This Is Why Writing For Free Is Bad For Everybody (And Creates Headlines Like This)

 

Back in the day, right around 1997 or so, I was a struggling musician.

This is, of course, a lie. I was driving a brand-new Infiniti G20, going to school on a full scholarship, and dating a girl whom my brother liked to call a “better looking Julia Roberts.” But, I was struggling with finding ways to advance my musical career. I was playing a lot of blues with a young Sean Carney, a prodigiously talented guitarist who would go on to win the Albert King award some years later (you can hear what we sounded at that point by clicking the above Spotify link), but it was tough to find jazz gigs. Columbus, Ohio had a limited number of jazz clubs—Dick’s Den, The Dell—and they only had music Friday and Saturday nights. Those slots were occupied by the jazz royalty of the town, mostly music faculty members at Ohio State and Capital University.

So, in a bit of desperation, I did something that I thought was a pretty smart move. I went to the proprietor of The Dell and proposed that I would play for free once a month. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m going to pretend like you never came here. And, for your sake, you had better hope that none of your teachers who play here find out that you were here, either.” Turns out that was called “undercutting,” and it was a definite no-no in the professional music world. In fact, that sort of practice is what led to the formation of musicians’ unions in the bigger cities and symphony orchestras of America.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m no longer peddling free music. Instead, I send pitches to the editors of automotive publications. However, now I’m one of the guys who’ve earned the right to be paid for their craft, like my teachers were before me. The difference is that when the young bucks try to undercut me or my esteemed journalist colleagues, there are no shortage of editors who are willing to let them do it, for as little as $25 a post—or, in many cases, for no money at all.

This is bad for everybody.

Let’s be honest here, people. There’s no mystery surrounding the formula for internet clicks—you write a “This Is Why” or “Will Make You” headline, you keep the content less than 800 words, and you ask a question at the end. You could hire a team of monkeys with typewriters to do it, and they wouldn’t even need to eventually write Hamlet—they could just write “This Video Of The Dodge Demon Will Make You Cum In Your Shorts” and it would still get 25k Facebook shares. That’s why The Drive can get away with hiring people who are willing to write three articles a day for $25 each . The content doesn’t have to be any good at all. It just has to exist on a site that has paid enough money for SEO/SEM and social engagement.

The money, however, is the least of the prizes available to somebody hoping to get started as a writer. The reality is that the editors of these sites can offer something much better to your average kid on the street than a $25 paycheck—they can offer access. There is literally no shortage of people on the internet who would much rather have a press junket to Palm Springs than a $400 paycheck. It costs the editor of the magazine/website exactly zero dollars to send a writer on a press trip, and the writer gets to have a fancy luggage tag with his name on it, maybe a cool hat or t-shirt, and the opportunity to drive a new car that nobody’s seen yet. Each year that I’ve gone to the Jalopnik karting event at NAIAS, I’ve had at least three people ask me if I could recommend them for writing gigs, with the caveat of “I don’t even need to get paid, man.”

As Jack has said, very few of the people who ask me for advice on how to become an autowriter really want to write—rather, they want to go on press trips and get free cars delivered to their driveways. Once, a former friend/colleague asked me if he should accept a position as Editor with a well-known online publication that has a bit of a reputation for being anti-automaker. I asked him, “Why wouldn’t you take it?” His reply? “I don’t want to stop being invited to press events.”

And who could blame him? It’s these events that allow somebody who makes little to no money at all at his craft to feel like a millionaire for two to three nights at a time. And while you might not be getting that Dreamliner ticket to Dubai if you’re contributing for free to “heelandtoe.com” (I made that one up), even the regional press events give you a free night at a plush hotel complete with complimentary alcohol and a bit of attention from a pretty girl in a company polo.

In addition to the jackals at The Drive, who are at least offering twenty-five bucks, there are several websites who don’t offer any compensation at all to writers. In fact, I had a very drunken conversation with two writers from such a website at the Kia party at NYIAS. I admonished them for offering to write for free, and I admonished the EIC of the website for allowing them to write for free.

