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If I Made $4 a Word, This Article Would Be Worth $10,000
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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes ( 2,574 words)
What in the actual fuck. I thought journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be brave. I thought they were supposed to risk their lives, even just psychologically. I thought they were supposed to shout and swear and beat their breasts — fuck everything else. At the very least I thought they were supposed to tell the truth. If any of that’s true, I don’t know what the hell all the people around me are doing. All the people who, I’ve been told again and again, don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, even though the food is shit and the hand is an asshole. I’m ashamed that I was tricked into believing they were better than so many of the people they report on, that their conspicuous support for unions and an industry full of undervalued workers was anything more than a performance. I didn’t think journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be cowards.
If you don’t know who Taffy Brodesser-Akner is, you are very likely not on Media Twitter and I salute you. At one point, Brodesser-Akner was invariably described as one of the busiest freelancers in America and you really did see her byline everywhere. Five years ago, she found her niche writing celebrity profiles for GQ and The New York Times, for which she won three New York Press Club awards. Journalists adore her not only for her prowess at cutting down the various gods we love and hate in equal measure, but also for her ability to lure the reader into being her coconspirator by nimbly threading herself through each story. Because of that, and because of the reach of the publications themselves, and — perhaps most importantly — because of her popularity among her peers, her articles almost always go viral. In 2017, Brodesser-Akner became a staff writer at the Times and this month she is promoting her first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble.
On June 14, Cosmopolitan published one of roughly 5 million interviews with the debut novelist, this one by Jen Ortiz. I was scrolling through Twitter on a break from writing back-to-back columns and noticed the usual gushing posts by journalists with blue checkmarks next to their names. Those tweets are no real indication the person has actually read the interview they’re sharing, but whatever, because, like, it’s Taffy, you know her! Who doesn’t stan her!?! It’s funny, if you search the article URL in Twitter, initially it’s just tweet after tweet of outsize praise — “I loved this profile of the master profiler” — then, like a sudden stop sign on a 90 mph expressway, there it is: “what in the actual fuck.” That one’s mine.
I’d read the article. I’d seen one of those first tweets and, like I always do, I’d read it for the holy grail every author is looking for: the secret to writing a successful book without wanting to papercut yourself to death with it. “I’m actually the second writer Cosmo has sent,” Ortiz noted, but for some reason her employer still made the mistake of sending someone who had worked with the subject at GQ. Or maybe that’s not a mistake. I don’t actually read Cosmo, and I suppose I should have before I announced with bravado the death of the puff piece last May. Either way, there I was, reading merrily along, then suddenly, like that tweet, I stopped. It was just a line, a line in a small, kind of out-of-place paragraph: “When I started doing the ‘I don’t get out of bed for less than $4 a word’ thing, people started paying me $4 a word.” What in the actual fuck.
This is what it meant when I posted that quote and those words: It meant, what in the actual fuck.
It meant what fucking other freelancers in the world are making $4 a word right now. It meant what fucking magazines in the world are paying $4 a word right now. It meant what fucking lies is this industry telling us when so many people — people in actual war zones — only dream of making 50¢ a word. It meant in what fucking world can a freelancer treat $4 a word like it’s not near-impossible for the rest of us. The meaning was so obvious that I honestly didn’t think anyone would even notice the message. But they did. And they mistook it for something I didn’t mean at all: “Fuck Taffy.”
The reaction was swift and violent, and, from what I could tell, divided into those who could read (predominantly marginalized writers) and those who could not (predominantly nonmarginalized writers). My point was being illustrated in real time by the journalism industry’s 1 Percent, the mostly white legacy media reflexively rallying around one of their own — T!A!F!F!Y!! Their aggressive cheers distracting from the faceless, nameless collection of freelance writers who were not there to fight, but to have a conversation about parity — about equity — the way the original tweet was intended. These were the freelancers who, like me, had worked their asses off for years and watched disconcertingly as the better their work got, the less it seemed to get them. Unable to make a living, a number of them quit. (Blame Longreads for my recalcitrance.) Like me, they were told it wasn’t personal, but I can’t think of anything more personal than choosing to hand one person a feast while everyone else gets the scraps. Obviously journalism isn’t uniquely inequitable, but it’s particularly egregious for an industry built on telling the truth to do the complete opposite when it comes to its own mechanics. Journalists intent on exposing everyone else refuse to interrogate themselves, relegating most intel to subtweets or DMs, if it’s online at all.
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This is the problem with my tweet, or, why it caused such a fuss. For one thing, I’ll cop to not being very diplomatic. In retrospect, “what in the actual fuck” is not the best way to start a conversation about pay disparity, but if we’re being honest, it’s still probably the best way to get it noticed. For another thing, I was calling out an individual who is beloved by the journalism community. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t taking issue with her personally (quid pro quo), that I was highlighting her comment as an example of a systemic issue, that it was the system I had a problem with — nope, nope, nope. What mattered was that in an industry in which it is frowned upon to even side-eye your colleagues in public, I put the word “fuck” within the vicinity of a marquee writer’s name. And I was a nobody. Which is why it became Taffy and her allies versus “the freelancers.” The dominant side had a face, the other side did not. The star reporter once again came out on top, buoyed by a nebulous mass of forgettable freelancers.
Her supporters were loud as fuck, but when you actually looked at what they were saying it literally boiled down to: Taffy Brodesser-Akner is astronomically talented, which is why she is making astronomically more than you, who are not talented, and how dare you say women should be transparent about money then punish her for doing just that, have you even seen how much men make? I mean, what in the actual fuck are you talking about? This is not about one woman. It’s not even about gender equality (for once). It’s about exploitation. For all I care, Taffy Brodesser-Akner could be Michael Lewis with his $10 a word. The point is the same either way — it’s one journalist making several (many several) times what the rest of us do in an industry in which we’re constantly being told there is nothing left to give. Clearly there is, it just happens to be reserved for an exclusive group of self-congratulatory writers and editors benefiting from a corrupt system. And if you dare point out the unfairness of their profit, the whole lot becomes reflexively defensive, distracting from the real issue because it’s their loss and everyone else’s gain if it’s ever addressed. So let’s just attribute $4 a word to a woman achieving against all odds — yaaass, queen!— and move on.
