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Mar 25 2014

Where does that money go if they’re not paying for writers?

Oh looky here, what do you know…From an article titled Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free by Yasmin Nair.

I want to return to a thread I introduced in that earlier piece with much greater force: That those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.  This would include not just academics with tenured or tenure-track positions, but adjuncts, professionals (like paid activists and organisers), as well as, really, just about anyone who writes for places like GuernicaThe Huffington Post,open Democracy.net, and The Rumpus (and this is a very, very tiny list).*

Guernica and openDemocracy are both 501(c)3s. Where, in the case of the former, does that money go if they’re not paying for writers like Tariq Ali, and guest editors like Clair Messud? Their labour is provided gratis, as a symbol of their entrance into the upper echelons of the writing world.

OpenDemocracy’s funders include The Open Society, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Tides Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Apparently, not one of these highly reputable funders thinks it’s a problem that a publishing organisation asks for money but can’t be bothered to even pay the writers without whom it simply would not exist.  

Ah. Oh.

Well, fortunately, it turns out I’m not a scab, because I refused to treat the article I wrote at their request for free as a “draft” and their “editorial suggestions” as commands I had to obey despite not working for them and not being, you know, paid. I gather that means they won’t be publishing it, although I don’t know for sure, because they didn’t reply to my reply.

Which itself is interesting. Not only do they not pay despite all those funders, they’re fucking rude besides. I suspect that the fact that they don’t pay causes them (ah this is so obvious) to view writers with contempt. “We don’t even pay you, you’re not even worth being paid, so why the hell should we be minimally polite? Why should we answer your outrageous email in which you dare to refuse to do any more work for zero dollars? Who do you think you are? Out of our sight, peasant.”

I might as well share my reply with you.

No, sorry. Way too much additional work for an unpaid article. In any case I’m not interested in writing to someone else’s recipe; I don’t see the point. I tried to make it approximately what you asked for, but if you want something that specific and tailored…I don’t see why you don’t just use an algorithm. I don’t see the point of soliciting writers because you like their work and then trying to make them follow your particular recipe.

If I’d known about the funding from The Open Society, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Tides Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and apparently others, I would have been much much ruder.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    screechymonkey

    Where does the money go, indeed.

    According to their own budget document linked in the post, they spend $231,669 on “Management and Staff.” That’s out of a total of $347,929 of expenses, or almost exactly 2/3rds of their expenses.

    I’d be interested to hear from people in the publishing industry regarding what is the average percentage of budget spent on editorial and managerial staff. (That seems the most appropriate comparison, given that OD describes itself as a “global online magazine” — it’s not like they’re a charity that incidentally runs a website.) For OD, it’s apparently 2/3 management salaries, 0 for content providers, and 1/3 for everything else.

  2. 2
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    The excessive editorial input points to the other problem with unpaid writing: the people who can afford to do that sort of thing tend to all write from very similar privileged perspectives. That’s the preferred perspective for most things I’ve seen in print, to the detriment of those sources AND me as a reader.

  3. 3
    Kevin Kehres

    @1: That’s about right. 2/3rds of the operating budget being staff costs in a communications business with no “hard” output (ie, a dead-tree newspaper or magazine).

    Accounting-wise, some of the other 1/3 would be where payment for non-staff writers would go. If indeed they paid non-staff writers. Also, rent, utilities, server costs, etc.

    FWIW: That’s a really, really small budget. Shoestring on a shoestring. How many are on staff? Probably no more than a half-dozen. If it’s that many, that would be less than $40,000 a year in salary and benefits per person (health insurance, etc.). It doesn’t seem likely that someone is getting filthy rich off that particular enterprise. Unless it’s a one-person shop with everyone else being volunteer.

  4. 4
    rnilsson

    Unless it’s a one-person shop with everyone else being volunteer.

    For the benefit of Mr Kite
    we will do a show tonite
    on trampolin.

    No further comment, Your Honor.

  5. 5
    Kevin Kehres

    If you click on the link Ophelia provides above, it looks like OD has a staff of 16, including 10 editors / assistant editors. 16 people on a staffing budget of $231K? Most of those people have to be working on a part-time or consulting basis. That’s way not enough budget for 16 FTEs.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Freelancing pays my bills, so I’m sure their people are glad to have the work. And when it stops working for those people, they’ll move on and someone else will fill the slot. It’s the way the freelancing business works — although a steady gig like that is a nice plum.

    Like I said, no one’s getting filthy rich off that particular enterprise. You might not like the business model or how it treats its contributors (which they acknowledge work either for free or below-market rates), but let’s not accuse them of something nefarious.

    It’s a small-potatoes web site with large aspirations being run on a small budget.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Well if my experience is at all typical, they treat their contributors astonishingly badly. They solicited a free piece on the basis that they love my writing, then they wanted me to do a very detailed time-consuming re-write to their detailed demanding specifications, still for no money. Then when I said no and why I was saying no, they blew me off completely. They’re both demanding and rude, to people whom they don’t pay. “Nefarious” isn’t exactly the right word for that, but so what?

    They do have some money. They could pay their contributors along with their editors.

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