Let’s (Not) Pay Wine Writers What They Are Worth

Let’s (Not) Pay Wine Writers What They Are Worth

Google, SEO, Keywords, AI & Journalism

Why should wine writers be paid, when online technology firms can manipulate Google SEO algorithms (that now change monthly), leverage keyword optimization, and use AI-driven content scraping to pull articles from the internet? These methods are used to boost site impressions, advertising programs, and link and tag winery sites without compensating writers for their editorial, leading to an unsustainable competitive environment for publishers.

In other words, wine writers, other content creators, and actual publishing platforms are competing with digital scamming and a grand SEO play for unpaid content. The growing use of artificial intelligence (AI), as used by offshore tech platforms exacerbates the problem. They often outperform genuine digital wine, travel, and other media sites – while not paying writers for content – and creating an untenable situation for creators and traditional digital media outlets.

According to Greig Santos-Buch, Co-Founder of Winetraveler.com, “The challenge today isn’t just about creating content; it’s about preserving the authenticity and integrity of wine journalism in an age where AI and SEO often overshadow real experiences and expertise. Paying writers is not just an expense; it’s an investment in quality and trustworthiness. Winetraveler began as a small publication that was founded on helping the consumer, we weren’t looking for compensation yet our founders invested in our writers because we believe in authenticity and genuine experience. We already had our work cut out for us competing against behemoth public companies, but now both large and small organizations appear set on manipulating search algorithms for better positioning, disregarding the consumer entirely, and search engines are supporting it. Despite this, we will continue to invest in our steadfast mission, regardless of what monopoly search engines and our competitors continue to throw at us.”

Publishers should pay writers for content – if they want to share real-time experiences and authentic context with their readers – and to build long-term and financially sustainable outcomes. It seems we should be able to fund quality editorial for those writing well and frequently, that have decent palates, are responsive to new ideas and breaking stories, and are proactive about outreach and communications within the wine industry. Expectations of writers are too high, and valuations too low to expect those editorial synergies.

Paying for Content – What do Writers say?

Tim Atkin, MW, features writer Peter Pharos, who elucidates the problem in this tongue-in-cheek description of the high standards wine writers should adhere to, including taking one for the wine business team, because writing is a privilege endowed by their publishers. Peter points out that good wine writers are becoming content providers, and are paid not for investigative reporting, but for platform capitalism in his article “The Good Wine Writer”. Yikes, is this what it would take to justify paying wine writers what they are worth?

Sean Sullivan, Northwest Wine Report has a lot to say about this. “You have to look at other ways to bring in money in addition to writing: speaker fees, educational classes, consulting. But essentially, you need to do a lot of different things to cobble together enough to have it pencil out in some way where you can still write.

“There’s an endless stream of people who are happy, at least initially, writing for literally nothing. They dream there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s not. There’s another group of people who don’t need the money for various reasons, so they don’t mind doing something they enjoy for little pay. Both make it very hard for people who are trying to make a living based off their writing.”

If this topic is of interest, you can also reference the Wine Industry Advisor wine writer series “Turning the Tables, Interviewing the Interviewers” to learn what other writers say about the state of wine writing and other challenges they endure. I have asked over 75 writers if making a living is viable. I have learned that it is not, without other supplemental income, or by parlaying their writing skills and wine passions into something related, such as communications manager at a winery, book author, byline at an established wine publication or newspaper, etc.

Several years ago, I met a fledgling writer at a wine media conference. Elizabeth Smith, a former college professor and highly credentialed writer, who was interested in learning more about the Willamette Valley wine scene, and profiled several of my winery clients for various publications. Her perspective on monetizing is summed up here. “Freelancing is intrinsically rewarding and there is a great deal of freedom, but it is financially challenging from the perspective of a single-income household. It requires a considerable time commitment to produce quality writing, including interviews and research. The rate of pay often doesn’t reflect the time spent.” True that, and to my previous points, she was able to parlay her wine writing activities into a well-paid copy writer job at Naked Wines.

How this happened was somewhat serendipitous. Christy Bors, Naked Wines Director of Brand Marketing, happened to read Elizabeth’s interview in Wine Industry Advisor on LinkedIn. Here’s what she had to say. “More writers deserve the chance to go from freelance to full-time. There’s this age-old narrative that NO writer endorses – but non-writers seem to – that writing is a hobby. A side hustle. A freelance opportunity. An artistic impulse. An opportunity to get your name out there. Something everyone can do, so why should I pay you to? Isn’t that crazy? There are more and more opportunities for corporations to dispel great writing as a nice-to-have, and drive it forward as a need. It’s important to recognize writers as the critical team players they are and to match that desire with action.”

I have often been told and understand that print media is dead, although I still see new print publications popping up, focused on the beverage business. There are plenty of online platforms paying freelance journalists, but they likely do not have sustainable wages. And yes, I remember the days of $1.00 U.S. per word, today reduced in many cases to a middling 0.25 cents as the going rate. Part of the problem of course is that people naturally don’t want to pay for something they can have for free or cheap, and are choosing those options over hiring fully invested professional journalists.

What’s happening with Digital Media?

Has online wine business writing survived as a profession and means to monetize the writing craft? Peter Mitham, Wine Business Monthly has his doubts. “A big question I have (and it came up at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers) is the role of the writer in the market today. Traditionally, the writer was looked up to; today, they seem to be more about guiding and empowering people. The trick is to build up a portfolio of income streams. While many writers dream of publishing a book, few trade titles ever earn out their advance let alone become the bestsellers that allow them to deliver an ongoing income stream to the author.

