When I decided to put FTCR – my baby and the biggest success of my short 24 years – into hibernation, it was for two reasons. One, it had become too much work for me to deal with even in 60 hour weeks, and it had had a massive impact on my mental health. Two, it was criminally underpaid, and had been for four years.
When I started blogging, it was entirely unpaid. It started off as a hobby, and then I progressed to contributing for several major country blogs on a very regular basis. None of these blogs paid any of their writers; in fact, it was usually only the site owners/editors who got paid, because the sites were independent efforts and advertising revenue was slim. I have since learned first-hand just how slim that advertising revenue is, because even with FTCR bringing in 30,000 hits and 20,000 unique visitors per month, I would mostly only earn around £20 ($30) from display advertising on the page. I would often implement sponsored posts to combat those low rates, but pricing in this area varies wildly, and I have published advertising of that nature from $30, all the way up to $150 on my best pay days. That sounds like a lot, but when that is your only income and only arrives once every few months, it starts to become a problem.
Let’s back-track a little. In 2013 I graduated college and I decided to become a full-time freelance music journalist, focusing on FTCR with other freelance work on the side. I quickly found that despite much social media promotion, and marketing through the likes of Google AdWords and Facebook ads, FTCR was not going to be the main source of my income, although it would take up 90% of my time. I did everything I possibly could to grow my audience, and considering it was a one-woman show up until 2015 (when I brought on board volunteering contributing writers) I think I did exceptionally well in bringing returning readers to a site grounded in discussion and intelligent thought, rather than celebrity gossip and clickbait. I implemented Google AdSense and Yahoo/Bing ad platform Media.net; in fact I worked with just about every ad platform I could possibly find on the internet. Affiliate marketing, link sharing – you name it, I did it. It is a lot of work to run a site like that, and without going into grossly boring detail, you shall have to trust me on that one.
On the side, I was also writing feature articles for Think Country, and later moved to handle their socials; I became Rickey.org’s Country Music Writer, posting every day; I wrote and directed a partially-crowdfunded feature-length documentary that we sold digital copies of; I launched a merchandise store in partnership with October Wish that featured unique country-themed designs; I began writing for The News Hub and Examiner.com.
When I first began writing for Rickey, it was an acceptably-priced fixed stipend each month, and I was perfectly happy with it. However, the wage structure was later changed to become based on views. For 50,000 hits in a month (which was the most I ever achieved and was usually much lower), I would earn around $100. For perspective, that’s 10c per 50 views. My work would usually take a couple of hours a day, and I was also required to do all my own social media promotion. It equated to $1 an hour.
That $1 an hour is not unique to Rickey.org. On freelancer website Elance (now UpWork), I would regularly see writing jobs requesting 500 words for $1. Yes. You read that right. 500 words might take me half an hour if I was really in the zone, but it would be more likely to take me over an hour or two. When I wrote for The News Hub, articles were slotted into categories. If my article was in the top 10% of the Music category for the month it was posted, I would earn £30 ($50). If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t earn anything from it, and any hits generated by that article in future months would never reach my bank account. It was an extremely unbalanced system that could easily be corrupted by those choosing to “downvote” articles, resulting in them dropping out of the top 10%.
At Examiner.com, I earned a small percentage of the ad revenue garnered from hits on my articles, which I thought would be more fair than The News Hub. Turns out, despite thousands of hits (although still oddly low considering the site’s dominance and the accessibility of my articles), the most I ever earned in a month was $47. Again, I calculated how much I was earning per hour of my time. It was about $1. And we were expected once more to do our own social media promo.
One of Examiner.com’s partners is AXS, and last year I was invited to join their program. They are less news-orientated and more focused on editorial, event reviews and listicles than their cousin, meaning that their articles require more creative effort, more words and more time to write them. They promise to pay $3 per article, plus a small share of any revenue gained (probably similar to my Examiner.com earnings, which was usually around $20 per month in total, posting every weekday). They also run random “bonus” events, where certain types of articles are awarded base pay of $5 instead of $3, to encourage certain seasonal content. If their longer pieces might take me an hour plus, the best I could possibly do is earn $5 an hour, possibly even less.
This translates especially poorly when you think that I am British, and $5 is £3, but my £3 is of as much value to me as $3 might be to you in America. Therefore, I’m doing possibly even worse than my American counterparts, and they’re hardly doing well themselves.
My moan about my poor financial situation is less about me, though, and more about the injustices. Most writers will have been to college, studied their chosen niche (or perhaps several broad subjects) hard, will have an extensive knowledge and contact base, and will put a huge amount of creative effort into their work for probably more hours than the average American works. In return, they will work for far less than minimum wage. At a time when fast food workers are pushing for a living wage of $15, how is a skilled and creative position such as writing being paid so criminally poorly?
