In response to a younger coworker’s question about what digital media was like in the mid-nineties, David Plotz, Slate’s editor-at-large, published two lists. The first list, about the ways to make money in digital media a few decades ago, has five points. The second list, about earning money in today’s media ecosystem, has 76.
Anyone who follows digital media knows there has been a huge spike in the amount of money flowing into the business lately, with juggernauts like BuzzFeed and VICE raking in cash. “I think what’s going to happen is that rates will actually come up because money is flowing into digital media right now,” Plotz said.
As most freelancers can attest, rates have stalled or declined in recent years due to the number of people willing to write for little or no money. But Plotz sees a renaissance ahead—publishers and editors will be willing to pay more for high-quality writing in order to stand out.
Plotz insisted his article wasn’t meant to call out publishers for not making money or being creative enough. “It’s very hard. A lot of the mechanisms in my article won’t get you a lot of money,” he added. “They require a ton of time and hard work, some require a sizable audience or hiring more workers for specific jobs.” The list isn’t a cure-all for ailing publishers, but simply a set of suggestions for those having a hard time coming up with useable ideas.
Some points on his list require pure luck, like “Funding from some rich person” and “Funding from some rich company that is making a long-shot bet.”
Plotz doesn’t think any one method works for all companies either, but there are a few smart strategies everyone should pay attention to. “The best models for publications are the ones that can acquire the most loyal readers directly.”
This is one area where freelancers can assist publishers while also generating more leverage to charge higher rates. For example, freelancers with large followings should really emphasize the value they’re bringing to any publication when pitching an article.
Another big opportunity for freelancers from Plotz’s list is university or nonprofit fellowships and grants. Just as there are grants for startups and publishers, there are lots of chances for journalists to have specific projects funded. Some even simply allow writers to have free range to work on personally fulling stories.
And one of the more polarizing aspects of the new digital media landscape is one that can also be the most lucrative for freelancers: native advertising. “It’s certainly not great investigative journalism and it’s probably not extremely enjoyable,” Plotz noted, “but it can be a pretty sizable paycheck.”
A few of Plotz’s points can also work wonders for the self-employed—tactics like placing a tip jar on your personal website or running a Kickstarter campaign. Freelancers with experience finding unique sources of revenue are even more use to publishers. Some of the best freelancers he’s come across are those with knowledge of how their work can make money for the publisher.
“There’s one journalist I’ve worked a lot with over the years, a great business journalist, [who] is greater than anybody else,” he said. “When he pitches a project, he tells you how it could be sold, what sort of advertisers it could attract, how it could be advertised, all of that.” Details like these can be the kicker when he’s deciding whether or not to accept a pitch.
So while the digital media world isn’t as simple as it once was, it does provide many options for those willing to hustle. Seventy-six options, in particular.