Will Write 4 FoodHeads up readers: Want to know a dirty little secret of online journalism, including website food writing? It doesn’t always pay. Maybe you haven’t given the matter much thought, but read on to find out why you should.

First, some context from recent headlines: progressive online media giant The Huffington Post, which has a lively food section and set the standard for the new no-pay media, announced that it was being bought by AOL for a cool $315 million in cash and stock. That was fabulous news for the already fabulously wealthy Arianna Huffington and her cronies, but a slap in the face for the army of unpaid wordsmiths on which the HuffPo has built a blog empire using, essentially, the slave labor of journalists who wrote posts for free in the hope it may make a difference, including to their cash flow, down the track.

Mainstream media analysts like Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times even said as much: “To grasp The Huffington Post’s business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

Elsewhere other scribes parsed out the economics at play, including Nate Silver in a column for the New York Times, but the fact remains no matter how you run the numbers this business model is just plain exploitive. So much for Huffington’s liberal values. And don’t just take my word for it, as media maven Tina Brown told New York Magazine: “My stance is that as a writer, I like to get paid. That’s just the cost of doing business. I mean, you wouldn’t expect to not be paying anyone doing any other things.”

Indeed. It’s a brutal economy, and many writers and editors have lost their jobs or taken buyouts, as the print media implodes. Filling the void: online blogs pumping out content, journalism’s low or no-pay poor cousin. (Full disclosure: KQED pays me $40 to pen posts like this one. I retain the copyright for the stories I turn here and am free to run them on my own blog or use them as pitches for higher-paying pieces in other media.) Exclusivity and copyright questions can get sticky, as Politics of the Plate writer Barry Estabrook discovered in curt correspondence he received from Conde Nast Publications, which owned Gourmet. Estabrook, who wrote for the since shuttered magazine, was admonished for reprinting articles he authored for the mag on his blog.

laptop with hand holding cash emerging from screenIt wasn’t always so. Back in the olden days, a phrase which here means just a few years ago, before the word blogging made its way into the popular lexicon, the activity was simply known as “writing for the web” and writers like myself were compensated — handsomely — for their time and talents at rates comparable to print outlets. We’re talking fees in the thousands for reported stories, usually at a rate of $1 a word or higher. (A rate, mind you, that has been pretty set in stone since I landed in this country as a novice reporter some 25 years ago. But that’s another story.) This meant that it was possible, with a lot of hard work and persistence, to make a modest living at the job.

Fast forward to today and we now have a band of self-styled “journalists” roaming the web writing off the cuff (and frequently about themselves, since this is the narcissistic age we live in). And yes, some of it is well done. But a lot of it is not. Regardless, it doesn’t do career journalists like myself any favors and it’s a disservice to readers, too.

Here’s why: Offering up content — or packaged information — is not the same thing as crafting quality journalism, which involves interviewing, analysis, and research, along with expertise, experience, and a modicum of style.

But I’ve taken to adopting the mantra “adapt or die,” and find myself — like many mid-career scribblers — struggling to find a way to make a living in a field where the landscape has changed dramatically. Although I shifted to food writing two years ago, a notoriously under-paid beat, I’ve been able to eke out an income by diversifying and carving out a niche.

The jury is out on whether this experiment will work, and there are days when I wonder if I should go fill out an application at Trader Joe’s. I know scores of writers, both freelancers and those who used to be staffers, who feel the same way.

Even folks on the inside feel our pain. “It eats at me every day,” says Corby Kummer, The Atlantic Food Channel‘s senior food editor. Kummer explains that once he learned about the business model for the site he would run, he was careful not to ask established freelance writers or new reporters to pitch because he couldn’t compensate them for their time.

Instead, he sought out people who were experts in their activities and businesses, like Ari Weinzweig and Larry Stone, or academics who write as part of their platform, such as Marion Nestle and James McWilliams, or writers with books who wanted to reach a wide audience. (The Atlantic, an intellectual magazine not known for bringing in big bucks, turned a $1.8 million profit last year, the first time in at least a decade that it hadn’t lost money, largely due to its digital presence.) In a sense, these were people who could afford to write gratis, since they already had an income source.

