Years ago, I wrote for $10 a blog post. I tried to write as many posts as I could because the more I wrote, the more I was paid. A little before that I wrote for free because I was inexperienced and was willing to take the “exposure,” a situation I entered into of my own free will.

For over 10 years I worked as a marketing professional who often engaged in online media outreach on behalf of clients. I helped manage influencer programs that came chock full of disclosure requirements.

I’ve been thinking about all those experience as I read this report on how some marketing firms have convinced freelance writers to accept payment in return for inserting mentions of clients into their articles and posts. Writers and contributors for some high-profile websites and publications have been paid by those firms for including key messages or brand names.

Doing so clearly violates best practices on both fronts. Journalists should never accept cash, product or other material of value in exchange for coverage. It’s why most all publications have clear guidelines regarding review products, though some industries like fashion media are still wrestling with those issues, especially in light of the rise of influencer marketing. Marketers should never offer such incentives as doing so clearly violates multiple ethical standards.

We fought a whole battle 10+ years ago over this when we decided PayPerPost (now Izea), which used to operate exactly this model was skeazy and not anything anyone should ever be associated with. That’s why it had to transition its business to something (slightly) less terrible and which had to include disclosure. And, as The Outline’s story references, it was settled even before that when the “Payola” scandal stopped radio stations from accepting money from record labels to spin particular records.

This is well-trod territory. Or so it would seem.

The Changed Media Landscape

If these ethical lines were clear to everyone 10 years ago (though there will always be bad actors on both ends of the press/marketing relationship), then what’s changed? Why is this coming back up now? Consider the following, often contradictory realities now facing anyone trying to make a living in the loosely-defined “media” industry.

First, if you’re a freelance writer looking for work, the playing field looks grim. Most publications aren’t hiring and are in fact letting go of staff. That means there’s more and more competition daily for the few freelance dollars a site might have budgeted, resulting in bids being driven down as low as they can go because it’s better to earn $.02 a word than nothing, right? Even if a website realizes a year after massive layoffs that its “pivot to video” hasn’t worked, ad revenue hasn’t rebounded to the point where it’s going to start bringing on a bench of new writing talent. There are, however, plenty of “contributor networks” and other outlets more than happy to accept unvetted pieces without payment, allowing them to increase their ad inventory.

Second, influencer marketing’s ascendance means there’s an entire generation out there that has zero problems with accepting goods in exchange for coverage as long as you include the right hashtag. Not only that, but the accompanying marketing professionals see nothing at all questionable with paid relationships between them and the “outlet.” It’s standard practice, the key to getting around ad blockers. Heck, it’s rude to not offer some sort of compensation, right? Many, according to a study earlier this year, don’t even know there are FTC guidelines around disclosure requirements for social media/influencer marketing.

So if you create a system where people are desperate to get paid and where the other party in what should ideally be a symbiotic relationship is willing to open the wallet, what do you expect to happen?

Change, In One Way Or The Other

Right now we’re continuing to live in the middle of the “fake news” conversation. Reality is being questioned by people who don’t like having their actions questioned and plenty of shady people are out there offering complete untruths that resonate with audiences because they “feel” right and confirm existing biases.

At the same time the press’s power as a watchdog and check on those in power is being diminished, those same leaders are cutting back on the government-based regulations that have curbed harmful actions by both the government itself and the corporations that influence so much of our lives. People are being asked to not believe what they read and the ability to continue reporting on abuses is diminishing. It’s a bad situation.

The last thing we need right now is an additional reason for anyone to question the ethics of those responsible for creating the media the rest of us consume. So we have two roads to go down:

Option 1: Give In and Accept Nothing

This is the easiest solution. We give up. Nothing means anything. All media is biased in some way, either ideologically or financially, so there’s no need for us to put any stock in anything that’s produced. All the newspapers, TV stations, movie/TV studios, radio stations, and websites are owned by one of just three conglomerates, who are using those outlets to promote content from corporate siblings without any disclosure. The audience doesn’t care because it’s the only option available in their area and hasn’t received an education that emphasizes critical thinking anyway.

Option 2: Pay Media Producers a Living Wage

What powers corruption? There are many factors, including simple selfishness and desire to accumulate power for yourself and your friends. But there’s also the fact that the most essential roles in a free and informed society are currently the most underpaid. Raising a family on the salary of a journalist, teacher, police officer or other similar position is difficult, if not impossible. These professions have often taken solace in the protection offered by unions, who negotiate at scale for decent benefits and pay, but their power is being cut by billionaire owners and other players. So if someone offers you $200 to mention a brand sans disclosure or not drive past a particular block at a particular time, your economic reality will influence how quickly, or if, you reject their proposal.

We Can’t Keep Doing This

We can’t expect the highest ethical journalistic standards from people and pay them next to nothing.

We can’t lionize marketing practices that skirt decades of best practices and then be mad at the “media” who accept that reality.

We can’t keep paying people so little for doing necessary jobs and then be shocked – or criminally punish them – when they turn to desperate means to make ends meet, especially as larger social safety nets are eliminated.

It’s absolutely wrong for anyone claiming to be a journalist to accept any sort of payment in exchange for coverage. But it’s also just as wrong for the outlets who aren’t paying for the fruits of their labor to be shocked that the writers have found alternate revenue streams.

casablanca shocked

Something’s going to have to give. My hope is that it’s in the direction of “more trust, more pay, better ethics.” The alternative is disheartening and continues a path we’re already treacherously close to being too far down to turn around.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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