The topic interests me because I’m one of those people who writes for free, all the time.
As a commenter wrote in response to Cord Jefferson’s article:
It’s not just people who have inherited money, it’s also people who have “day jobs” to support themselves while they pursue dream jobs in fields like journalism, fiction writing, theater and music.
In this case, I’m pursuing the dream job of blogging, but it’s the same basic idea.
I actually enjoy doing this, which is more than can be said of Tim Kreider, who writes:
I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work.
I’m lucky enough not to ever have had to bale hay or go door-to-door for a living, but I find writing to be enjoyable! So I can see how it can be hard for Kreider to compete with someone like me who will do what he does for free, while at the same time enjoying it.
Kreider also asks:
I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.
I guess he’s kidding here, because the answer to the above question is obvious. Editors ask people like him to write for free because people like me (or Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok, etc.) will write for free. You don’t need much empathetic imagination to figure that one out.
That said, I understand the frustration expressed by Jefferson and Kreider. I enjoy doing research, but it’s (typically) hard work. What if I didn’t get paid to do it because there was a reserve army of unemployed statisticians who could do my job for free, and I had to do something else to pay the bills? That would be no fun.
The interesting question, perhaps, is why it hasn’t always been this way. Somehow, until recently, publications were willing to pay the Tim Krieders of the world to write for them, even though the Andrew Gelmans of the world have been sitting around for awhile willing to write for free. Not all academics enjoy writing as much as I do—for example, a political scientist friend of mine has repeatedly expressed puzzlement that I blog every day for zero compensation—but there are enough of us sending our articles to journals and sending op-eds to newspapers, that you gotta wonder why it took so long for publications to make use of us. As noted above, even when I do get paid for writing, it’s not much. I think I got $350 for one of my articles for American Scientist, and each of those represented a lot of work. And, of course, that’s $350 more than I get for any article in the American Journal of Sociology or the Journal of the American Statistical Association or whatever.
It does seem that Cord Jefferson is right that there’s something new here, and perhaps the ability of newcomers such as Ferguson-bashing econ student Ashok Rao to reach large audiences for free is making it more difficult for people who find writing to be “shockingly unenjoyable” to get paid for it.