But once the site launched Kummer fielded numerous emails from writers — including this one — who wanted their stories to appear on the site. “I want nothing more than to be part of the solution to making web writing into the going enterprise that, for a time that seems so long ago, print journalism was,” says Kummer. “We hope revenue will follow, not just for us but for the people who create that work.”

cupped hands holding penniesAnd that’s exactly what we want to hear, since there are still rents or mortgages to pay, food to get on the table, and kids to raise in (public) school. Meanwhile, there’s a core of mid-career professionals — including many women who are the family breadwinners or head of households — who have seen their freelance writing income literally slashed by 50 to 75 percent. We’re all working harder and longer hours than we ever have for much, much less.

In certain circles I hear rumblings about a potential uprising among writers; some even talk about starting a new union to protect online workers.

That may sound far-fetched but really what we have going on here is sweatshop conditions akin to the old economy’s industrial capitalism: Poorly paid piecework and huge profits for the owners. Something has to shift.

Full disclosure: While I continue to derive decent income from food writing for print publications such as AFAR, California, and San Francisco, I also contribute regular food coverage to online sites that offer token compensation, including Bay Area Bites, which is based on the concept of citizen media, and the local start-up Berkeleyside. And, of course, nobody sends me a check for the pieces I pen on my own blog, Lettuce Eat Kale.

On rare occasion I turn an original post for non-paying Internet outlets such as the wonky website Civil Eats (where nobody, including the editors, makes a dime) and The Atlantic Food Channel (where the editors, presumably, are well compensated for their work) as part of a strategy that I trust will pay off in financial terms in the future — a phrase which here means “I hope very soon.”

Lest you think I’ve lost my sense of humor, I leave you with this video, “Adventures in Freelancing,” part of a series on YouTube by the talented Lauren Lipton that amusingly sends up the current state of affairs that resembles reality for many writers. Food for thought:

Will Write For Food, Payment Preferable 2 March,2017Sarah Henry

  • I do hear your pain. I am a fledgling food writer and I don’t think I will ever get a dime until Anthony Bourdain tries to eat me as part of some “No Reservations” episode.
    Seriously speaking, the internet is a double-edge sword. While it does increase the exposure of many wonderful new writers (and many didn’t go to journalism school!), the explosion of food writers has made us a fairly cheap lot. There are many who have been writing for a long time, and have been thoroughly vetted and loved (we know who those are), there are equally many that are willing to give the goods gratis for the free publicity. And there lies the rub – it’s great to have so many voices elevating once neglected world of food writing, but also it’s those many voices that have made freelance into the slave army of starvation.
    The other problem lies in the low profitability of newspapers and other traditional media. They can’t even afford to pay their own staff, much less a free-lancer. How is this going to be solved? I wish I knew the answer – maybe I too could get paid to write.

  • Hungry Freelancer

    Thank you for the thoughtful and clear post about the state of freelance food writing today! Another thing: the few places that do pay often take weeks, even months, to pay an invoice. What are we supposedly to be living on while a magazine or website drags its heels at throwing us even the paltry few hundred dollars it owes? Why, the freelancer air diet! It’s worked for years!

  • One important factor in what changed “writing for the web” into the nonprofitable activity it is today was the dot com bust. I was making a tidy income writing for sites before that happened. That’s when it fell apart and the new model gradually took hold. I do think it is starting to turn around. I have some online gigs which pay very nicely (none of them food writing, alas), so I am hopeful things are moving in the other direction.

    I have blogged for HuffPo as a calculated attempt to promote my books. There’s no way to know if that paid off or not of course, but part of writing books is spending unpaid time promoting them.

  • You’ve touched on so many great issues here and given those of us involved in the business of food a lot to consider. I think it is important to note that while blogging gives instant visibility, it also lends instant credibility. So while many of your peers in the blogging world haven’t been trained as journalists, they carry substantial weight with their readers nonetheless. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. There is great potential for writers to gain from the heightened emphasis on social media platforms (blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), but there is also the danger of that “bubble” bursting at any moment. We all need to keep this discussion going, as we (the writers, editors and publishers) are ultimately responsible for shaping the future of the business.


  • Harris

    Independent creative work seems to be the biggest casualty of the information age. Compound the fact that there are now so many different ways to be both entertained or informed, it becomes even more challenging for any single individual to punch through all noise of information distraction. I do believe that it’s up to those of us upstream of the frontline staff, freelancers, and contractors to develop viable business models and differentiators so we can rebuild high-value channels of either media, arts, or entertainment so those who create it can be paid a living wage. Disintermediation has been empowering to the masses. Now that we have successfully disintermediated the arts, music, and the written word, it’s up to the entrepreneur and the leaders of establishments to scurry and find a business model that people are willing to pay for. Here’s the hard part. As long as there are people who are willing to give creative services or work for free or almost free, there is no economic incentive for the masses to pay for access—even though they bear the burden of sifting through the noise. However, there is hope.

