Content may settle

Since leaving the San Francisco Chronicle 15 months ago, I regularly read the writer/editor job listings on Craig’s List. The result is usually more sobering than inspiring – lots of listings for 23-year-old college grads who can live on intern salaries or people with esoteric translation skills. 

Like “Intern for green social website.” Or “Community bloggers: Sonoma County.” Or “Local data editor (Swedish).”

Yesterday I saw one that took the cake, though. “Exciting opportunity for writers,” the headline read, with a location of Downtown Oakland. Now I know that anything on the Web that bills itself as an “exciting opportunity” is probably trying to sell you Viagra, penis enlargement, or a Nigerian get-rich plan. But still, why not look? After all, downtown Oakland – I could bike to work like my Mr. Stud husband. 

There was in fact no Viagra in the ad (although apparently no downtown Oakland office either). It read: 

“We are an online publishing company that needs excellent article writers. Whether you have professional writing experience or want writing experience, we need you. You will be writing on many topics and will need a good command of the English language. Work is on-going – You can choose to work full time or part time.” 

Okay, so I proceeded to their Web site. The company appears to be one of many that offers content – i.e. articles – to various Web sites and uses freelance writers to create that content. The site looked attractive and fairly professional. My antennae went up at their requirement that all writers be “native English speakers” — in 20 years of writing for California’s top newspapers, no one had ever told me that being a “native English speaker” was a prerequisite, but what the heck? Maybe things are different on the Web. 

But clicking through the site, it became apparent that the people running this venture may not be “native English speakers” themselves. For instance: 

“Since more than two years now we have established a good reputation as content supplier…. 

“With us you’ll never have to worry again from where to get the next writing job or if your next customer will pay you or not.

“Our customers mainly need articles for their web sites and for article marketing. This means they ask for general informative that are a good, easy and entertaining read but are not too promotional because that turns readers away. However, some customers ask us to write promotional.”

Then I checked their pay rates: 

Minimum of  300 words:      $2.00 per article
Minimum of  400 words:      $3.00 per article
Minimum of  500 words:      $3.50 per article
Minimum of  750 words:      $5.00 per article
Minimum of  1,000 words:    $6.50 per article

Yow! Were my aging, old-media eyes missing a decimal place or two? 

Let’s see… when I started out as a summer intern at the Sacramento Bee in 1987, I was earning $350 a week. To make that much money through this company, I would need to write 54 thousand-word articles per week. Or 175 three-hundred-word articles per week! 

And to make as much as a somewhat experienced, Media Guild-covered newspaper reporter – say, $1,000 per week?

That would be… seventy-one 300-word articles each day, working seven days a week! 

Now I could go on a rant here, but this is so absurd that I can’t even bring myself to get upset. It’s just funny. 

I’ll save the rant for another day. 

For now, I’ll only say that the word “content” – digital lingo for everything from James Joyce and the Bible to celebrity tweets and pet photos – always makes me think of Costco-sized bags of junk food. 

Cheetos. Chips. Popcorn. Deep fried pork rinds. Doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s big, cheap and salty. 

As they say on the box, “contents may settle.” 

We all may settle.


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5 Responses to “Content may settle”

  1. Barbara Saunders Says:

    These Web sites prey on desperate and insecure new writers. I think what we old (!) writers can do to help thwart them is to recant some of the advice that used to make sense but no longer does.

    When I was 21, “writing for free to get clips” was a reasonable strategy as long as it was pursued intelligently. For example, I wrote book reviews for a local rag. The book reviews highlighted my “scholarly” side, and the clips led to a series of paid articles in a respectable publication that even sent me on all-expense-paid trips around the country.

    I’m sure some young writers follow this conventional wisdom now at a time when writing book reviews for one of twenty gazillion internet sites no longer distinguishes anyone in the eyes of a paying editor.

    I think we who are in a mentoring stage need to rethink this!

  2. Jim Richardson Says:

    Goodness, selling magazine subscriptions might pay more. Or do magazines still exist?
    I spent one summer covering the Johnson County, Kansas, Water District, writing stories for a Kansas City suburban paper. They paid me in clips. And I was launched. But I wonder if anyone writing “content” for one these outfits would ever even see a check for $6.50?

  3. Lori K Says:

    I don’t think any of this is going to settle down until advertisers figure out a way to capitalize on readers’ need for original and interesting content. Web hits don’t directly translate into sales, especially when readers’ internet usage is so scattershot. I’m just afraid that Microsoft will get there first and monopolize it.

  4. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Ilana, this is a worrisome story, beautifully told (I like your content!!). I’m wondering, who is taking on a job like this, accepting pay like this? Sometimes these days I feel that the world of print has gone totally bananas. Keep writing and I will be grateful that your sane voice is out there.

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