Why? Because the internet is so damn data driven that there’s virtually no reason to pay for quality anymore. I once wrote about 2500 words for an outlet that both the EIC and I thought were very, very good. I was incredibly proud of my work. Problem is, nobody read it. It wasn’t clickbait. It wasn’t a “rocks or sucks” viewpoint. It was just a well-written story.

The outlet posted another article that posted that same day that was nothing more than a link to a YouTube video. It did approximately five times as well as my piece. Perhaps not surprisingly, my next pitch for that outlet was received with a “that sort of thing doesn’t do well here.” And if I were that editor, and I could pay a kid nothing or next-to-nothing to post links to videos or rewrite press releases, or I could pay me the going rate for an article that was well-written but didn’t draw as many clicks, I know which one I’d pick every time. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.

Gone are the days when people would type in the name of their favorite website and go there just to read whatever that outlet posted that day. In those days, you could write a long-form piece, and people would actually read it. Now? It’s all about what draws the most links from Facebook. Think about it—the last five times you clicked a link from social media, did you even know the name of the site you were visiting? Did you ever return to it organically?

So when quality no longer matters, it becomes increasingly difficult for outlets to justify paying for it, especially when there is an army of people willing to do it for free. If I were smart, I’d start my own outlet tomorrow and have a legion of free writers who were willing to “be in charge of finding your own stories and content” and “be in charge of editing yourself, which basically just means running things through spell check.” I’d hire somebody to optimize my site for Google, turn on the AdChoices network, and watch the cash roll in. Oops, I may have just accidentally revealed The Drive’s business plan to the world.

I’m glad that there are still outlets that are committed to actual journalism, quality writing, and paying an honest wage for a day’s work. And I’m glad that I’ve proven that I don’t need to have a press car (I’ve had exactly one in my entire life) or have an invite to a press event (I’ve attended less than a dozen) to create original, quality content. But I can clearly see the end of that rope, and it’s tied to somebody who’s willing to rewrite a press kit for free being read by somebody who wants nothing more than a minute and a half of entertainment in return for his click.

Why should you care? Certainly not for my sake. No, you should care because this behavior is driving the quality of your digestible content through the floor. We’ve seen what paying $25 a post gets you. At the end of the day, you have to decide—do you want Tim Esterdahl? Or do you want Sam Smith?

37 Replies to “This Is Why Writing For Free Is Bad For Everybody (And Creates Headlines Like This)”

  1. BIGTRUCKSERIESREVIEW

    #1. I refuse to do anything for *Free*

    #2. The inter trail I leave behind is free advertising for my channel.

    I review stuff, write articles, make videos for free on my cellphone and get paid monthly by Adsense.

    Probably the most efficient and profitable business model ever in the history of man.

    Reply
  2. silentsod

    As a rule I don’t click on links in social media; I just visit the same few sites over and over.

    I also don’t care for Reddit which makes me an anachronism, indeed.

    Reply
  3. Derek Kreindler

    I was proud of the policy Jack and I set up. Nobody writes for free. Often times, all we could afford was $25, since we had a shoe string budget. But I refuse to give into the HuffPo campaign to set the market clearing price of writing to $0.

    Reply
  4. Eric H

    1. I don’t use social media.
    2. How much does Jack pay you to write here?
    3. I’ll let myself out.

    Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      I don’t pay myself to write on my own blog, if that’s what you’re inferring. This is our blog, not his.

      Reply
      • Bryce Himelrick

        The other difference is while most online car blogs (The Drive) have ads and do pull in money, this blog does not feature ads and is not engineered for maximum clicks like most. There are many middle managers who dabble in auto writing (more like automotive copy and paste, but I will let that slide) to get press trips and free cars, not because they want to tell the stories of cars and the people who drive them.

        Reply
  5. jz78817

    Or they claim you’re working for the “exposure.”

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/exposure

    they want to go on press trips and get free cars delivered to their driveways.