    Those of us up the food chain are attempting to curate value by concentrating quality and focus. On the media side, there are more and more people willing to pledge more dollars to public broadcasting than ever before—largely to make up for the loss in federal funding—but it underscores a channel that has created irreplaceable value.

    For myself, whose profession is in the creative services industry, I work in an agency that generates a broader value proposition to our client base, so we can pay both our staff and our contractors a reasonable prevailing wage, rather than offshore the work. Are we challenged on a regular basis on our model? Hell yes! Are we succeeding? I’d say, by and large, we’re doing well because we retain just a bit of healthy paranoia.

    The fall and rise of the new models to support the creators is up for grabs for anyone who can figure it out. I, for one, am willing to pay (and are paying) for it—and I know many who fall in the same boat as well.

  • Everything you say resonates with me. I, too, started out several decades ago, believing that if I honed my craft and worked diligently and ethically, I would be able to make a modest, honest living as a free-lance food writer and cookbook author. Fortunately, I haven’t had to, because I husband always had a steady, good-paying job (and now a decent pension). Though times were tough for writers then, they have gotten much, much worse. For the reasons you mention, I can’t really see how the next generation of writers will be able to make even a token wage. I now tell young free-lancers that they really must be able to rely on some other major source of income or they should not consider taking up this “avocation” at all. I keep hearing that content has great value today because there are so many venues that need it, but the actual content providers still seem to be paid little or nothing at all.

    The only exception seems to be the occasional high profile bloggers who, for whatever reason, manage to capture the public imagination and enough followers that advertisers will pay them well to hawk wares on their sites. But I hear that consolidation is already occurring here, too, and that eventually big players, not individuals, will control and make most of the money on these content venues. I don’t where we’re going, but it doesn’t appear to be anywhere good. Lauren’s video is funny, yet too true to be funny at all.

  • A librarian

    Your woes are mirrored in academia. Scholarly journals are big business; multinational corporations like Reed Elsevier and Wiley Blackwell are posting bigger than ever profits in these so-called tough economic times. Libraries spend thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, for a single subscription to an academic journal. How much do you suppose journals pay their authors?? That’s right, the journals get their content for free! Peer reviewers (the ones who provide the quality control and prestige to the journal) don’t get a dime either. The difference, of course, — and it’s a significant one — is that academics have university salaries, grant money, etc. Keep up the fight, Sarah, and thanks for you post,

  • Sheryl

    Well written, Sarah.I wish things were not the way they are for us writers, but like you said, we have to adapt or die (or take a job at Trader Joe’s and quit the business altogether). It is a shame that many “expect” writers to give away their talent for nothing. Hopefully there will be enough emerging PAYING markets so that we can turn and run from those. Except there ARE times when it is necessary and can be self-serving – and it is those times where we must think of it less as an investment in the bank and more as an investment in our future.

  • Sarah,
    I am one of those who has seen income fall drastically of late after a 20 plus year career. Continuing with my calling is a challenge on all fronts. I write about Celtic, folk, and country music –which may be an even more off in left field area than food writing — and I am reminded of a comment a songwriter friend made not long ago when we were speaking of this: people love great stories, but do not seem to value the work of great storytellers.

    Thoughts on how we might change that?

  • I have a simple answer for this. Professional writers should band together and refuse to write for peanuts. Stop working for Demand Studios and the content mills. Refuse to pen a word for Arianna Huffington. Then this slavery will finally end.

    I’ve been in the biz for over 20 years and refuse to write or edit for free. You simply draw a line in the sand at the lowest pay you’ll accept and stick to it. If you don’t have time to write for free, don’t do it. This even applies to my blog. While I enjoy writing for it and know that it’s a marketing tool, if I don’t have an exciting post in me, I wait until I do.

    Then I take my energy and apply it to networking and sending out queries to magazine editors and book agents. It might take a little while, but a better-paying client will come along and sign with me.

    Remember the old adage. These web sites get exactly what they pay for. Free posts are riddled with spelling, grammar and factual errors. Some of these writers never went to journalism school and plagiarize other writers. They also don’t know a thing about libel laws. Editors who hire these idiots will have nothing but headaches to deal with. You reap exactly what you sow.

