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Summary:

You might have noticed that there is an active debate around the future of freelance journalism in a digital-first world. As a digital writer & founder of a digital-only media company, I have my own twist on this tale. Have a read.

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Over past few days I have been dealing with a flu-gone-wild. It is not exactly the way I wanted to spend my days, but sometimes cold happens. The good news, if there can be any, is that I had a lot of time on my hands to watch a lot of video. In my case it is usually one of the four shows: Wallander, Sherlock Holmes (with Jeremy Brett), Poirot and House M.D. It is mostly House MD, because well, I am a House MD junkie.

As luck would have it, I was watching season one (for probably the 25th time) and came across  probably my favorite episode — DNR– where John Henry Giles, a saxophonist, falls sick. He goes to the hospital. There is a lot of drama, and somewhere along the way he tells Dr. House:

The reason normal people got wives and kids and hobbies, whatever. That’s because they don’t got that one thing that hits them that hard and that true. I got music, you got this. The thing you think about all the time, the thing that keeps you south of normal. Yeah, makes us great, makes us the best. All we miss out on is everything else.

One Thing

When I look back at my own life as a writer, I somehow related to that “one thing” theory. Sometimes I wonder if that is my curse. But mostly I think of it as my blessing. Thinking, obsessing, composing — writing it all down on crevices of my brain before putting it to paper (or computer.) There are days when I fall asleep thinking about a story, only to find the entire story appearing magically which I am asleep and getting up in the middle of the night and writing it all down on a piece of paper that always is next to my bed. It is a process that is all-consuming.

It is that “one thing” that made me read and re-read magazines, books and anything I could get my hands of in the 1980s India and learn how to write. Not just write, but think and write and write. It mattered to me more than anything — love, family, home and even my own identity.

I didn’t do it because I thought I would make some money or get paid to do it. Thirty-five years later, I still do it because I don’t really have a choice, because I don’t really know any other way. Writing, painting, creating –creators don’t do it because they want to make money. Creativity is not a profession, it is a gift. It was, is and always will be a very selfish act.

And the reason why I bring this up is because of the raging debate around writers, freelancers and how they are getting paid. I am bringing this up because of all the handwringing about the changing landscape. When I see all the arguments — whether it is Nate Thayer’s story about The Atlantic editor asking him to write for free in exchange for exposure, or The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal’s story of being a digital editor/writer or Felix Salmon’s unvarnished truth about the problems of online journalism – I empathize with each and every one of them. (My colleague Mathew Ingram has his nuanced take on the situation, and is worth reading.)

End of freelance?

Why? Because I sat on all four sides of this table. I have been an unpaid freelancer. I was a mistreated poorly paid staffer. And I was also employed by a magazine that was gorging at the dot-com orgy. And thanks to a lucky set of circumstances, I have been an employer. I have written for the paper and I have written for digital. I have been paid and I have been the payer. I have been a writer and a businessman.

What my changing roles have made me aware of is the reality of today’s media business (something we’ll be talking about at our paidContent Live conference on April 17 in New York). Back in the day when it was an all- print business, the newspapers were always looking for ways to fill pages to support more advertising. More advertising meant more broadsheets to fill and more money to spend on whatever went next to advertising.

Magazines charged a heck-of-a-lot more money than papers. The more ads they sold, the more money they doled out to the writers. If I remember, one of the Red Herring issues in 2000 put Bride magazine to shame. It was full of so many ads that I had to work on four stories for the issue — just to support the advertising. I was not privy to the freelance budget but the freelancers at Red Herring were getting paid quite handsomely. Then, advertising vanished and so did the freelance money and eventually the publications themselves.

In other words, the spending on editorial was in direct correlation with the advertising dollars. Today, the ad dollars are hard to find, both in print and on the web. Sure, more dollars are being shoveled towards online properties, but then there are more zebras around this pond. Media publications are fighting with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon for ad dollars. But, then you knew that already.

Frankly, it sucks. Not just sucks, it royally sucks. It boils my blood just thinking about the changes — but change it is and one has to live with it. And that is the biggest reality of our times.  Maybe the reality of this post-blogging, post-Twitter world where words exist for mere minutes, freelance writing isn’t an option anymore. As Felix Salmon so eloquently writes:

The lesson here, then, is not that digital journalism doesn’t pay. It does pay, and often it pays better than print journalism. Rather, the lesson is that if you want to earn money in digital journalism, you’re probably going to have to get a full-time job somewhere.

My personal view, shaped by the my own experience, is that if you are going to take freelance contributions, then pay something — just as a sign of respect (if not the true worth) of a writer’s capability.

We have used freelance writers in the past and have always paid them — not a lot because we didn’t have a lot — but then we came to the conclusion that it didn’t really make sense in today’s always-on, constantly updating media ecosystem. We tried the monthly contract model but in the end decided that we want to adopt an in-house model. Today we have a few guest writers who write because of their love of our site and they do it for free. But we are still a team of our own.

Brave old (new) world

The reasons are actually pretty simple. Our roots are in blogging and we have a certain view of the world. In order to keep a consistent voice (not editorial style), we need to have a team that has an ability to look at the world through the same lens. That identifies us to our community of readers and it also helps us stay true to who we are and what we believe in. And most importantly it allows us to build a metabolic rate that suits us and create products that make sense to us.

