogs, alternative outlets — many were of the “I’ll just go somewhere else” mold. But when I rephrased the question, making readers assume that all content had to be paid for, the results were not much different.
We here at WFNY are always looking to provide readers with “better.” Better stories, better writing, better insight … better web design, better load times … an all-around better experience. We understand that there is a cost, but given that this site has always been about the community, we understand. We write long form pieces knowing that they will get a fraction of the traffic and conversation that a news item on the NFL Draft will obtain. But we still put in the work. This same endeavor and ideal cannot always be shared by those who have writers contracted and have overhead fixed costs — office space, for instance. In the podcast with Craig which I referenced above, Brian Spaeth stated that the biggest value lies in investigative, narrative journalism. Stories that one would not be able to get anywhere else. Not box scores, not commodity news items like injury reports and starting lineups. ESPN has gone as far to embrace long form journalism and promote across multiple platforms. They see the value in storytelling — Wright Thompson’s profile on Michael Jordan was clicked on (as of last week) 2.5 million times, so it is evident that the demand is indeed there.
Sports Illustrated and Esquire and other national magazines have never veered from this focus and continue to employ some of the best writers putting pen to paper today. USA Today has rolled out Sports on Earth. Grantland is already turning a profit. The guys at The Classical continue to produce must-read material. Even Deadspin has made a turn from repackaged content to long form, investigative work. The Manti Te’o story continues to be the biggest sports story of the year; one of the authors is an undergraduate senior.
It may be a chicken-egg debate. Can these distribution channels afford to pay the best in the business to write because people will pay to read them? Or will people pay to read them because they are in fact the best in the business? Scroll through a Cleveland sports fans Twitter timeline on any given day and there are bound to be countless complaints about local media, coverage and quality. How can a local newspaper or website compete on this level? Demand more from writers? Litter a piece with advertisements and leverage page views and sell this as compensation?
I do not know what the answer is on a more níche, regional scale. I do know that Thompson’s piece was able to flourish not only because it was one of the best profiles written and happens to be about a captivating individual, but it was also promoted across multiple platforms — web, print, radio and television were all a part of the distribution plan, and it worked magnificently. I do know that Thayer’s issue with The Atlantic is far from a one-off; he was merely one of the few who were willing to put a well-compensated media company on blast. I do know that one of the responses I received several years ago when I had turned down writing for pennies was “we can just get some college kid to do it for free.” — a shear testament that this operation was in fact not about the readers as well as intellectual honesty as it was bright colors and page views.
And I do know that until someone finds an answer to this overriding problem — until companies can figure out a way to maximize returns to a point where they can afford to compensate, and quality reaches a point where end consumers are willing to pay with more than just eyeing advertisements — writing and the inherent quality of such (time spent, calls made, interviews given, multi-layer editing prior to publishing) will continue to fall by the wayside. Journalism will become increasingly more top-heavy as the herd chases after the same, depleting dollar. JA Adande will be forced to make a bigger name for himself as a talking head on Around the Horn than for his always top-flight columns. Pulitzer Prize nominees will be treated like they are a dime a dozen.
As the web grows and ease of publication continues to increase, there tends to be a race to the bottom. Who can get items up the fastest, only to be diluted by the others who can do the same with a log-in and click of a publish button. Those who can utilize their access, their knowledge and their writing ability should be compensated appropriately. But this compensation has to come from somewhere — these companies are, after all, a business.
It’s supply and demand. Until we all, as readers, demand more and demand better — but are also willing to pay for it when it is there — I fear we’re all in this sinking ship together.