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The confessions of a penny-a-word web monkey

Quit your whining about Buzzfeed
Quit your whining about Buzzfeed
Photo by Mark Davis

One of the most talked-about pieces in journalism circles this week was a NY Times piece by David Carr entitled "Risks Abound as Reporters Play in Traffic." The article moaned about the current state of journalism and the dangers of being a journalist in an online world where everyone pays attention to the amount of clicks each new story gets from readers. Well, along the way there was also the snarky passive-aggressive writing that usually accompanies these type of stories:

If I were being paid by the click for this column, I might have begun it this way: Will an oppressive emphasis on “click bait” mean that the news ends up imprisoned by transgendered models posing in disgraceful listicles accompanied by kidnapped nude kittens?

I'll make the argument that writing a piece that calls out a few "clicky" web sites and argues "real" journalism may be in danger is the journalism industry's equivalent of the "Which Golden Girl Character Are You?" quiz.

But I digress.

A couple of things always strike me when I read these pieces. The first is that I've worked in online journalism since the mid-1990s and every place I've worked has tracked pageviews and other metrics. Without a physical product, it's the only sane way to know if anyone is actually reading your work. Yes, an obsession with numbers can lead you down the spinning hellhole of 80-image photo galleries and pages comprised entirely of links to other stories that you find when you put a term like "Zooey Deschanel sex tape" into a search engine.

But metrics are not inherently a bad thing. And while only the most hapless manager would suggest assigning work strictly based on traffic numbers, it's certainly one way to determine what matters to readers.

But the second thing that occurs to me with these pieces is that this "oh, they're tracking my pageviews" whining is really a #BigMedia problem. There are a lot worse fates for a journalist than writing a few listicles to make up for that four-part expose on curling you devoted 20 hours to last December.

I've spent most of my life as a working journalist. My first paycheck came as the result of me cranking out a few hundred words on a typewriter borrowed from my high school. Even when I was off doing other things (include a decade or so as a stand-up and a couple of years as a syndicated talk show host), I always spent part of my day as a journalist. If I truly have a calling, it's journalism and I suspect when I die, they'll find my pasty white body sprawled between my laptop and a warm can of Diet Rite.

But a few years ago, that calling seemed more like a cruel joke from the Gods. If there is such a thing as karma, then apparently I had slept with someone's sister in a previous life. Because my life slowly began to collapse. I was laid off three times in two years, I blew through what little savings I had and my world got smaller each day until I was just about as close to homeless as you can get without actually living in your car.

Searching for a job in journalism when you're closer to retirement age than your barhopping glory years is not an inspirational experience. I kept looking for work, first full-time, then contract jobs and eventually whatever meager money I could wrestle from my keyboard.

When you're living that close to the edge, when you have serious worries about where that next meal is coming from, you'll do anything to keep your head above water. Think it's soul-sucking trying to craft the perfect cat photo gallery? That's nothing close to what it's like to look at your family and wonder how they could still support a guy who can't support them.

That's when I started writing crap. Oh, I can sugarcoat it and say that I was "creating content," but the truth is that I was digging tunnels in the lower bowels of journalism. I became a low paid gun for hire.

One of the more depressing aspects of the online world is that there are thousands of web sites that exist only as vehicles for clueless advertisers. They need original writing, but because they're working on paper-thin margins, they don't want to pay anything for the material. So scores of web sites like Textbroker and Freelancer.com have sprung up to act as the brokers connecting cheapskate web site owners with a seemingly endless pool of hungry, often barely competent writers.

Each project pays a little different, but the high range is $3-$5 per 500 words. It's common to see projects listed on Freelancer.com that pay as little as $1 for 500 words. The clients don't have high expectations, and their main requirement is that the piece be at least vaguely coherent. The writing also needs to be original and has to pass an examination from the popular plagiarism software Copyscape.

It was jarring to see the low pay levels and it took a few days to discard the few threads of journalistic integrity I was hopelessly clinging to from my days as a professional journalist. But wondering where your next meal is coming from can often be a wonderful motivating tool. I soon gulped down my pride and got to work in journalism's answer to the sweatshop.

I set myself what probably seems to be an extremely modest goal. Each day, I wanted to crank enough pieces to make $50. That would cover our rent and since I was still getting some freelance work, the meager salary would at least get us through another month.

In reality, what that $50 daily threshold meant was that if I was lucky, I only had to crank out 6000-7000 words a day. 500 words at a time. On a range of subjects that spanned everything from the best places to rent an apartment in Cairo to how to salvage a shirt soaked with blood (I tried not to ponder the string of events that spawned that request). If I was unlucky, and the only work available that day was lower paying, then I would pass my time cranking out as much as 13,000 words across a very dark, soul-sucking day in front of the laptop.

Granted, I had a couple of advantages over the typical content monkey. I had a diverse professional and personal set of experiences, so I could write about a lot of unusual topics without having to resort to lengthy research. I'm also lucky to be a writer who can quickly crank out a story when pressed with a deadline. So I tried to think of the work as 12 hours a day of writing stories that needed to be finished in 30 minutes.

Eventually, things got better. Although I'm still very far from where I want to be financially. I have a pretty good roster of freelance clients (although I could always use more-hint, hint). I have a personal web site that is doing pretty well and it's been awhile since I was forced to churn out pieces for a penny a word.

But I recall all too well what that experience was like and the level of depressing desperation that it takes to crank out work that literally pays pennies.

Writing listicles may not be the work of the Gods. But it's a lot better than cranking out low-rent paragraphs in the pits of journalistic hell.

Contact me at rick@allyourscreens.com.

Follow me on Twitter at @aysrick