The Cost of Content

This quote from David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Homicide) struck a chord with me:

I’m a writer, and while I’m overpaid to write television at present, the truth is that the prose world from which I crawled — newsprint and books — is beset by a new economic model in which the value of content is being reduced in direct proportion to the availability of free stuff on the web. In short, for newspapers and book publishers, it has lately been an e-race to the bottom, and I have no desire to contribute to that new economy by writing for free in any format.  Not that what is posted here has much prolonged value — or in the case of previously published prose, hasn’t soured some beyond its expiration — but the principle, in which I genuinely believe, holds:  Writers everywhere do this to make a living, and some are doing fine work and barely getting by for their labor.  Anything that says content should be free makes it hard for all writers, everywhere.

Simon goes on to say:

A free internet is wonderful for democratized, unresearched commentary, and it works well as a library of sorts for content that no longer requires a defense of its copyright.  But journalism, literature, film, music —  these endeavors need people operating at the highest professional level and they need to make a living wage.  Copyright matters.  Content costs.

I find his opinion validating, inspiring, and motivating, especially with reference to creating content that is not free.

Pam Taylor and I co-published and -edited from 2006-2011 as an independently owned and operated business. We worked long hours to figure out how to produce a free online magazine that could make money with no print counterpart. Present was published as free online content dependent on advertising as that was the pervasive model. At the time, and still true mostly today, online readers were not inclined to pay for online content.

I bring up Present because I’ve had over a year —  we stopped publishing the magazine in April 2011 —  to reflect on that productive and consuming period of my life. One takeaway is that Present found an audience and then eventually advertisers and sponsors because of the quality and community focus of the published content. Without quality material, no one would pay attention. However, the production of that content in and of itself did not pay the bills. It didn’t matter if I wrote and published one or one dozen articles each week. I earned money from ad sales and not directly from readers or content generation. Advertisers and sponsors paid us to reach the audience drawn to the quality content we published.

Before, during, and after publishing Present, I have written freelance for a number of publications. Currently, I write for The Star Magazine in the KC Star, Home in the Northland Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Originals, and other individual clients. And I’m grateful because I can focus on writing and photography and get paid for that work.

While I miss the independence and adventure of running a publication, I don’t miss the multiple roles that Pam and I shared on both sides of the business. I don’t miss handling ad sales, client service, ad design, administrative work, tracking stats, producing data entry-intensive online calendars, screening hundreds of weekly emails, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong. Publishing great stories, photographs, and multimedia content produced by myself and others was rewarding. Making money at it as a business that requires so many other tasks, time, money, and resources for self-perpetuation no longer interests me at this time.

As a writer, I focus on developing my craft, expressing creativity, and finding means of income tied more closely to my profession. Freelancing for publications and clients satisfies some of those goals and I’m grateful for the work. Working at a full-time job as an editor and writer for a non-profit provides stable income and benefits. However, these modes of work are subject to another party’s editorial agenda. Independent of these income streams, I am developing plans and a platform to develop work that interests me as a storyteller and attracts a paying audience. is a starting point to gather and promote such work.

Bringing this back to Simon’s quote, I’ve thought a lot post-Present about how to make a living from my creative work rather than writing only for free on this website or elsewhere.

Fortunately, the marketplace is changing. People are more willing to pay for content in small units and through subscriptions. For example, consumers buy 99-cent music downloads (thanks Steve Jobs and Apple) and episodes of Downton Abbey and Mad Men through streaming services (Amazon, Netflix). eBooks have grown in popularity. Readers of the NY Times and other publications are opting to pay for digital access to content. People are getting used to the idea of pay walls when faced with a choice of access to desired content.

Artists and entrepreneurs are also connecting directly with their audience as investors and paying supporters through Kickstarter and other fundraising platforms.

So, new models for art and commerce are emerging. Consumer mindsets in the market for good entertainment and content are adapting. People are willing to pay for quality and content that they value. Opportunity abounds.

Making a living income from my work involves more than simply writing. I’ll continue to make contacts, self-promote, cross-promote, learn new software skills, experimenting with payment platforms, and other decidedly non-creative tasks. But it is worthwhile because I’m doing it to achieve my goals.

Producing fine work as a storyteller through the written word, photographs, video, podcasts, and more requires time, skill, training, and money. As a professional writer, it takes initiative to get out in the world, find and produce stories, share them, and court a paying audience that finds value in the results.

To emphasize Simon one more time:

Journalism, literature, film, music —  these endeavors need people operating at the highest professional level and they need to make a living wage. Copyright matters. Content costs.



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