    Bark, nothing has dimmed my view of automotive “journalists” more than seeing how many of them act at press functions. I think I’ve mentioned it in the past… a few jobs ago, my company (bigger name T1 supplier) would have an exhibit room in the upstairs concourse at NAIAS. This was primarily intended for VIPs and bigwigs from our customers; we’d have some demo properties out on the floor, a private area for some “forward looking” demos (to customer VIPs only,) and a lounge. Since most of the bigwigs were there on the press days, my company thought we should keep the lounge open instead of invite-only, ‘cos “we might get some press coverage too.” Yeah, right. For the three days you’d see the same people go in there and stuff themselves for lunch, then come back and do it again for dinner. Not one of them gave so much as a sideways glance at what we were showing.

    Reply
  6. VoGo

    While I love cars and reading about them, I’ve come to realize, finally, that the vast majority of car reviews are garbage. A re-writing of the press release – which add zero value; I’d rather read the press release itself – with some subjective takes on what a hand prepared, heavily optioned, newly serviced vehicle on a course determined in advance by the manufacturer to highlight its best qualities. Not helpful to the buyer. Not interesting to the reader.

    What I do value:
    – reliability ratings, although a seasoned consumer knows these have their limits
    – comparison tests. At least with these, you get a sense for the relative value of the vehicles, although, again, they were chosen by the manufacturers, and you are at the mercy of the writer’s subjectivity and their values in terms of what is important.

    Both of these require some money to create. It will be interesting to see if people will actually start paying for this content, like back before the internet when car enthusiasts subscribed to C/D and R&T, and read Motor Trend at the dentist’s.

    Reply
    • jz78817

      honestly I think most comparison tests are bunk as well. Especially those of mainstream cars. a lot of comparos rate cars based on their performance and handling, which are pretty far down on the list of the average buyers’ priorities.

      Reply
  7. Tmkreutzer

    I no longer write for free, hence I no longer write.

    The truth is writing was just a hobby and the extra money I made let me buy a few toys. I wasn’t paid at first but EIC Jack took care of that and I’ve always appreciated that. Then my situation changed and I had to stop writing for a while. When I tried to go back to it, i found there was no longer a place for me. I tried to work my way back in but ultimately recognized that it was time to just move on. A “don’t go away mad, just go away” situation.

    Time marches on, I guess, and even if I had a forum and the people’s attention don’t feel like I have much to say at the moment anyhow…

    Reply
    • Will

      Sorry to hear that Thom. I always enjoyed your stories on TTAC and hoped to see you back there writing again when the time was right for you. An update on the status of your minivan in Japan would be fun to read. A guest post on here perhaps? (Though that kind of goes against your not writing for free part…)

      Reply
      • tmkreutzer

        Thanks for the kind words, Will. The van is doing well enough, no mechanical issues and the only mark on it is the ding I put in the door when I opened it into one of those little bollard poles that seem to be so popular here a couple of weekends ago. I took it to Kyoto last August, about a 5 hour drive each way, and will do so again next month.

        If all goes well, it should be on the US bound ship somewhere around this time next year.

        Reply
      • Bark M Post author

        I think writing for free on a site that doesn’t make any money is a little different. I know that some people aren’t exactly sure how this whole internet thing works, but Riverside Green generates exactly zero dollars…for life…for life.

        Reply
  8. phr3dly

    98% of the sites I visit, I get to through my RSS feeds on feedly. The other 2% are social networks, by which I mean emailed to me by one of a handful of people whom I trust. If I read the content and like it, I’ll add the site to my RSS feeds, and read it regularly. If I find myself frequently disappointed by the content I read on an RSS feed (and clickbait headlines quickly earn my ire), or the SNR is just just too low, that site gets removed.

    Maybe I’m the exception these days though. While I do have a facebook account (Tinder required it…), I seldom use it and even more seldom click on anything from it.

    Of the sites I visit that do ‘real’ journalism, I tend to send them $25 every couple bucks to assuage my guilt at consuming free content..

    Reply
  9. Gridlink

    I still have The Drive in my RSS feed because there’s usually a link to one or two interesting videos, but I continue to question whether they’re even worth it. Between the overly long military related articles (they also seem very out of place on a automotive focused website), rewritten/rehashed press releases, and Buzzfeed style articles I don’t think it’ll remain in my RSS feed for much longer.

