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Mainstream Media Outsourcing Writers, But Is It A Buyer’S Market?
by Paul Wallis

The modern online writer is somewhere between an outworker and a semi-solvent office worker, trying to be a writer.

The career mix is a menagerie of people and gigs, varying from the actual buyer to the insane contractor, the online deadbeat, and the SEO-crazed neophyte who’s never heard of content quality.

So now into the mix comes mainstream media, which is cost cutting like a berserk lawnmower. Years after they should have done it, the news media and magazines are finally realizing they’re not stuck with such limited frameworks for their materials. That’s either good news or bad for writers.

The existing market has ridiculous rates of pay and conditions. People are seriously being asked, by adults who are not confined to mental institutions, to do 700 word articles for $3. Vast nitpicking sessions, taking days, can be conducted between pro writers and people who think writing is some sort of LEGO set.

Cost effective, it will never be. It takes ages to build up a decent portfolio of paying clients, and get the right relationships working to produce good quality material. Time management is everything to pro writers, and that extra second of baby talk trying to explain a phrase or sentence, or even a noun, can cause more stress than it’s worth.

Enter mainstream media, and a particularly suspicious can of worms opens. Mainstream is no charity, and it brings with it the dead weight of its own bottom line. It also brings with it a hierarchy of editorial practices and mindsets direct from the Cretaceous, post asteroid.

The fact they haven’t been quick to take up the online option is an indicator. They still haven’t fully grasped what they can get, or the much more efficient content production they can achieve. Any online writer can do more in a day or so than the conventional office writer can do in a month. By any standards, the “normal” process of write something/send it to someone/conduct a three day bitching session/rewrite and explain use of commas/ re-edit or publish isn’t particularly impressive. The money, however, might be. The choice between solvency and a wistful expression isn’t that hard for freelancers.

Big Media, for all its faults, is a good outlet, too, so the exposure factor is pretty important. As portfolio material, it’s a definite plus, and regular work will never be sneered at by any freelancer capable of breathing. The career of a freelance writer is much like the career of the guy who rides bulls at rodeos, and something resembling stability is appreciated.

But- Is it a buyer’s market? It could be, and that’s not good news for writers. The writing business as it now stands is one of the main reasons for this unwholesome possibility. If mainstream decides to use blog rates, it’s not even news, just another ripoff in progress, complete with bylines. Blogs are literally a dime a dozen, and their rates are a match.

The writing business is extremely competitive, particularly online. The contract approach, inevitably, works very much on the lowest rates. So the default setting for hiring writers isn’t “How much?” but “How Little?” To be fair, most buyers know good material when they see it, but they shouldn’t be expected to turn into charities on principle.

Outsourcing makes a lot of sense for Big Media. They will save literal billions, not just in wages, but in overheads. Their whole cost dynamic is improved. That doesn’t mean they’ll naturally be paying the same rates to outsources. They don’t have to, they don’t need to, and they can shop around.

There aren’t any neat conclusions here. The problem for writers remains getting viable rates for their work. For pros, writing is a business, not a hobby, and there are bills to pay and some even like eating occasionally. Some work is taken specifically for that reason, not because writers like doing 3% SEO content or coming up with cutesy hooks and tags. Mainstream could be worse, even if it pays a bit more for the privilege.

Top line writers can command decent fees, but most can’t. The results of the lack of any effective method of setting base rates is well reflected in the current market. Writers can and sometimes do live on thin air, but the enthusiasm for another slog around the blogs exercise is minimal. As a method of discouraging whole new generations of writers, it’s unparalleled.

Not trying to disparage those who put in a lot of real effort, the effect of that mystique of payments is obvious in content quality on the net. Doesn’t even need a description. Good writers can’t, and won’t, if they can help it, get stuck with the mainstream version of Blog Land’s infinite miserliness.

Eventually, sometime in the next thousand years, being a writer won’t be a matter of getting lucky with your clients. Mainstream, for once, could be a positive force, getting good content, and actually creating a credible information industry.

Writers will believe it when the check clears.

Published: Sep 1,2008 20:42
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