We know that advertising isn’t the golden gateway, so we decided to go the way of paid content via our research business. And because we don’t put all our eggs in advertising, it means that we don’t have to be beholden to the heroin of page views and pray at the temple of traffic.  Others chose to do things differently — but we have decided to go down a different path.

Tomorrow, if they take everything away from me — the company, the job, the fame, the money — and leave me with a piece of paper. I know I will be 15 again, I will still write. And I still will have a reason to live. Just like Nate, Alexis, Felix and every other writer who gets up every morning to do that one thing… just one thing.

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  1. Om, I admire you guys that can write for a leaving. I enjoy blogging because I enjoy learning the art of writing while sharing my own knowledge with others. I’ve tried the whole write for money thing and really didn’t enjoy the experience. It’s given me a whole level of respect for the guys you mentioned, most of whom I read. For the most part they churn out quality work while being able to make a living doing it.

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    1. Thanks for your support @keith

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  2. There is a line from the great comedy “Office Space” where the main character recalls career advice he received from a school counselor: “If you had a million dollars what would you do?” The question and the answer isn’t about the money, but about our inner passion, “that one thing.”

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    1. Thanks @hamza. What a delightful comment.

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  3. I love to read your posts. With this one, you have my mind and heart….
    I know what it is to write when you are asleep, and to wake up to put it down on that piece of paper by your bedside. I lived through the 1980s India, and am an IT professional. Now, I obsess over poetry and creating word-art that will be greater than the words themselves.
    I blog at paintedpenguins.wordpress.com. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

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    1. @mj thanks for your attention and glad to see you have found your one thing too. Good luck doing that.

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  4. What an excellent read tonight. Thank you for the perspective.

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    1. Thank you @marci

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  5. You are a master of your craft Om. Nicely done! My best, Andy

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    1. You are too Generous Andy. But thanks for your encouragement.

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  6. Get Well Soon!
    Once again, it feels as if the societal changes taking place are killing honorable professions and narrowing peoples’ abilities to have and keep a stable profession. I think writers and writing will never entirely disappear. Technological gizmos are just that. They won’t outlast the written word. When the electricity goes out and power sources fail, so will people’s IPad, IPhones, tablets, Nooks and every other mechanical piece of junk we’ve invented. When that happens, writers, journalists and others can break out their supply of candles and sit at the kitchen table to do what they do best! Write with pen and paper! Never give up the gift!

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  7. Alan Langford Thursday, March 7, 2013

    It’s more than just advertising. Advertising lubricated the means of production, but it’s really the ability to publish that’s the change driver here. As it turns out, lots and lots of people are capable of writing well. It was never that ability alone that defined success. In the age of the Internet, it is more That One Thing that drives those of us who write.

    I’m in my 50′s. I know a lot of people who used to earn a decent living by crafting words. Many of them can no longer do that. They fall into two schools. One rails against change and offers bitter complaints that they are unable to earn a living; the others reinvent themselves, they find new ways to do the One Thing. Generally they’re not earning as much as they were 15 years ago, but they’re getting by and seem generally happy.

    If using words to communicate is your One Thing, then all the changes we face are significant, but not central. If making big bucks from wordsmithing is your One Thing, then maybe it’s time to find new skills that offer better compensation.

    Thank you for a great post.

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  8. Anthony Domanico Thursday, March 7, 2013

    Great, insightful article. Thank you.

    I’m much the same way, really. I have a passion for writing and for technology, and it is in these ventures that I spend my free time. I’ve been a paid part-time staff blogger for a few mobile sites, both of which I’ve left because it either evolved into, or was never really, a good fit for me. I’d ideally like to write for a larger site (perhaps like GigaOm) someday which will allow me the freedom to write about essentially whatever I want, and have fun while getting paid to do something that I love.

    Right now, I don’t really get paid to write, but I still write. I started my own site, and write anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words per week. I’ve made maybe $30 on that venture thus far. Fortunately, I have a career which pays the bills, and until I can swing the full-time writing job that’s necessary to prosper in this economy, I’ll always be writing in what little spare time I have. I do it for free now because it is that one thing that if I won the lottery tomorrow and had enough money to pay the bills, writing is what I would do.

    I’ve been very fortunate along the way. I have an open freelance arrangement with Popular Mechanics, and have a few pending (paid) articles there. Even if those were unpaid, I’d do them just to get my name out there, but ultimately we’re all seeking that in, a way to get paid to do what we love, and I agree with your stance that all sites which are able should pay something, even if it’s just a little something, to recognize the work and effort that goes into putting words on a screen. Because really, even smaller sites are making some money on each story that’s published.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, Om.

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  9. “One thing” is fine as a concept, as it gives direction to a career, for example. But I think a more useful word is “interest.” It’s more flexible, potentially more pervasive, more encompassing a word for that which makes for true happiness: “interest”, plain and simple.

    It doesn’t have to be limited to “one thing.” Whatever else you’re interested in adds to your joy of living. So why not simply be interested in many things?

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    1. Because unlike the interest(s), that one thing is a something you think about everyday. You go to sleep with thinking about it. You wake up with thinking about it. It is like obsession. Like some form of craziness. Creativity is a gift, but it is also a curse.
      You can’t stop. Maybe pause, but it always returns back to you.

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  10. awesome

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