    Reply
    • Paul in Las Vegas

      Out of place articles on an automotive website basically describes Jalopnik to a T these days.

      Reply
  10. dkleinh

    this sort of scratches at the whole interns/volunteers thing I see going on in many areas. The interns are supposed to be learning and not producing, but I’m not so sure it is one-way. I think the interns are very often interested more in making connections.

    Reply
  11. Paul

    Bark, I am disappointed that you and TTAC had a parting. The site is worse off. But as a man of some age, I think while passion is how you do good at something, however passion needs to be moderated with ability not to offend. I think something that you should consider in your next writing/commenting gig (and I am sure you’ll get it), is that mix. Sometimes its a age thing, sometimes its an experience thing.

    I really think writing is not going anywhere. There are times and places that reading is better than watching a video. On the latest edition of R&T I really enjoyed reading about the Baby Driver director and his story. Then, there are times and places video add to the experience. I like this site. I like TTAC. I like C&D. But I also enjoy some sites like Fast Lane Cars and Trucks. They don’t take themselves too seriously. But are informative. I know they are careful not to offend their sponsors, but they are also not offensive about it. I also like sites like Smoking tire. Fun and unusual.

    You have a gift. As does your brother for writing. No doubt about it. As Jack seems to tone it down for R&T, you may also need to do for some mainstream sites. You can still bring the edge, without offending. Hope this doesn’t come across as condescending.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      Actually I just write what I normally would and some poor bastard has to take all the mean parts out.

      Reply
  12. Nailbomb

    Exploiting auto “writers” is amateur hour. As are auto magazines, blogs and websites.

    Want billions in revenue? Want 30+% profit? Want the top people in their fields submitting stuff gratis?
    Check out Elsevier

    Reply
    • photog02

      I’d guess about 80% of my published work is in Elsevier journals. However, when the best journals in your field are published by them, what other choice do you have?

      Reply
  13. Frank Williams

    This is why I left TTAC when I did. Not only were they trying to drastically cut my pay as the full-time ME, but they didn’t want to pay the free-lancers anything for their contributions. I refused to be part of an organization that treated their writers like slave labor.

    Reply
  14. Ryan

    I’m catching up on some things that I’ve missed over the past few weeks (so excuse this evening’s comment spam), and this one really spoke to me. I recently had a conversation with someone who fits this description. We were having a discussion about his next car purchase, and the main justification was something along the lines of “Man, I could get quite a bit of notoriety/sponsorship for this build.” If your main motivation for being in the car hobby is making a name for yourself and/or getting free parts, you’re in this for the wrong reasons.