“Throughout my career, I’ve seen publications pare their per-word rates, often by half, or simply hold the course. Blame it on digital media, which has accelerated the production cycle, avoided the material and distribution costs associated with print, and decimated advertising revenue. It all contributes to a devaluation of the writer’s remuneration even if the content itself remains as meaningful to readers.” With this in mind, how will writers get paid what they are worth?

Wine writers have taken wine and trip comps as a form of payment for many years, given no other options. Pay-to-play editorial is fine if disclosed, but there is a natural conflict of interest. Note that many writers and publications have policies that don’t allow pay and play. This still leaves the question of how will writers be paid (after wine and trip expenses), or must they rely on being subsidized by the wine industry? Will they turn to writing advertorial copy, and accepting advertising or sponsored content?

Editorial and Content Creation – Is there optimism?

Author Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man that “Hope Springs Eternal”, and it could serve as the official mantra for wine and travel journalists. Writers are finally taking their passion and commitment to other platforms to stay engaged and keep their readers informed, despite the lack of monetary reward.

Grassroots websites are springing up to support writers like The Vintner Project and recently this writer-focused networking platform Grapeloop. They offer connections with wineries, and communications companies and seeks to empower writers. Co-founder, Devin Parr, shares her perspective on both sites. “Wine writing, and writing in general, has become so much more democratized – which is a good thing! People cover more than one beat, write for various media outlets, and set the tone and pace of their editorial voice. The Vinter Project has always championed lesser-known writers in wine as well as stories that you can’t find anywhere else, and our incredible army of contributors value this.”

“Seeing that wine professionals were often operating in silos, my co-founders, Nelson Gerena and Kiril Kirilov and I also created Grapeloop with that same goal. The wine community needs fewer barriers to entry and more inclusiveness and we’ve watched the platform blossom into a welcoming, collaborative, and bustling place for people to grow their respective businesses.”

Subscription-based programs like Substack offer a networking and publishing platform, and many writers are transitioning their sites in hopes of generating revenue in exchange for their journalistic efforts. Substack is a self-publishing platform with content management, networking, and payment tools built into the system. I hear from media colleagues like Fredric Koeppel, Bigger Than Your Head, that while this all sounds terrific, much effort is required to build, promote and generate revenue on Substack. If you are a freelance wine writer looking for a new platform, read this article by Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack, and decide for yourself if Substack makes sense.

A seasoned (but not salty) writer, Paul Gregutt, Northwest Wine Guide weighed in on his Substack experience. “As a lifelong writer and someone who has tried all forms of media up to and including digital media, I can honestly say that Substack is the best forum for writers (and readers!) I have ever found. I have chosen it for the freedom and convenience of the platform, and I may or may not ever try to go with paid subscriptions. However, other than my self-promotion, there has been no assistance from Substack. They provide the platform and after that, you’re on your own. So, until I get up to a serious level of subscribers, I’m not going to try asking for funding support.”

Conclusion

There is no obvious solution. It’s hard to tell what will transpire with paid wine and travel editorial in upcoming years. Committed writers seem to either be adapting, or accepting the devaluation of their work. The future does not look promising for journalism. I invite your comments and perspectives.

10 Responses

  1. The problems identified here are not particular to wine writing. The same sorts of challenges apply to virtually anyone trying to make a career in the arts. Writing, acting, painting, playing music… the list goes on. We do it for the pleasure of doing it, and earn a living elsewhere.

    1. I’m probably too close to this issue, Paul. My experience is that no-one appreciates or values anything that is free. I know consulting is different than writing, but When I started consulting 15 years ago, I did some pro bono work as proof of concept, which never resulted in paid engagements. I quickly established billing rates and have increased them ever since. I’m hoping that the subscription model established by platforms like WordPress and Substack would turn the tides. This remains to be seen.

  2. It seems to me that the demand side of this typical supply-demand equation is the problem. [The vast majority of] people don’t want to read anymore, especially online. And if they don’t want to read, they don’t need writers.

    For a writer to lament the death of reading is expected, but for a business, they’re going to give the people what they want – TikToks, Reels, eye-candy in Instagram, sexy photos in Wine Spectator, etc.

    And while search engines sort of propped up online writing for a bit by favoring long-form content for a few years, those days are done — because they know [the vast majority of] people don’t want to read online anymore.

    1. So so true, and sadly so, Jessyca. I don’t suppose any amount of consumer education will change the fact about lack of reading. And, the real audience for wine editorial is quite small as it is.

  3. “There’s another group of people who don’t need the money for various reasons, so they don’t mind doing something they enjoy for little pay. Both make it very hard for people who are trying to make a living based off their writing.” I feel for you Carl. You’ve just described the boutique winery industry in a nutshell.

    1. Great point Mark. I’ve heard the lament from Sean Sullivan many times, as he is in the category of writing for a living.

      For me as a publicist, its important to look closely at the quality of writing, and the outlets it appears in, regardless of the writers financial situation.

  4. As a writer and WSET 2, I feel your pain. Technology and chat bots are taking our very personal art material, and are churning it up and spitting it out to satisfy greed and instant gratification.

    And yet we must forge ahead complacently feeding The Machine in order to remain creators.

    1. Debra, yeah, brave new (not better) world for journalists. Related and ancillary opportunities seem to be the way to go. Being stubbornly consistent helps 😉

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