Seriously, why won’t you?
Every day I see people on the Internet. “That article? UGH it’s PAYWALLED. I’m not going to PAY to read something! Information on the Internet should be free!” Often it’s not even about paying money. “UGH, this site has ADS. I HATE ADS. I’m going to go read something else.” “UGH this site wants me to put in my email! HOW DARE THEY. I’m going to go read something else.” “UGH this site wants the login I can’t be bothered to remember! HOW DARE THEY. I’m going to go read something else.”
Then, those same people will turn around and tell me “UGH, journalism SUCKS these days amirite? All of the science pieces are poorly written and bad! Science journalists SUCK.”
Then, maybe, they will remember they are talking to a science writer, and say, sheepishly “well…not you, of course.” (Of course).
I would like to posit that you cannot have both of these conditions – the best writing and journalism and writing and journalism that no one has to pay for – at the same time.
And yet, this never stops people, when speaking to a writer, from saying “oh, just put it on WordPress! I’d read you anywhere!” Thank you. But I’m afraid that my landlord does not accept traffic numbers, and neither does the grocery store.
And so I’d like to highlight a comment on this from my friend Brian (shared with permission):
I really appreciate all the comments and support following the news that National Geographic is going to shut down Laelaps. Honestly. But there’s something I need to clear up.
I don’t blog as a hobby. Blogging is a large part of my job. It has been for at least eight years now, and, in fact, blogs have often provided the only steady course of income I’ve been able to nail down. More than once, my blogs have been a lifeline. The jobs that keep me afloat when other work just isn’t coming in. Smithsonian, WIRED, National Geographic. Even Dinologue. They’ve all been paid gigs, and all have been essential in allowing me to become a full-time science writer.
Anyone can blog, of course. Blogs are software, and there are plenty of free blog platforms to choose from. But I am a professional science writer. This is what I do for a living. I started as a hobbyist, true, but, ten years and several books in, saying that I should just give my writing away for free on WordPress or Facebook is insane. Would you ask a baker to make you a cake for free? Would you ask an artist to draw you something for free? I love what I do, but career contentment doesn’t pay the rent.
My hackles are up because this kind of attitude even extends to professional blogs. The word “blog” is often used to get writers to work just as hard, if not harder, for less pay because “It’s just a blog.” Fuck that noise. Creators of all sorts are suffering right now because our audiences, as well as major media companies, want more content cheaper and faster. And while saying I write for this or that big brand sounds fancy, NatGeo, Nerdist, or any other media company you can name isn’t going to step in on my behalf if I come up short on the first of the month.Writing is work, and work deserves to be paid.
The line has to be drawn somewhere. I work hard to keep improving at what I do, and while likes and shares and clicks are all important, payment is really what it comes down to. If I started blogging for free you’d soon wonder where Laelaps went, the answer being “extinct” because I’d have to take a full-time nametag job to make ends meet.
Stop treating blogs like they’re just some quaint little subgenre that takes opinion but not skill. Every post I write is in defiance of that stereotype. And I don’t expect that I’m owed a living. Markets and interests change. Every month I wonder if it’s the last I’ll be able to hack it as a professional writer. But for now, while I have a passion for paleontology and there’s a hunger in the public to learn more about it, I will keep fighting to make enough of a living so I can keep telling you stories from prehistory.
Then, people appeared in the comments to say that he should start a Patreon, that they would gladly support him there. And you know…
I know you think Patreon will solve all the problems…but I’m not sure it will. Even if 5-6 people want to give $5 a month (which YAY! That’s great!) well, that’s…$30. It’s really not much, and it’s definitely not rent. It’s amazing how many people who “support” people like us vanish when money is needed.
As an example, I’m a guest host for a podcast. We get more than 10,000 downloads a month. Seems good right? After many years of working for free, the previous hosts (I’m new) asked people via survey how they would like the podcast supported so the editors and producers could, you know actually GET PAID for the hours and hours they spend putting together what I personally think is one of the best science podcasts on the Internet. They said “Patreon! We will totally support you on Patreon!” They hated ads, they hated sponsorships. Patreon all the way.
Ok, we set up a Patreon. Here it is! Impressive, no? 10,000 downloads a month, people say in a survey they WILL support us on Patreon…and we get less than $400 a month. For two editors, a producer, a social media person…the hosts? We still work for free. We are grateful as anything for ANY support, don’t get me wrong (I personally think the editor and producer and the other hosts are worth their weights in platinum). People SAY they want to support. But when push comes to shove, what people will pay for content is very thin indeed.
I wish more people thought about this, about how much they get on the Internet and read for free. Every time you bounce off a website because the login is too hard or you don’t want to pay or give up your email address and you’ll just go read for free elsewhere. Every time you install adblock. You are walking away from paying writers.
And not just writers. Every piece I produce at Science News, for example, is written by me. It’s edited by someone else, often two other people. At the best magazines and newspapers, each piece runs through fact checkers, people who go behind us to make sure that everything we’re saying is true. To make sure WE ARE NOT FEEDING YOU LIES.
All of those people? They have to eat. When you bounce off a paywall or refuse to let ads run, you are contributing to the pursuit of clicks above content (because clicks will get ad revenue, though that’s thinner and thinner these days). Already, most of those fact checkers have been cut by most institutions, “dead weight” in a field that has been bleeding money for a decade, leaving writers and editors to work harder, checking their own facts, hoping desperately they aren’t wrong, and getting publicly shamed and ripped to shreds when, inevitably, they are.
I used to think free was best. I still do, deep down, want information and education to be free for everyone, because not everyone CAN pay for information and we all need it. But most of us? Most of us can pay, even if it’s just a little. We just don’t. Because we’ve always read for free. Why start paying now?
Most people pay for books. If you saw a book lying on the street, you wouldn’t just pick it up and call it yours without a tiny pang of guilt. $10 for a book? Sure! That’s hard work, it’s something you can hold in your hands. But how much time do you spend reading that book…and how much do you spend reading articles on the Internet? Add up the dribs and drabs of your day, the commute, the minutes in your office, time waiting to pick up the kids…how much? Is it double the time you spend reading books? Triple?
Why won’t you pay for that information, that entertainment? Does it require a certain wordcount to be worth it to you? If not…why not? Why won’t you pay to read on the Internet?
I get subscriptions, to Nat Geo, Sci Am, Science News, the New York Times, the Atlantic. I pay for subscriptions and donations to my favorite podcasts. I support people on Patreon. I get those subscriptions because I realize that while I read a lot of books (and I do), what I REALLY read is news. Lots and lots of news. And the people who write that news deserve to be paid.
Maybe information SHOULD be free. If it should…how do you pay for the people who produce it?
Charity? Charity is thin on the ground. We will all share, like or sympathize with someone’s pleading post for help with medical bills on Facebook. Most of us? We won’t give even a cent. We’ll sympathize and walk away, secure in our relative anonymity. With Internet articles, that problem is increased 10 fold.
The government? Do you want the government funding all your news? What about the news and views you don’t agree with? Would you be ok with the government giving equal funding to the news angles you love…and the news angles you hate? Do you trust the government to keep funding when, say, a news outlet decides to investigate the government?
Industry funding? I think we all see the issues there. Ads? Even those awful autoplay ones? Sites know when an adblocker is in place, and advertisers pay less accordingly.
Maybe some of these will come to pass. Journalism outlets are trying new methods all the time. But in the meantime, don’t complain to me that writing on the Internet sucks, and then complain in the same breath that you don’t want to pay. Pay for good work. Pay for writing you can trust. Pay if you can. Because when you don’t, you are left with outlets that care only for your views, not for the accuracy of what they produce.