  • Sarah, this is something I’ve been fighting for years down in San Diego. I can’t tell you how many offers I’ve gotten to contribute to a publication for free — promising “exposure.” After 20 years as a freelance writer–including the past four focusing on food–I’ve had plenty of exposure; I need to pay my bills. The accompanying issue I’m finding is that writers are no longer able to actually write a comprehensive story in most outlets. The new editorial mandate is to write pieces that are 100 to 200 words. Basically, we’re becoming caption writers. Even if you get paid the high fee of $1 a word (and why hasn’t that gone up in 20+ years?) it’s not enough to earn a good living. It’s crazy times out there. What’s paying my bills? Copywriting…

  • Thanks for this post, Sarah.

    As a journalism graduate and Bay Area freelance travel writer/blogger, I’m sad to say that we suffer the same lot in the travel writing industry.

    I simply can’t understand why we should write free content for “publicity” or links to our blog. That type of payment does not pay down my mortgage.

    My daughter is a freshman in college. She expressed interest in journalism and I suggested she steer clear of a career with little return on investment. These are tough financial times for freelance writers.

  • This is a great post. You express the frustration so well. I am a writer, but had to turn to making money from something else long ago. I opened an inn and found myself to be incredibly successful, but it does not give me the same satisfaction I get from writing.

    My brother is a professional writer/editor and has been all his career. He is now 61 and finds himself with more work than ever before as the newspaper lays off his fellow employees. He is eager to retire, and, perhaps write a book. But, writing books is also horribly underpaid. Celebrities get book deals, while real writers sometimes don’t. What a sad state of affairs!

    And, regarding HuffPost, I was so disappointed that Arianna Huffington sold out, took the money and ran, so to speak. She should have gotten all the names of the writers who made her site such a success and divided up the many millions she pocketed and PAID THE WRITERS. Better late than never.

    Thank you for writing this post. It really resonated!

  • Sarah,
    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I have been writing content for museums for twenty years, blogging for four years, and just entered the food arena last summer. After studying this new media landscape, I’ve determined that the only way to make a living is to provide content on multiple platforms that I produce, and generate revenue through ads. I’d love to be “pure” about it, and didn’t have advertising for the first four years, but now I’m seeing this is the only viable way to go.

    This is certainly happening everywhere… just ask any band or independent movie producer how things have changed.

  • So many good points in your piece, Sarah; thanks for bravely saying in public what so many writers only say in private. And so many thoughtful comments as well; I can add from personal experience that the dot-com boom/bust was a major player in this equation. In those heady years when it looked like everyone was going to get rich off the Internet revolution, CEOs were happy to create lavish budgets for “content creation.” Since 2003, in the new era when any content-based startup is considered an iffy proposition (and always with wary VCs wringing their hands behind the scenes), it became all too easy to say to writers, “we can’t pay you much now, but we hope to raise rates if and when we become profitable….”
    I hate to see journalism going the way of music, art and other creative professions, becoming something one does on the side funded by a “day job.” But unfortunately that is what I see happening, and happening fast.

  • Excellent post, Sarah! Totally agree. I’ve worked hard to create a brand and career that no one can take away from me, but I’ve certainly used sites like HuffPo to help me build that brand. Whatever I write has to directly or indirectly affect my bottom line, whether it’s marketing, publicizing my services or building my brand.

    My take on the HuffPo/AOL deal: http://bit.ly/f4pKj0

  • Sarah,
    Thank you for putting into words the reality that so many of us face as food writers. At least reading your story made me feel less alone as a food writer trying to make a living. There seems to be such a hunger for food info these days and yet only a few are making serious money. I have to remind myself often what a friend taught me years ago as I waited year after year to find a publisher of my cookbook: if you keep doing something you love, something good will come of it.

  • Thanks to one and all for chiming in with such thoughtful responses — keep ’em coming — and for pointing out that this phenom is happening in other creative and academic fields. A few specifics:

    @Hungry Freelancer: Sing it sister. What happened to “article paid on acceptance”? These days it’s more like “paid 60 days after the piece is in print/online but only after you bug your editor at least twice.” And, as you point out, some of the worst offenders are the outlets that offer the smallest compensation. At a time when cash flow is tight for many you suddenly need a bigger cushion than ever ’cause payments are late.

