What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession -- or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage.Share
Freelance writing fees -- beginning with the Internet but extending to newspapers and magazines -- have been spiraling downward for a couple of years and reached what appears to be bottom in 2009.
The trend has gotten scant attention outside the trade. Maybe that's because we live in a culture that holds journalists in low esteem. Or it could be because so much focus has been put on the massive cutbacks in full-time journalism jobs. An estimated 31,000 writers, editors and others have been jettisoned by newspapers in just the last two years.
Today's reality is that much of freelancing has become all too free. Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50% or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers.
The crumbling pay scales have not only hollowed out household budgets but accompanied a pervasive shift in journalism toward shorter stories, frothier subjects and an increasing emphasis on fast, rather than thorough.
"There are a lot of stories that are being missed, not just at legacy newspapers and TV stations but in the freelance world," said Nick Martin, 27, laid off a year ago by the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., and now a freelancer. "A lot of publications used to be able to pay freelancers to do really solid investigations. There's just not much of that going on anymore."
Another writer, based in Los Angeles, said she has been troubled by the lighter fare that many websites prefer to drive up traffic. A new take on any youth obsessions ("Put 'Twilight' in the headline, get paid") has much more chance of winning editorial approval than more complex or substantive material.
The rank of stories unwritten -- like most errors of omission -- is hard to conceive. Even those inside journalism can only guess at what stories they might have paid for, if they had more money.