The Free Work Debate, or, Poll: Would You Pay for The Mercurial?

Design by Christopher S. Kennedy,


There’s been a great deal of reporting on what I’ll call the peanuts phenomenon within the past week – people working for very small amounts of money, or for free, in order to advance their careers or gain exposure.


It’s more or less peanuts here at The Mercurial (web) magazine.  After overhead is paid for, my advertising sales bring in between one thousand and two thousand dollars a month.  This money goes towards my living expenses.  I also work other jobs to make ends meet.  And I rarely pay writers – they are not included in said “overhead.”  I justify this because I am the owner and founder of The Mercurial and I work at it full time, from advertising sales to writing to editing to cleaning the bathroom at the gallery.


Writer Nate Thayer has sparked an essay trend about the merits and morality of writing for free with his March 4 blog post “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist––2013.”  In the post, he published the emails sent back and forth between himself and an editor at The Atlantic – the editor was inquiring about a piece Thayer wrote for NK NEWS and wanted to know if Thayer would republish it in The Atlantic, condensed, with no compensation.  He was irked, to say the least.  Since then, numerous responses from Atlantic staff have been made, including a long piece by senior editor Alexis C. Madrigal, in which he dizzyingly breaks down the numbers behind a successful digital publication: budget, traffic, number of posts needed, the algebra behind virality.  Brian Lehrer held a brilliant open phones segment on his March 7 show, asking listeners “When do you work for free?”  Most callers said they don’t work for free, that aside from promises of exposure and experience, unpaid work leads to more unpaid work.  Similarly, The New York Times did a feature on the seemingly never ending series of internships many 20-somethings go through in attempts to break into an industry.


I started The Mercurial about three and a half years ago and have always envisioned employing a paid writing staff.  I don’t want to work for free, and I don’t think it’s right for others to do so either.  But on the business end, the magazine would go under in a matter of weeks if I decided to offer even $50 for an original article.


What if advertising was only one part of our business model?  What if we asked you, the reader, to subscribe to our publications, like in the olden days?  How about say, fifteen dollars a year?  Would you pay that?


While journalism has always been a tough industry, there was a time when it was lucrative.  Then the internet came ’round.  Then the notion of free-content-all-of-the-time came ’round.  Then came that disturbing aspect of instant publication, that part where everyone is competing for traffic and wants to break a story so they don’t wait quite long enough for confirmation and slip the wrong name into an article, causing a viral virtual domino effect across the world that says that someone gunned down a school in a small Connecticut town when really they are on a bus in New Jersey, on their way home from work, suffering vicious attacks on their Facebook page from people they’ve never met.  There was a time when journalism was not only lucrative, but honorable, measured, and accurate.


The Mercurial, like many other online/free publications, relies solely on advertising to support itself, and those advertising dollars also support our small art gallery/newsroom.  This is the business model for the average online publication – we are not selling our content, we are selling our traffic. We are selling demographics and clicks; we are selling you, the reader.  We are doing our best to write quality content that will attract you to our publication, so we can then show you off to businesses and organizations who might see you as a potential customer.


What if that was only one part of our business model?  What if we asked you, the reader, to subscribe to our publications, like in the olden days?  How about say, fifteen dollars a year?  Would you pay that?


Last year, approximately 30,000 people read The Mercurial.  Let’s say half of them are devoted readers.  Let’s say half of those devoted readers would pay for the magazine’s content at fifteen dollars a year.  That’s $112,500 annually, probably closer to $100,000 after fees, taxes, et cetera.  That is a dreamy number for an editor to have in their lap.  That means a paid staff, a staff with the resources and the drive to really report, to dig deep, to spend months with a story, to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to grab a scoop for the morning’s publication.  That means a faster, better website, the long overdue couple thou owed to our web designer; that means gracefully bowing out of the rat race for readers, or, wow, paying for photographs and graphic design!  Traffic would likely drop, but sustainability would be uncovered.  We would be able to offer the content we have always wanted to provide.


So let us know what you think in the comment section below.  Would you pay for The Mercurial?  Should the news be free? Are you getting what you are, or are not, paying for?  And since I brought up Brain Lehrer, Nate Thayer, and Alexis Madrigal, I have to bring up Tim Fite and his brilliant song, “WYNPM.”  Here’s Fite’s Wall Street keytar performance of the song for Time Out New York.


by & filed under Health & Humanity, Musings, Top Stories.