    @Jane Boursaw: Appreciated reading your personal take on the HuffPo/AOL deal and wondered if you’ve read the insightful article on AOL’s Tim Armstrong and the company’s shift to local news by Ken Auletta for The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/01/24/110124fa_fact_auletta

    @Kerry Dexter: You raise an intriguing point when you write “people love great stories, but do not seem to value the work of great storytellers.” I don’t profess to having all — or any — of the answers to such a predicament. And, as others have expressed here, when approached by an up-and-coming writer I don’t sugar coat the current state of affairs, which does no newbie, no matter how keen, talented, or idealistic, any favors.

  • Sarah, well said. Sad that it has to be said, though.

    As long as there are hobby writers (or new writers) who will provide free content for the thrill of seeing a byline, this problem will always exist.

    The other problem is that an old tried-and-true way of breaking into the freelance business has been corrupted. One used to give away a few pieces of writing in order to get clips, to show one could do the job…but in the “old days” that only lasted a few months, then the clips got you paid work. Today, publishers want to believe the pay-your-dues period should last forever.

    What web publishers prefer to ignore is that people only come to their site to READ. Without content, the site dies. But they refuse to acknowledge that writers are therefore valuable. They’d go into debt to pay their web host company, while offering writers “exposure.” Try offering exposure to the grocery store!

  • Amy

    The longer food writers continue to accept very little money for their work, the longer the exploitation will continue. I worked for outlets that paid little to nothing for a long time (including this one). I kick myself for having done it. Exposure is not a paycheck and anyone who tells you it leads to one is lying. Write one piece for a low-paying outlet if you want the exposure, that’s my new rule, any more than that is a charitable contribution (generally to a money-making venture) that I am not in a position to make.

  • I believe I could take your words, substitute ‘food writer’ with the term ‘web developer’ and make almost exactly the same argument. I’ve owned my own business for 16 years and with that a wealth of solid education and experience. But I compete with graphic designers who don’t know one line of code and even worse, the boy next door who is in a high school computer course and willing to work for gas money…I need mortgage money!

    But I’m also a food blogger and as a result have found a niche business building blogs for others. While fortunate to have some great clients, I also see a lot of the chatter, both on blogs and on Twitter and admit I find it exasperating that the very people who demand they be respected for their work in turn will often not bring those same standards when seeking professional services.

    Just yesterday someone was asking for assistance on Twitter; looking for a WordPress plugin that would format a recipe for printing. She made it quite clear that she expected that information to be made available to her for free. I get DM’s all day long asking for advice and if I indicate they need to send that request to me via email so that I can track billable hours, I typically get a ‘oh, I didn’t want to pay for anything…never mind.’

    So, while I really feel your pain, I also see that the very people who complain about lack of respect for their work show that same lack of respect to others. Seems there is a bit of a vicious cycle. I have a friend who writes for Huffington Post. I don’t get it at all. Everyone knows they don’t pay for content so any increased exposure I think has to be balanced by the fact that we know that; how accomplished is that for an author if everyone knows they provide content without compensation?

  • Tell it like it is.

    May this get a public discussion going. (Looks like it has already.)

    Thank you, Sarah and all who are chiming in.

  • This was a fascinating read to me, as a relatively new writer of online content. I’ve never been paid for my work! Frankly, I don’t expect to be… but I pick my outlets very carefully. Like you mention in the article, my content goes to no-pay-for-anyone publications like Civil Eats or a low-profit, but high-integrity publication like Natural Life Magazine. I think it’s a little more complex than online writing vs. Trader Joe’s. I make my talents profitable in other ways – as a speaker, copyeditor, writing content for websites, grant writing, and doing PR and communications work.

    I wonder if there couldn’t be an organized campaign to have unpaid writers to “take their ball and go home” with the mega-profitable companies that don’t pay? If journalists as a whole boycotted writing for HuffPo you’d be left with the CEOs and newbies — it would be a shadow of what it is right now.

  • Pingback: On the AOL-HuffPo Merger: I’m With Harlan Ellison. Pay the Writer.()

  • Let me add my thanks for this excellent post. I tried for years to earn a living as a food policy writer. I have a law degree and years of experience researching and writing about the politics of food. Believe it or not, in the early days of the Internet a few sites did pay for my work. Even Whole Foods had a paying editorial site, but that’s long gone.

