tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Paid by the word?

The freelancers at my college newspapers used to get paid by the inch. The pay was something like 50 cents an inch, so a typical feature that went 30 column inches was good for $15 -- which was pretty good pay for a college kid way back in the early 1980s.

Staff writers, on the other hand, got paid a (modest) weekly salary. We were expected to write at least two stories a week, although sometimes it was more if there was big news on our beat. The length of the story was a consideration only to the extent that space was limited in the newspaper.

I left college thinking the freelance gig was better. I never had a problem generating more words; clearly I would do better getting paid according to volume.

As I have been in journalism for more than 30 years now, I understand that it's not about the number of words; it's about what those words say. Give me a well-written short story any day over a long-winded story that doesn't say much. I also now know that it is much more difficult to write a solid short article than it is to write a long one.

Well, the internet appears to be turning all that around. I had to laugh at this essay about a newspaper that is actually judging the productivity of its journalists according to the number of words they write. It's a newspaper where words are apparently viewed like widgets produced at the factory. Newspapers have got enough problems these days trying to figure out how to stay relevant. If this is any indication of their thinking, newspapers are surely doomed.


jackie said...

Brilliant! Strunk and White, who challenged writers to edit, edit, edit in the quest for brevity, have been carted off to a journalism museum to spend eternity gathering dust alongside those typewriters. This opens up the door to the Journalism Hall of Fame to writers who are so gifted they must constantly repeat themselves -- Sid Hartman and his ilk.

Christina said...

I was alarmed by this policy, too, especially coming from the Tribune Company.

It's no surprise that the Hartford Courant reporters produced six times as many words as the LA Times reporters.

As Mark Twain once noted, "I would've written you a short letter, but I didn't have the time."

Writing succinctly is harder and more time consuming, but a courtesy to the readers.