One of the disturbing features of an expanding online journalism presence (coupled with a troubled industry) is a growing heap of free or cheap writing jobs.
Megan Garber highlights a particularly dramatic one in a recent CJR blog and iMediaEThics quick scan of Craigslist this week brought up several more scary offers. The problem with seeking journalists to write for pennies or less a word, or even for nothing, isn’t just that it might be contemptuous or insulting to writers. It also risks compromising journalistic ethics.
Garber’s example offers $4 for 450 words and $2 for 225 words for “Daily assignments of 5-10” on health topics. She points out that this is “$0.0089 a word” or about half a cent. Writing the full ten 450-word stories the ad solicits, a writer would make only $40 a day. To make a living, they’d have to be writing those 450 words at a breakneck pace to leave time for other income-producing projects. Health writing is both technically and ethically difficult. Writers must be extra careful to protect the health and well being of their readers. So it seems clear this kind of payment system could and probably will compromise journalistic ethics.
A scan of other offerings from Craigslist turns up a job/internship offering “byline, wide exposure on a well-read site, a link back to your site (if you have one) on the About page, for 3 posts per week consisting of 400 (or more) words each.”
Another, from a site called “Ploked” boasts “After Ploked begins to turn a profit via advertising, a pay scale for writers will be seriously considered.”
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A Los Angeles Craigslist ad offers $150 a month for four posts a week: “Three posts per week on Justmeans.com and one post per week on an external Justmeans blog.”
A “Downtown Los Angeles based culture magazine” wants writers. “No payment for first three issues. Payment then starts at $0.10/word”
If a writer can’t make a living writing at a speed and with the time for reporting necessary to create ethical journalism, they won’t create ethical journalism. If the pay is low enough, professional, competent journalists won’t even take these jobs, while untrained writers more likely to botch facts, invade privacy, and misinform may take over.
These are just examples culled from a 5-minute search of Craigslist. Many more abound, even on more professional job sites like Mediabistro. While it’s hard to fault a startup or a low-budget publication from seeking cheap work, it’s impossible to ignore that it may have ethical consequences. Of course, high pay is no guarantee of ethical or responsible journalism. But at least it creates a space where that ethical journalism is possible.