Uhm, okay, but if $4 a word makes you a queen, does that make the rest of us serfs? And why are the serfs mostly, like, LGBTQ writers, people of color, and women in independent publishing? Distressingly, some women seem to have bought into the idea that they make a lot less than certain writers because they are way less talented and hardworking, but I’m finding it hard to believe that so many marginalized writers are less talented and hardworking than so many white people. Am I suggesting the system might be rigged in favor of upwardly mobile white journalists in the vicinity of New York and their upwardly mobile white friends in the vicinity of New York who run the industry? (Could this explain why the Times reviewed its own staff writer’s book and interviewed her on top of that?) Possibly? Maybe? No? Come on! We’ve been banging on about intersectionality and privilege for the past 100 years (it feels like). Has none of that penetrated? Because if one more person suggests that maybe I should just ask for $4 next time, as though I’m not already risking assignments every time I beg for 50 cents, as though organizations aren’t systematically standing in the way of the ability to negotiate, I swear … Just take one look at that clause Vox has been slipping into their contracts, the one preventing freelancers from sharing their rates publicly in order to get better (read: fair) ones. Are you really going to argue that a system that situates the Taffys — and sure, the Michael Lewises — of the world above the rest of us, apart from us, making wads more cash for their “talent and hard work,” is in any way ethical?
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I mean, you could just say nothing, which a lot of journalists did. Writers I’d been cordial with unfollowed me. Writers I thought were actual friends said nothing, which I took to be complicity with the elite journalists, whose ranks they were one day hoping to join, or maybe who they were just trying not to piss off. Writers I hung out with weren’t even sure I wasn’t just being a dick. The ones who supported me, who even DM’d me, were overwhelmingly women of color, queer women, and women who had been serially underrecognized, not to mention a couple of guys who’ve been pushed past the point of giving a fuck. On their timelines, a number of the women indicated that everything that needed to be said about the elites could be found in their mischaracterizations of the $4 a word conversation. That these women predominantly used subtweets to make that point publicly implies that, as mad as they were, they were also aware that those same elites still controlled their livelihoods. The irony is that the same people who accused me of being anti-feminist for trying to talk about pay gaps (yes, that’s as stupid as it sounds), were all over Jezebel’s “The Lie of Feminist Meritocracy.” It’s an instance of bold-faced hypocrisy I can only explain by the fact that the piece was written generally enough that they could revert to performative protest without threatening their own position in line for the brass ring.
“Hey I’ve been working all day and off Twitter. Did I miss anything?” Taffy tweeted jokingly the day after the Twitter shitstorm rolled in. A few days later, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s morning show, she called it a disservice to pay transparency, before refocusing the conversation on her emotional support network of defenders. “I had the warmest kindest weekend on Twitter, where I found out that all these people admired me and liked me. I was like, ‘I love Twitter,’” she said, concluding, “It was a really great moment for me.” The coup de grace came right at the end, when she mentioned that at the time it all went down, she’d been lonely and in a terrible hotel in Atlantic City writing a terrible story: “That could be why I get $4 a word.” Oh, girl. There are journalists actually putting their lives on the line for a shot at $1 a word, maybe, if they’re lucky. Christ. I mean, you could say I’ve got sour grapes or envy or jealousy or, I don’t know, a hysterical obsession … with … what? Basic human decency? I can’t imagine how many marginalized journalists seethed at the idea that innate ability and a little elbow grease were the reason a select few journalists made several times more than their pittance. Where was the acknowledgment that those same people were almost always friends with the gatekeepers, that those gatekeepers almost exclusively share their friends’ work, which gets them more work, which leads to better work, which gets them book deals, which leads to higher salaries, ad infinitum?
Taffy and I kind of came up as freelancers around the same time — we were friendly if not actually friends. Dying to do work like hers, I emailed her in 2014 and asked for advice. I explained that, despite all my efforts, I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the kinds of bylines she had and I was still struggling financially. She was generous. She mentioned being relentless and lunching with editors. So I tried harder. I even lunched with a few people. Two years later, I received an email from her out of the blue. Bright Wall/Dark Room had just published my essay on the two sides of Christian Slater. I had pitched the profile months earlier in March, but it had been turned down by a number of publications, including GQ and the Times (Taffy freelanced for both at the time). BuzzFeed had offered me $400 for 3,000 words but I said no. By the time June rolled around, even that option had passed me by, but I really wanted to write the piece so I pitched BW/DR and I took $100 for it. I asked for more, but being such a small outlet they honestly didn’t have the money. So, yeah: $100 for 3,000 words. That’s $.03 a word. I figured I wouldn’t be granted an interview with Slater, who I had followed for three decades, and for such a small fee I didn’t bother going to the trouble. But I researched to make up for it and wrote the profile anyway, partly while juggling a holiday in Tobermory — I remember everyone going out to the water while I edited in a slice of sun in the cottage. The piece went up July 11th. Taffy emailed me a day later to congratulate me — she had just gone to proof at GQ on what she described as an identical piece. She regretted coming second. That is to say, I literally had Taffy herself telling me that I had beaten her at her own game, despite playing with less. Of course, she was probably paid a little more than $100. In fact, if she was already making $4 a word at the time, that would have amounted to $17,000 — 170 times my fee. As I was saying, what in the actual fuck.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.