    But even before the web took over, it was extremely difficult to get my writing into magazines, because what I have to say doesn’t exactly make advertisers happy. So the problem isn’t just that websites won’t pay for our work, but that at least for me, food politics is too controversial a topic for most mainstream publications.

    That’s why I am left to blog on my own site, and I admit to contributing to the problem by offering up cross-posts to sites like Civil Eats and Grist for free. I am fortunate in that I have a full-time job (in another field) so I can afford to do so. But I don’t like it and I do feel guilty about it for all my fellow writers. The situation sucks for sure.

  • I’m with you! I don’t read the Huffington Post at all because they don’t pay their writers. It is shameful on HP’s part and frankly, I sort of blame the people who write for the HP for free for driving down prices for the rest of us. I’ve even had HP used as an example as to why I shouldn’t be paid for writing for another outlet. Um, no. I have a mortgage. If other people want to spend their time doing volunteer work, so be it. I can’t afford to 99% of the time.

  • Dan

    It’s not just online media either. More and more print outlets are trying to adopt the same model – in the last year or two I’ve received more requests to write something in exchange for exposure than I probably have in the last twenty years combined – including, interestingly given the article, a pitch from someone at The Atlantic (though not from Corby Kummer).

  • Thanks for this enlightening post, Sarah.

    You might find this surprising, but I took encouragement from your words. After 20 years in business I moved into writing, because I love it and because I’m passionate about excellent communication. That was two years ago.

    I started at the bottom. 400 words for $3. Pennies from Helium.com. Then onwards and upwards, with enough to pay at least some of the bills.

    I’m sorry to hear that experienced writers have been undermined by the millions who’ll work for free, or almost free. I don’t like the business model that Huffington Post or other ‘respected sites’ have adopted. I’ve written for similar sites.

    Your hope, and mine, is that the tide will turn, that the pendulum will swing back. Having gorged themselves on cheap words for a few years, publishers will relearn the importance of well-researched and well-constructed copy. But only because their customers demand it.

    I find all this encouraging because I’m joining in at what, I hope, is the bottom of the curve. That’s no comfort to you who’ve felt the pain of falling incomes and longer hours, but it give me something to look forward to. So thank you for sharing your story.

  • Count me in with Andrew and others: There is such value in well-researched, well-done copy. And I also wanted to thank you for being so honest and forthright in sharing your views.

  • Hey, my web site, http://www.speakingforamericans.com is trying to take the place of The Huffington Post. I have convinced a number of my friends, and some strangers to write at the site. So far it has gotten a lot more readership than I had anticipated. I also do not have any advertising. But, I hope someday to have hundreds of people writing on the site for free. Then I am going to go to some deep pocket and get them to pay me a lot of money for the site. I will not share a penny with those who have helped me achieve this success. I am going to move to some paradise and sit back and relax. Then, having solved the puzzle, I will start yet another web site and do it again. How about a site where people put their profiles on line with pictures of themselves and share witty posts about their daily goings on?

  • Bravo Sarah. Well written and well said; I, too, feel you pain being in the media business. Everyone wants our video production services, but they don’t want to pay for it. We, too, have food to put on the tables and rents to pay. It is not a free world.

  • Sarah,

    Thank you for crafting this piece. Like many others who have commented here, I have been a professional writer for (mumble) decades and find the current state of the market is abysmal. I wrote on technical topics (from deep and esoteric tomes to high-photo count ‘click on stuff’ books) and that market is horrible as well.

    The other thing that gets to me is this assumption that anyone writing online is somehow ‘professional’ even when their behavior says otherwise. I’ve seen big sites where there is apparently a ban on spell-checkers, content that looks suspiciously close to lifted, stuff that smacks of payola, and outright manipulation of Amazon reviews and comments on paid columns they write elsewhere. It’s amateur hour out there!

  • connie

    Great post, Sarah! So many writers I know have seen their prospects (and paychecks) shrink

    I agree with Lisa C and others that writers shouldn’t write for places like the Huffington Post, or even Bay Citizen, where there is a huge discrepancy between what freelance writers (vs. editors and execs) are compensated. This isn’t a business model, it’s simple exploitation.

    Time to get together and organize…

    Thanks for saying it

  • Thanks for this piece, Sarah. As a fellow freelance food writer, it does make me feel a little less alone about the tough state of the market currently. I completely agree about not writing for free, if you can avoid it. My rule is once, if you need to get your foot in the door, but any more and you turn into a food writing whore. And that was so not my intention with my career!

