Should journalists work for peanuts? That's the debate raging on media blogs right now.
For years, tens of thousands of journalists have endured pay cuts (at best), or layoffs (at worst), as the newspaper business imploded.
At the same time, the Internet and its relentless need for content has spawned companies like Demand Media, which employs freelancers to produce web articles that will pop up quickly on Google searches.
The problem is, Demand Media pays very little - $15 or so for a 500-word article, a fraction of what even small magazines and papers would pay. Yet, as Matt Pressman writes in Vanity Fair, some 7,000 freelancers have signed up to write for Demand Media at what probably amounts to sub-minimum wage work.
This prompted columnist Tony Silber, in a piece headlined "Demand Media Can Go To Hell," to write the following of the company:
"They demean and abuse professional content creators, leveraging them to generate revenue from Google ads. They're sweatshops."
Media expert Alan Mutter, in turn, wrote that journalists should demand to be paid decently for their work, adding:
"I don't accept the argument that journalists are powerless against the market forces arrayed against them."
Some disagree. Said Paul Gillin of the cheerily titled Newspaper Death Watch site:
"Journalists who draw lines in the sand and start charging only what they think they're worth will find themselves practicing a lot less journalism."
Here's my take: As a journalism teacher I always tell my students they should get published anywhere they can. Newbies starting out in this business need clips more than money, and if that means working for peanuts (or less), so be it.
But should pros with years of experience behind them work for $15 an article?
I wouldn't. On a practical level you can make more money taking a job at your local bookstore. And in the grander scheme of things, I agree with Mutter: If writers everywhere refuse to work for nothing, eventually the publishers and content producers will be forced to pay decent wages.
When times are as tough as these I'm not going to blame anyone for writing for outfits like Demand Media. But remember this: When you sell yourself short, you sell everyone short.
Photo courtesy Getty Images