“They’re Here to Save Indie Media,” a New York Times headline announced on June 8. “Save” is debatable: the new digital magazine Byline aims to fill a widening gap in the publishing landscape, stepping in for a vanishing stratum of outlets where new writers can cut their teeth and start to build career momentum. What Byline doesn’t do is pay people. “We are currently a non-funded, for-fun project,” says the FAQ page on their bright, kinetic website. “We will begin paying writers as soon as we have revenue from either paid partnerships or paid subscriptions.”

The disclosure—“For now, contributors to Byline will be unpaid”—comes about two-thirds of the way through the Times profile. Tucked among details about a co-founder’s “Gucci slides” and a Soylent-sponsored trip she took to Art Basel Miami Beach, the reveal gives a sour twist to the headline—as was, perhaps, intended. “Saving indie media” was never Byline’s stated goal. They’re just here to have fun: “It’s like we’re walking into a graveyard and building a bar,” co-founder Gutes Guterman told the Times. But the combination of business model and inflammatory headline touched an industry nerve. “I guess it’s called byline because that’s all you get if you write for it?” tweeted Bloomberg writer Rachel Metz. The response was one of many in a similar tenor. People’s reactions seemed split between lamenting the decline of publications not dissimilar to Byline, those that offer young writers an entry point into the industry, and outrage that removing payment was this splashy new magazine’s proposed means of doing so.

When it comes to putting a price on creative work, it’s hard not to poke the bear. The sensitivity comes partly from the inconsistent valuation of writers’ work as well as from the attendant lack of transparency. Both of these silences can breed inequity. The infamous 2019 reveal that journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner “[didn’t] get out of bed for less than $4 a word” provoked a tense online conversation about pay disparity—why editors considered it acceptable for one very famous writer to demand that rate while most other writers made cents on the dollar. The 2020 hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, in which writers broke the hush-hush code around sharing their book advances, similarly revealed a stark disparity between the amounts publishers offered (debut) white authors and (established, award-winning) Black authors. These respective revelations have something important in common: when facts and figures come to light, all writers—even the ones who make a good living, or think they do—must reckon with the arbitrary value that has been assigned to their work.

A price tag of zero arguably does the same thing. At a moment of upheaval in the arts, the suggestion that writing’s value may simply be intrinsic—a creative act worth less than the website it’s posted on—is deeply unwelcome. It can even seem like poor taste. Especially in a climate where, in 2022, a full-time writer’s median income is $23,000 (US), according to a forthcoming report from the Authors Guild. The idea that writers should do it “for the exposure” or “for the byline” has long been a justification for bad rates and functions as a barrier to entry. We’re supposed to be grateful just to be here, in part because the theoretical dividends are more than simply financial: every byline is supposed to beget the next, like biblical descendants. Eventually, those credits might even coalesce into something more than the sum of their parts, like a book or a full-time job with benefits. The ends are meant to justify the means, gradually bending away from amateurism and toward professionalization. But as outlets shutter, AI looms, stability erodes, and that career model becomes increasingly rare, it makes sense that the price on writing would fluctuate. It also makes sense that that fluctuation would terrify people.

Alongside the industry’s other pressing existential questions, now we also have to reckon with this one: Should writing be treated as a strictly professionalized enterprise, or is “party in a graveyard” more the vibe? And are the two mutually exclusive? Byline seemed to provoke the anxiety that they might be, that an outlet built on writing for free, especially if it’s successful, would bring down the average per-word rate in an already bleak market. Or perhaps its impact on the collective psyche is more existential: if the paper of record is endorsing a publication that pays zero dollars, what’s devalued isn’t our ability to professionalize but the very concept of writing as a profession. By that logic, even writers with stable jobs might not be underpaid professionals but overpaid amateurs on borrowed time.

The Byline model offers one possible response to the plaintive cry of What now? that has inevitably arisen in the wake of shuttered outlets and widespread layoffs. What now? is a question I asked in May after a particularly acute round of newsroom cuts. In that piece, I posited that career was a framework with dwindling relevance and that journalism was becoming more like a monetized hobby—a role it already plays in the lives of the many writers who’ve written entire books while holding down unrelated jobs. Faced with the very public closures and cuts at large-scale, well-funded outlets like BuzzFeed News and Vice, it makes sense that some outfits are opting to scale back and just be what they are: a bunch of friends who make stuff. In April, Daniel Lavery and Jo Livingstone launched The Stopgap, which bills itself as “a general-interest blog” that, like Byline, pays neither themselves nor anyone else, though they’ve put out a digital tip jar for contributors. “Don’t worry, no one’s going to try to make money from this one,” tweeted Lavery, who formerly ran The Toast—a beloved indie publication that, to quote his bio on The Stopgap, “no longer exists because he tried to make money with it.”

Ideally, writers would get to have both: be a part of something vital and crackling and also make a living wage. Certainly, there are some outlets that look like they’ve figured out how to both have and eat the cake: worker-owned websites like Defector or Hellgate or, in Canada, independent publications like The Narwhal or The Local. There will always be examples of success stories we can point to, just like there will always be people willing to write for free. But positioning this as the definitive answer to the crisis of the profession only works if these sorts of operations—which tend to be small by nature—can employ everyone who wants a job, a figure that includes the many who’ve recently been laid off (over 17,000 media workers in the US since the start of 2023, according to a report by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas; no comparable report currently exists in Canada, but last month’s Bell Media cuts alone totalled 1,300 jobs). Likewise, Byline is only the saviour (or the scourge) of indie media if it sets the business model for every other publication going forward. The problem isn’t a website that tries to offer new artists a creative onramp; it’s the variable and often compromised ways that creative work is valued at every level.

In the name of pay transparency: I sold my first essay for $50 (US)—$61.63 in Canadian at the exchange rate then. I didn’t think to ask for more money, because I was just grateful to be there. It did lead to a second publication and, I guess, indirectly and many years down the line, a couple of jobs and a book. For this essay, I will be paid more or less the equivalent of a mid-range pair of Gucci slides. I’ve been able to do any of it only because I had cobbled together various other, non-writing sources of income in the background. To be fair, at least two of those jobs (simultaneously, at one point) were in magazine editing. But then, I spent so long sitting on committees for pay and other forms of equity, I didn’t have any time left to write. I was too busy trying to save indie media.

Tajja Isen
Tajja Isen is the author of the essay collection Some of My Best Friends and the forthcoming memoir Tough Love. She is also a contributing writer for The Walrus. She has edited for Catapult, The Walrus, and Electric Literature.