Prestige can be a wonderful thing, but you can’t buy groceries with it.

Entertainment Weekly has announced that they’re launching a new section of their site and they’re not going to pay their writers, in money anyway. Fantastic! Instead, they’re going to pay them with “prestige.” Ah, yes, prestige. Don’t you know that simply letting you write for us is payment enough? You can brag to all your friends!

EW has decided to do what places like The Huffington Post and Forbes are doing, opening up their doors to “content providers” of all types so they can blog for free and “build a community” (because what we need more of online is people giving their opinions about pop culture – there isn’t enough of that). There’s only one problem with this plan. If you open your doors to every single person who wants to write, then any “prestige” you would have gotten from writing for Entertainment Weekly (though I would argue that ended a while ago) is gone because now anyone can write for it. Where’s the prestige in that?

The unfortunate thing about all of this? EW will actually be swamped with people who want to contribute. Everyone loves giving their opinions and everyone loves seeing their byline in print. Just think of all of the TV episode reviews and listicles that are going to be unleashed upon the public! This is the sad fact about writers: we can be our own worst enemy (though I would assume a large percentage of the people who will contribute to the free side of EW could hardly be called writers).

What made EW – or any magazine, newspaper, or web site – a good, special publication was that you could trust it, because the people writing for it were hired for a specific reason and had writing talent and experience and knowledge. There was a finite number of people contributing to the magazine. Now EW wants to have over 1000 bloggers writing for the new community, which dilutes everything.

There was a time in my life when I wrote for free: my college paper, writing samples to show newspapers and magazines that I could write, that sort of thing. My “payment” would be a nice credit on my resume or several copies of the publication (though you can’t give someone copies of a web page). And I’m sure non-paid internships still happen in publishing (though many are starting to change that practice). But to have a major magazine, which pays their regular staff and brings in a lot of ad revenue and sells subscriptions and charges for some online access, decide to not pay their writers is not only absurd, it’s rancid. They’re doing this for one reason only: to get a lot of “content” for free so they can get more traffic, and then sell more ads, and then get more writers, and get more traffic, and get more ads, and still not pay their “community” writers.

Now, a lot of editors/publishers will say that they simply can’t pay writers (or can’t pay them that much). This is absolutely true. Solution? Don’t hire them. Have your staff do all of the writing. You think your writing for free at the EW “community” is going to lead to big paying gigs? Good luck with that when it’s strategies like this that make those positions harder and harder to get. (Also run away from anyone who uses the word “passion” when describing writing.)

The thing that people keep saying is so great about the web – that there’s so much content and so many content providers, it’s a golden age! – also happens to be what’s terrible about it. My advice? Don’t write for anyone else for free. Start your own site or blog or publication.

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