And that’s just the companies who pay. If I had a dime for every time I’ve been approached by a company, or read a job listing that offered qualified and experienced writers mere “exposure” in return for their work, I would be able to buy a house in this shitty economy and be able to write for that damn exposure. Even certain outlets that reach millions of eyeballs each month refuse to pay their staff. And I’m not talking about interns here, I mean writers with significant portfolios, who used to be able to command a decent wage.
The internet has enabled many folks to become writers and journalists who otherwise might have struggled, but in return it has severely cut the funding involved. Still, that’s no excuse for corporations who clearly have the money to spare.
You want to know why Townsquare Media publications like Taste of Country and The Boot post so much shit, making stories out of nothing and engaging in clickbait? It’s because their base pay is not that high. I once saw a legitimate list of prices for types and lengths of articles under Townsquare, and it wasn’t uncommon to earn $10 or $20 for an article. Now that’s far better than some of the ones I have mentioned, but when you think about how much they have to post day and night, and how many events they must attend and interviews they must conduct, it starts to look a little less great. When The Boot advertised for an Editor-In-Chief position back in 2013, they looked to pay $2000 a month. Sounds lovely, but that’s the head honcho at a site garnering millions of visitors. To put that in perspective, that’s around £1300, the same my boyfriend earns for his admin office job (he, by the way, almost single-handedly supported us during my four years of journalism). And Townsquare Media is a massive corporation with eggs in many different baskets, including radio. If they’re not even paying decent dollar, where’s the hope?
I could go on and on about injustices and list all number of examples as to why this situation is ridiculous, unfair, and extremely damaging for the journalism industry as a whole. But I will simply tell you two things – in four years of running a successful website, plus freelance work for a large number of outlets and companies, the most I ever earned in a month was £300. That’s $500. That’s less than my rent, and I live in a cheap area.
The second thing is that if every person who told me they were really sad to see FTCR go had agreed to donate $5 each month – that’s the price of a Starbucks – then I would be able to continue just fine. I still probably wouldn’t be able to pay my writers, but I at least would be okay. That’s not even all the readers of the site – if I even had 50c a month from each person who visits I’d be raking it in – just the people who said they were really sad to see the site go. So sad, in fact, that despite my constant requests for people to donate, even tiny amounts, they couldn’t stretch to sharing the price of a coffee.
Now I know running the site is my choice, so it was my choice to stop, but if you really enjoy reading something and you know the people behind those articles are struggling, wouldn’t you offer to help? $5 is not a lot of money. Hell – I’m broke, and I would be happy to give that to someone else. It’s half the price of a Spotify membership. You’re so against people consuming music for free, but you’re not against reading articles for free? If you’ve ever complained about a paywall or sites that ask readers to donate, YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.
As a result, For The Country Record shut down. As a result, Country California, a site far greater and far more well-loved than FTCR, also shut down. Engine 145 shut down when its primary writer Julie Thanki got snapped up by The Tennessean. Sure, the opportunity is great, but I know she was also a freelance writer, and the pay from the Tennessean would far eclipse that of her passion project. It would have been a major component of her decision.
So you might complain about clickbait, poorly researched articles and poorly written pieces, but what are you actually doing about it? If you’re not willing to pay for your online content, then what the fuck do you expect? Do you expect these precious, talented individuals to just live on the street, stealing food and dropping by internet cafes to upload their latest think-pieces? You would pay for anything else, but you don’t want to pay for the articles and stories you read. Why do you think writers are worth less than any other creator?
If you read this, and go on with your day without changing anything, then fine. So be it. If you share it on social media, then well done! That spreads the truth and the message a little bit further. If you choose to donate to your favourite site (I’m not talking about FTCR here, trust me), then that’s awesome, I’m really glad you did that. The more people learn about this crazy situation, and the more people share it and start to take action by voting with their dollars, the better it’ll get. If you don’t like the quality of the writing on offer, pay for better. If you do like what you’re reading, but you just want to reward the people who provide it, pay for it. Pretty much everyone can spare the price of a coffee.
At the end of the day, all employed individuals deserve, at the very least, minimum wage. In my view, all creators deserve a lot more, but for now, I’ll settle for striving for lifting us up to minimum wage. If you believe in that too, then please share this post. And if any writers would like to share their experiences, I do encourage them to write responses to this post and email me the link at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can see it, and I can share it myself. Let’s all start talking.