  • DaveN.

    Very good … and very depressing. Mirrors my video biz situation. Which is pretty dire right now. Lots of jobs for “Producers”: Salary $36,000/year, MUST do research, write produce, direct, shoot, light, sound, go-fer, edit, have own equipment, FX, 2 & 3D animation preferred, photoshop, compress video, web master, serve as AV tech for company, park cars and make lunch. But, hey! – “… stay up all night with a ‘rock star’ team (no overtime pay) and eat all the pizza you want.”

    PS – when adding my email to post this comment, I caught myself writing “compost.com” instead of comcast.com … oops.

  • Jacqueline Hampton

    Great article and killer vid. I left freelancing in 2005 and got a “day job” in a corporation to give me the freedom to write and not be a hostage to this trend. Offshore writer’s sweatshops don’t help either. It will be interesting to see what happens next!

  • Jerrilyn Johnson

    Enjoyed the article and the discussion about the future of writing as a way to earn a living. I wish all media could afford (i.e. the public would pay) to hire great researchers and writers so we could read quality analysis and factual information. However, I find it hard to compare The Huffington Post to sweatshops and slave labor. You are writing for free because you love to write and you are willing to write for free. Slave labor doesn’t have a choice.
    Hopefully, a business model will emerge some day soon.!!

  • All I have to say here is Amen! I have been having these thoughts a lot this month and you do such a nice job giving voice to my frustrations.

  • Brilliant piece. Thank you thank you thank you. I’ll be sharing this with my food writing students — they need to know the reality of what’s out there and the importance of not establishing themselves as free labor from the start.

  • For folks following this thread I offer the following URL links:

    1. Socal arts writers vow to “strike” against HuffPo:


    2. Huffington bites back:


  • John

    Helium is one of the most obnoxious writer sites on the web. Not because it pays pennies, but because there have been numerous complaints on the web stating that writers have been locked writer out of the site without explanation, after respectfully discussing the rule changes on Helium’s own message board. There are numerous complaints on the web against Helium, yet foolish people keep writing there. Sadly they will only learn their lesson when they, too, are locked out simply for disputing another rule change that greatly effects their paltry Helium income.

    If a writer writes for a site, knowing their pay scale, is pennies, at least they made that decision with their eyes wide open. But there is no way to know what a writer has agreed to when signing a Helium contract because it can be changed at will. I am not sure if this is legal but they are doing it. It is my understanding that the helium contract may be non binding from a legal perspective, but that will only be known if the writers find a backbone and challenge the contract.

    It would behoove all writers to complain about this treatment because if they do not and continue to let Helium get away with this behavior without consequence, then other paying websites might jump on the Helium bandwagon, as appears to be mentioned in your article. IMO, writers need to band together to put sites like Helium out of business. One way to do that is to refuse to write for them.

  • Pingback: The Puffington Host: It’s all about bucks, clicks | eats shoots 'n leaves()

  • Alexie

    I’m a magazine editor, trying to work out what to do for my next career move. Although my job is relatively secure, my salary has gone down by 40% and I don’t believe I’ll ever get a decent media job again. What makes my job stressful is having to demand well-researched articles from journalists who, not surprisingly, don’t want to work as hard as I need, for the money that I offer. They all seem to believe that I am sitting on wads of cash, where what I pay is determined by my publisher, who doesn’t give a crap about writers. He knows that there are more people lining up to write and there are people who would write for free.

    In fact, I’ve had people offer to write for free, and I won’t take them. Ever. Under any circumstance. I don’t want to set that little ball rolling in my company.

    Food, wine and travel are particularly pernicious gigs, because so many people would give their right arm for the chance to review restaurants or travel to interesting destinations. They don’t know the work involved, or how to evaluate a winery or a restaurant, so it all seems like lots of fun.

    To add insult to injury, I was approached by a big company to write for their website. Like many journos, I will do work on the side for extra money, although it violates my contract. So I use a pseudonym – I need the cash. Anyway, this website wanted me to send samples and CVs and everything galore, which I did. At the end of the evaluation process, they invited me to come on board… to work for FREE.

    I told them where to shove their offer. I’m pretty sure that other people didn’t, however. I also took my blog down. I’ll be damned if I will work for free, for anybody.

  • Pingback: Should HuffPo Pay For Writing That’s Basically Self-Promotion?()


Sarah Henry

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers’ market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies’ Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.

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