I found an interesting exchange between Cord Jefferson of Gawker and some of his readers. His article ridicules an ad for a music site called Prefix that, after requesting a variety of proofs of professionalism, offers to pay $2 per 200-word post:
The kicker: Anyone lucky enough to get hired will be expected to write at least three 200-plus-word posts a day, for which they will be compensated $2 per post. Think of it, recent J-school grads: All you'd need to do is write 10,000 words a week and you're looking at a cool $100.
In the comments section, "davepark," who identifies himself a representative of Prefix, returns fire:
Not claiming to be the place where you'll be making tons of money, but we are a good place to get your name out at this point. Hopefully we can do well enough to get an office down the line.
Another commenter, "verbicidemag," who says he's from a similar site, also make the case for the extremely low freelancer pay rate:
You might wonder, why can't Prefix — or other small sites who pay similar wages (or nothing at all) — pay more? Because they don't make much money at all. Online advertising pays very little, and it generally takes at least 350,000 to 500,000 or more monthly uniques just to pull down a couple grand. Prefix, like many other small sites, is likely scraping by.
However, at least one other commenter, "SteveDoor," makes a good point:
…the relationship between a publication and a writer is almost always much better if that writer is writing for a byline than for a terrible paycheque. "We can't afford to pay you" is a much better message for a writer than "we think your writing is next to worthless."
It's an interesting discussion. On the one hand, it is true that writers just out of college need entry-level places to sell their initial work in order to start up the ladder. On the other hand, if most sites pay ridiculously low rates, where will they go to get better?