    Reply
  15. William Long

    So I’m fairly new to this blog (found it through Jack’s exemplary, quality R&T and TTAC writing, I might add) and have really enjoyed all of the content I’ve read here. I live sandwiched between two particularly progressive areas of the country (San Francisco and Silicon Valley), and though there are aspects of the culture I do admire around here, I find your guys’ viewpoints and thoughts incredibly refreshing and I enjoy reading the lively, but (mostly) mature debate in the comments. This post, though, along with Jack’s on writing for the sake of “the story” really hit me hard personally, so I thought I’d pitch in my own two cents this time.
    I’ve loved cars for as long as I can remember. I guess it was in my blood all along, given my grandpa had two Porsche 356s (though I didn’t learn this until quite recently). I still fondly remember the days when I was a toddler when our neighbor across the street let me sit in the driver’s seat of his 996 911 (yeah, it might be the unloved stepchild of 911s now, but little did I know it would become that then) and I wondered why there were 3 pedals and a funny looking shifter in it. As I grew up, my automotive passions became kind of on and off and I never really was all that committed to it…that is, until I found one of Alex Dykes’ videos and he brought out the detail freak within me. To this day, I really admire how pragmatic and complete his content is and how he admires qualities like value over the recognition of a brand, regardless of how many people might see things vice versa in that scenario. From then on, I started exposing myself to some other automotive journalism, particularly the big name magazines (MT, C&D, R&T, Automobile), which, in my opinion, presented content just as quality as Alex’s, just with more focus on the emotional, intangible qualities of cars, particularly in regards to the driving experience. I’ve really come to appreciate the balance that has formed by being open to both styles of content, which got me thinking…this automotive journalism stuff might make for a cool, personally rewarding career.
    This renewed automotive enthusiasm, however, has never been something I’ve enjoyed talking with anyone about, and to this day, I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly why. I’ve just always been insecure about it for reasons I can’t pin down. I guess a big part of it is the fact that many of the stories in the magazines so passionately describe the experience of being connected to a car through the driving experience and make me wonder what that must be like. Yet whenever I bring up these stories or general developments in the auto industry with my dad, who’s an investment banker in the health care field in Silicon Valley, he’s always quick to respond with something along the lines of “most people want X” or “the vast majority of people don’t care about Y” or “car shoppers are driven off by the negative image of brand Z.” Admittedly, I may have taken this a little bit too personally (okay, maybe way too personally), but it can still be a bit disheartening to hear things like that over and over again. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m a millennial who actually dreams of being able to own their own car in the future…there’s a concept. Maybe it’s the fact that I seem to be so busy pining for a past in the auto industry where individuality is valued and companies proudly make self-evidently unique development decisions and cars, in order to be emotionally rewarding when driven, require commitment and deliberate finesse of their drivers, all things that Jack has described in Avoidable Contact. It’s probably some sort of combination of all these things. I’ve considered the idea of just forgetting that I ever liked cars to begin with, as pathetic as that sounds, given the inevitable autonomous, electric future of the industry, but Sam Smith’s column in the 70th anniversary issue of R&T made me think twice about that. I’m holding on to my automotive passion as best I can, but only by a thread. As of now, I’m just hoping there will be some moment in my life soon that will make me say, once and for all, that cars are my passion and never look back and that I find the security and confidence to be able to pursue that moment.
    Having just graduated from high school and with college right around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about career paths recently. I’m going into college as a mechanical engineering major and my dream job would be engineering for Mazda. However, if they, as a company, truly believe that Driving Matters (yes, I get that that may just be a slogan, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did believe it and hold it high given how driver-focused and well-done their products are) and don’t jump on the autonomy bandwagon, I’d give them (or any company that sells on performance and driver involvement alone, for that matter) 15 years max until they close their doors. I would be 33 then, in the heart of my adult life. I would never get into the electric autonomy game as a career simply because regardless of how much healthier it may be for our planet and how much safer it may make our roads, I would never spend decades of my life in a career that does not excite me or make me happy. Being able to work in the automotive industry itself for a company that values driving involvement first and foremost just seems like wishful thinking at this point.
    As I said earlier, I’ve also thought about financially supporting myself through automotive journalism, conveying my enthusiasm through writing and sharing my own story in the hopes that it may inspire other people like me. But if what Bark has written here has any truth to it (which I’m sure it does), that will probably be quite a difficult proposition. Will it be worth it, though? I know that that is the question that truly matters and I’m willing to keep an open mind to an affirmative answer.
    If anyone has read this whole comment, thank you. Just typing this all out and sharing it on a public forum is honestly kind of big and significant step for me personally. It truly means the world to me. I would love to hear what anyone has to say about any of this.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      Thank you for writing this and sharing it with our readers. My advice: follow your dream but keep a day job.

      Reply
      • William Long

        Wow, that didn’t take long! THANK YOU for the response! You just made my day! I will definitely remember that.

        Reply
    • Bark M Post author

      I agree with my brother. Not too long ago, I sat around the proverbial campfire at a racetrack with several friends who write about cars. None of them recommended it as a career. All of them think I’m doing it the “right way.” My job still involves cars, but it’s on the advertising side.

      Reply
  16. Aoletsgo

    Mark Helprin wrote a short book similar to this topic “Digital Barbarism”. An excerpt below reminds me of Jack’s style:
    It [psychotheft or digital barbarism] produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world won’t end; women who have lizard tattoos winding from the naval to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for 8 hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age that speak in North American chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question mark at the end?

    Reply

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