Are journalists finally being paid what they’re worth?
The rise of both the Creator Economy and content marketing is driving up demand for talented writers.
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Are journalists finally being paid what they’re worth?
Back in 2014, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan published an essay titled “Against Editors.” Its arguments stemmed from a simple premise: that every writer working in journalism quickly reaches a career ceiling, and if they want to continue moving up in both salary and stature, they need to become editors. “The number of pure writing positions that offer salaries as high as top editing positions is vanishingly small,” Nolan wrote. “Most well-paid writers are celebrities in the writing world. That is how few of them there are.”
This dynamic creates two negative outcomes. The first is that it results in good writers becoming bad editors. Because writing and editing are different skillsets, Nolan argued, it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone who’s good at one job will be good at the other. “It is impossible to count how many great writers have made the dutiful step up the career ladder to become an editor and forsaken years of great stories that could have been written had they remained writers.”
The second outcome is that the high salary and job description leads to a lot of unnecessary editing. Here’s Nolan:
When any industry fills itself with middle managers, those middle managers will quite naturally work to justify their own existence. The less their own existence is inherently necessary, the harder they will work to appear to be necessary. An editor who looks over a story and declares it to be fine is not demonstrating his own necessity. He is therefore placing himself in danger of being seen as unnecessary. Editors, therefore, tend to edit. Whether it is necessary or not.
At the time of publication, the essay triggered a fierce debate on Media Twitter. Many felt obligated to come to the defense of their bosses and described instances in which a flawed first draft was rescued by a dutiful, patient editor.
But I don’t remember anyone arguing against the essay’s original premise: that writers are severely limited in their career advancement and conditioned to expect low pay. Even in the pre-internet days when print publishers were flush with cash and boasted fat profit margins, journalism was considered to be a low-paid profession. It always struck me as odd that the very people responsible for the product output against which ads and subscriptions are sold were also considered to be the least valuable employees within the organization.
Why am I bringing up an old essay published by a since-shuttered media outlet? Because of two articles published in quick succession — one by The Information and the other by Business Insider. Both note the rise of “influencer journalists,” a cringey term used to describe writers with large online followings. Here’s how Insider describes the trend:
The market for journalistic talent is booming, with a crop of legacy and upstart national media organizations competing to hire top writers to help grow their subscription businesses.
"It's as frothy a time for journalists as I can remember," said Sean Griffey, CEO of business news publisher Industry Dive.
Indeed, there does seem to be a bunch of hiring of late, and a new crop of media startups are centered on the idea of luring on high profile writers with the promise of high salaries and an equity stake in the business. This is a marked difference from the approach of the last generation of media startups — the Buzzfeeds and Vices of the world — which mainly hired young 20-somethings who, while smart and talented, were also inexperienced and therefore cheap to employ.
Why are journalists suddenly able to demand such favorable terms? Insider points to the rise of both the Creator Economy and digital subscription models:
Many outlets are leaning into their subscription businesses and looking for authoritative writers with niche expertise to lure readers behind their paywalls. Plus, the newsletter renaissance has introduced the creator economy model to top journalists, spurring those with personal followings to re-think their self worth and the possibility of going independent through platforms like Substack — or negotiating a deal with a traditional media company.
While those are certainly contributing factors, I think there’s also a lot more demand in general that stems from outside the traditional media. We’ve entered an era when nearly every brand — both corporate and nonprofit — is ramping up its online content production.
LinkedIn sends me a daily email that lists open job positions for which it thinks I’m qualified. Today’s edition lists six jobs, only one of which is for an actual journalism institution. The remaining five all have titles like “Director of Content” and are for corporate, non-journalism entities, most of which are willing to pay far above the average reporter salary. Three of those advertise themselves as being remote.
I actually spent the better part of a decade doing this sort of work, which many refer to as “content marketing,” and while the work was rarely sexy, it produced a comfortable living. I tried to freelance for traditional media outlets during my free time, but it wasn’t always easy. I remember being flattered in 2019 when the editor at a well-known publication DMed me on Twitter and asked me to pitch him stories, but the payment he offered was so insultingly low that I couldn’t justify taking the time away from my corporate work to write for him.
Anyway, I’m on a bit of a tangent, but suffice it to say that demand for writing talent is on the rise, and it’s starting to translate into better negotiating leverage for journalists.
Of course, not everyone believes that this new dynamic will create favorable outcomes. Some worry it’ll just produce a system of inequality that drives down the salaries of younger, inexperienced journalists. The Information founder Jessica Lessen thinks it might disincentivize the kind of journalism that requires teamwork and significant time resources. Here’s how she put it:
Newsletter writers work on a relentless schedule. They need to build a dedicated readership around their work. They are measured and sometimes compensated based on certain types of engagement and loyalty, like open rates, which are usually swayed by subject lines rather than sourcing. To that end, they have to spend a lot of time promoting their work, on social media and elsewhere.
Most investigative and serious news reporting does not fit that model. Many stories begin with low-probability leads that a reporter can’t afford to pursue if you need to deliver something quickly. Other leads take months or years to follow—along with the help of a newsroom full of colleagues making phone calls along with you.
Ultimately, though, I’m in favor of any trend that transfers power away from senior vice presidents and toward the content creators that form the very foundation of any successful media business. While that power won’t always be evenly or fairly distributed, it at least allows for more upward mobility in a profession that historically confined one to middle class poverty. Most journalists still won’t get rich, but at least they can now realistically strive for the comfortable living that other parts of the creative class have long taken for granted.
Speaking of middle class incomes…
I’m trying to eek one out with this very newsletter. If you find value with the work I do here, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. The cost for an entire year is literally what you’d pay for a single night of dining at a mid-priced restaurant. Use the link below and get 10% off for your first year.
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Comcast bought NBCUniversal for $30 billion about a decade ago. It's now thought to be worth $100 billion. [Puck]
"Currently, both Apartment Therapy and Group Nine are not seeing the bulk of conversions on affiliate links happening on social platforms, but on their owned & operated websites." [Digiday]
The media holding company Future now has 250 titles in its portfolio and is extremely profitable. [Digiday] From the article: "While affiliate commerce is a growing bright spot for most digital publishers, it has been the linchpin of Future’s business; its commerce revenue increased by 36% from fiscal year 2020 to 2021, accounting for $285.6 million and 35% of total revenue"
Nieman Lab examines whether The New York Times’s acquisition of The Athletic will hurt local news publishers. [Nieman Lab] I've never understood all the hand wringing over whether The New York Times poses a "threat" to other news orgs. It makes up a tiny portion of both the subscription and advertising markets, and there are so many ways to offer differentiated coverage.
This is pretty neat: romance is one of the biggest fiction categories in the book market, and Harlequin basically put together a massive subscription bundle of its titles. I'm surprised more major publishers haven't tried something like this. [Harlequin]
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Before Substack even existed, Bernard Hickey was perfecting the art of charging newsletter readers for money.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.