“I think the days of dropping content on people and considering our job done are ending.” — Fellow Freelance Writer
Not too long ago, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow freelance writer on Skype. She was trying to recruit a writer for a major web site, and asked if anyone in that particular Skype chat possessed journalism experience.
I raised my virtual hand. After all, I've written for print newspapers and magazines, and I've done reporting for a number of web sites. Oh, yeah, and I have my master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University, which is consistently ranked as a top journalism school. Sometimes it's even ranked above Columbia and Northwestern, depending on the year and the criteria.
Now, I don't normally get all high and mighty about this sort of thing, but as part of my effort to continue to better market myself as a freelance writer (and because I'm constantly told I don't talk myself up enough), I emphasized the hell out of my professional background. Because if you're looking for journalism training, I've got that.
What this publication wanted was someone with a journo background plus blogging experience. I've been blogging for the better part of a decade and I have the “right” background. I thought I was a shoo-in, especially since the other writer bemoaned the lack of “qualified” people. She asked for a sample, so I posted the link to one of my better (I think) reported pieces. It included controversy, more than one side, and primary sources.
This was the gist of her reply: “[name of publication redacted] isn't going to be impressed by a low number of Facebook likes.”
Turns out this publication, while asking for quality journalism, also wants someone who can consistently drive 50,000 views to a piece, and who knows what “sells.” And this, it turns out, is the main qualification. (Edit: I was reminded that the requirement wasn't 50,000 pageviews to a piece, but rather per month, over four to twelve pieces. But that's still quite a few pageviews. And, while my clients probably get that from my pieces combined, I can't point to it for a single site.)
This is not the forum I use to go off the state of journalism in this country, or the way that most of our “news” media is little more than infotainment. However, I will say that I was disappointed that pageviews and social media likes were the main concerns of this venerable online publication.
Driving Traffic and the Search for Viral
I didn't fight for the position too hard after that. Yes, I've had a few pieces of mine go viral. However, it's not a consistent thing for me, mainly because I provide content to so many sites. I can't really point to one site and say, “Look what I've done to drive traffic and build up this site.” I'm prolific, but in a solid, you-can-count-on-me-to-provide-content-of-reasonable-quality sort of way.
People don't pay me to drive traffic to their sites; I'm not a community manager or a social media consultant. They pay me to provide them with authoritative, usually accurate content. Many of them pay me quite well to do this (for those of you who like to measure worth by money).
But, increasingly, everyone's looking for virality. This publication isn't alone, and the writer for this publication isn't a lightweight by any stretch. She's solid. But that's increasingly less important to many publications. Upworthy and Buzzworthy are changing everything about the Internet, and the Way We Do Things when it comes to content creation and marketing. As a result, I might have to think about changing the way I do things. Apparently, if you don't write a viral hit every single time, you must suck as a writer.
Do I need to spend more time promoting the content I write? So far, I've not really had to deal with that. As I point out in [easyazon_link asin=”149361116X” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”marquit-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]my book[/easyazon_link], I make it clear that I am not a social media consultant. I'll share the content when it's published, but I don't go much beyond that.
However, another of this writer's comments, stating that the days of just providing content without doing anything else are coming to an end, hit me. Is my worth as a writer really going to be determined by the traffic my pieces drive to a site? Is the worth of a writer no longer going to be quality and accuracy? Is it all about clickbait now?
While you don't have to be perfect all the time to be professional (we all make mistakes, no matter how many times we proofread something), and I try to make allowances, there are times I'm underwhelmed — and even downright disgusted — by the writing that receives a bunch of pageviews. A lot of the time, the traffic comes because someone wrote a clicky headline and then promoted heavily, and not because the article is well-written or even reasonably well-researched. Sometimes it's practically incoherent and verging on downright wrong.
But, hey, it got a bunch of traffic, so it must be good.
If this is the new way to judge a writer's worth, I really am screwed. If my writing is worth nothing unless an article sees 50,000 pageviews, my days really are numbered. Because most of what I write is (I think) useful and relevant. And I often present it in a straightforward, non-hyperbolic manner. Which is probably boring (as Facts often are).
What do you think? Is traffic the main measure of worth these days? Or is there still a place for solid reporting and informational writing?