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Why and pay chicken feed

Why Web freelancing doesn't work

Rome wino with dog
ABOVE: A cute dog has more earning power than the average Web freelancer does.

by Durant Imboden, Europe for Visitors

First, a disclaimer: There may be some Web publishers who pay decent fees to freelancers, but there aren't enough to go around--and most Web freelancers will tell you that low pay (or, in some cases, no pay) is the new norm.

Why? Publisher greed may be one reason, and business models that emphasize technology over content are another. (Venture capitalists love the idea of infinitely scalable sites built around "user-created content.") Still, even if a Web publisher isn't greedy and is willing hire writers, there are good reasons why pay for Web articles--and photos--usually ranges from poor to abysmal:

Web advertising doesn't pay money up front.

On the Web, as in newspaper and magazine publishing, most profits are earned through advertising. However, there's a difference in the way advertising is priced and bought in online media vs. print media.

  • In print, the publisher charges a flat rate up front, based on anticipated circulation. A full-page display ad in the Widgetville Herald's Sunday travel section might cost $5,000, and a bill for $5,000 goes out when the ad runs, regardless of how many of the newspaper's 300,000 subscribers and newsstand buyers actually saw the ad.
  • On most Web sites, advertising is billed by the actual impression, or--in the case of Google AdSense-style text ads--by the click. If the CPM (cost per thousand impressions) is $2 and only 5,000 of the publisher's 300,000 daily, weekly, or monthly readers see the ad, the publisher earns ten bucks. Similarly, if only one percent of the 5,000 people who read your article on "Skydiving in Transylvania" article click on an AdSense ad, the publisher is paid for 50 clicks--which might be worth another ten dollars, if the publisher is lucky.

On an "evergreen" travel-planning site, articles can earn residual income week after week, month after month, year after year. But unless the publisher wants to be a banker, it just isn't practical to shell out hundreds of dolars up front for an article that's likely to earn revenue slowly.

On the Web, publishers don't have monopolies.

  • In the heyday of print publishing, travel advertisers had few media choices. If the ad agency for Croesus Cruises wanted to reach large numbers of potential cruisers in Minneapolis, it needed to run ads in the Sunday edition of the Star Tribune. The Strib had a near-monopoly on travel advertising in Minneapolis, and it could charge advertising rates that reflected its role as gatekeeper to the Minneapolis travel audience.
  • On the Web, advertisers have far more choices. Croesus Cruises can run ads on news sites and portals (to reach large general audiences), on luxury-travel sites (to reach upscale travelers), on cruising sites like (to reach cruising aficionados) or on sites like our own (to reach travelers who are interested in European cruise itineraries). No publisher has a monopoly on potential cruisers in Minneapolis--or anywhere else--and advertising rates are much more competitive than they were 10 or 20 years ago. 
  • Ad networks and automated, auction-based buying also have helped to drive online ad rates downward, especially on general-interest news sites and portals. (For infographics that show the complexity of today's digital ad landscape, see the Wall Street Journal's article about "Online Ads: Where 1,240 companies fit in.")

Many corporate publishers aren't finding it easy to make the transition from the gravy days of print publishing to the more competitive World Wide Web. Some are limping along, while others are dying--and when publishers are hurting, freelance contributors will share their pain.

Next article: "Why and pay chicken feed"

Photo: Andrea Beinart.


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