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?