One basic characteristic of journalism is this: its content is not bought and paid for and directed by an advertiser. It might be vapid. It might be poorly written. It might be damn near worthless. But it's not an advertisement.
It's the job of journalists themselves to protect this standard, because advertisers won't. Advertisers want to advertise. They don't particularly care about ethical journalism; it's not their job. So when an advertiser wants to destroy the fundamental (this is a corny and dramatic word, but accurate) sanctity of honest writing in exchange for money, it's the writer's job not to let them do it. Because if we do, the advertiser wins exposure, and the writer wins money, but the reader loses. And we work for the reader.
Yesterday, I got an exciting offer via email. (All bold added by us):
My name is Bryan Clark, and I'm a big fan of your writing. I contacted you because I think I have a mutually beneficial agreement that will allow you to make additional money for articles you are already writing online. Let me give you an idea of how we can help each other.
We're looking for writers that can help increase the profile of our clients by linking to them within the context of their articles. The clients are huge, and we generally have one that can fit naturally in the context of most article niches.
In return, we pay generously for a single link for our clients.
If you are interested, I'd love to talk about it more.
Huh. Now that sounds shady. I responded, "Who are your clients? What's the deal?"
I'd love to jump on Skype with you or gChat perhaps if you'd like to talk more.
We work with big clients like Dell, T-Mobile, Sanford Brown, Motorola, etc. that are constantly looking for links to their products or websites. Writers like you are the natural medium to approach, as you write articles where these can appear naturally within the context of the article. We aren't looking for anything that doesn't occur semi-naturally.
We pay based on the size of the site the link goes on. If you want to send me a list of sites you currently write for I can give you a price breakdown.
Me: "Well, I write for Gawker.com, so feel free to send me a price breakdown based on that."
For a link on Gawker, we would pay $130 per link.
Not bad for five seconds of work! "Okay. Are you with an agency, or what?"
I'm with a small marketing agency called 43a. It's named after the apartment we started out of. We now have 9 employees and some of the biggest clients in the world. That said, we intend to stay small.
I'd love to add you to our database of writers that are currently making money for placing our links. Would that be okay?
Do you have any questions or concerns?
This is 43a's website, which notes "We utilize a team of highly educated full time staff writers eager to write for your company." Staff writers on allegedly respectable web sites! And no wonder they're eager, for those rates. Me: "Is this something that many sites do? I feel like editors might have an issue with it. Do you go strictly through writers or through editors as well?"
We work with bloggers mainly. That's not to say we don't have editors working for us (we work with editors at the Huffington Post, Business Insider and Technorati — to name a few). We generally meet with resistance when dealing with editors, but bloggers aren't paid as well and most are willing to make some extra money.
What we suggest (as long as you think it won't get you into any trouble — we don't want anything that isn't beneficial for both parties) is trying to drop a link in the article, and seeing if the editor mentions it. If he does, remove the link, and we'll go our separate ways. If he doesn't, we'll pay you handsomely, and we can continue if you want to. We don't do this for every article, and there is a certain "under the radar" element to it, so you don't want to over do it.
That said, I also don't want you in trouble with your editor. So if it can't be done, just let me know and we're totally cool with that.
Also, if you write for other sites (even as a guest blogger), there's always money to be made. We can do this for any site that is somewhat high-end.
There's the plan: get paid under the table to insert links to advertisers in editorial content; if you're caught, just remove the links without a word; if not, continue to get "paid handsomely." According to Mr. Clark, this is already happening at some of the most popular media sites on the internet—with or without the boss's knowledge.
Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget says of the arrangement: "Certainly not to my knowledge. (I've never heard of that firm or practice.) Any post I should look at? We don't have an explicit policy against it, but we also don't have explicit policies against throwing chairs through windows, spray-painting walls, or any of a thousand other things that common sense would tell you not to do.Obviously, we do link to advertiser sites occasionally, but the money goes to the company, not specific editors. And the relationship is disclosed." Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz tells us: "We have no knowledge of this company or its business model but we do not allow our editors, writers or bloggers to receive payments for editorial coverage, of course."
And if Bryan is to be believed, the writers who get into the easy money habit may carry it with them into any freelance work they do.
A few hours later—not to brag—I received one more email from Bryan:
I've looked over some of your recent work on Gawker.com and I think for a writer of your caliber I'd like to offer $175 instead of the previous $130. Gawker is a great site, and you are a wonderful writer, hence the bump.
Let me know if you have any questions, or if you would like to give it a try with a sample link.
I'm going to have to pass. But since this is all on the up-and-up, I encourage all the writers and editors out there getting paid by 43a to email me and tell me all about it. Nothing to be ashamed of. Right?
Updates: Technorati publisher Jill Asher tells us: "The Technorati editorial team would never link articles for payment as this is not a practice we embrace or support. This blatantly goes against our writer guidelines, policies and procedures. Technorati Media has never worked with or engaged in partnerships or payments with the agency, 43a, nor have we ever employed Bryan [Clark]."
Jennifer Weyrauch-Erickson of Motorola also sent us a denial: "I saw [the article], and wanted to let you know that Motorola Mobility does not use this firm. I would appreciate if you could update your article. I am trying to contact 43A as well."
We also received the following statement from Dell: "Hi Hamilton, I am Adam Brown, and I lead social media for Dell. I read your article this afternoon (very good, by the way) and want to tell you that I agree 100% with it. I also want to tell you that Dell has never worked with Bryan Clark nor an agency called 43a. What this agency is doing contradicts our Social Media Principles (which you can view at www.dell.com/socialmedia) and is just patently wrong."
Michelle Taylerson, a spokesperson for T-Mobile, sent the following: "Hello Hamilton, Our team saw your article yesterday and I wanted to follow up to let you know that T-Mobile is not a client of 43a and neither are our agency partners. If you don't mind updating your article, it would be much appreciated."
Sanford-Brown spokesman Mark Spencer tells us: "I've checked with our team and we have never worked with the firm 43a. Please update article online to reflect this."