Back in the day of the quill this wasn't a problem. First off, being able to write meant something much more literal. I'm guessing the invention of the typewriter led to more poor submissions, but even then, the struggle of typing and correcting, coupled with paying to send a clean manuscript through the mail, still kept numbers rather small.
Enter the computer and word processing and guidelines available online and sending submissions off with one mouse click. Suddenly the physical acts of writing and submitting have become so simplified all those people who believe they can write are really doing it and sending it out hoping for publication. It is often implied that this over supply caused the proliferation of nonpaying literary journals. Maybe I'm prejudiced, but I wouldn't agree. The elite journals that publish big-name writers, the ones new writers rarely if ever get into, continue to pay fairly well, while nonpaying journals, particularly those online, may pay little or nothing but offer new writers––who otherwise wouldn't get published or paid–-an opportunity to break in.
At the risk of repeating myself, this over supply of writers has caused another seriously bad trend––the content site. For those unfamiliar with the term, the sites range anywhere from something like Suite 101 where writers post articles on a variety of topics and are paid a revenue share for ad clicks, to sites like Demand Studios where writers pick up assignments for a flat fee of anywhere from $3 to $15 for articles ranging from about 100 to 600 words. The latter sites serve as suppliers for other sites like eHow, About.com, etc.
I already covered in another post why I think these sites dumb down writing. They also exploit wannabe writers with a very old sales ploy, convincing them that they are part of a select group.
You've seen it a million times in sales pitches received in the mail.
"Your income level qualifies you to purchase a time share in..."
"Blank Properties, because you appreciate the finer things in life..."
"You've worked hard, now you deserve to enjoy your retirement at Living Well Estates..."
These usually include photos of well-coifed and apparently well-healed individuals you'd like to believe you resemble or could resemble if you lived in these places.
In much the same way, content sites lure writers and keep them writing for slave wages by making them believe only the very best need apply. Some sites suggest they prefer journalism degrees. They all request writing samples and often a CV. Of course, it is impossible to know how many people are ever really rejected––almost as hard as finding out what the company makes off each article. My strong suspicion is the selection process is pretty lax, and they leave the rest up to the poor copy editors––who often make even less per article than the writers, if you can believe it.
One blog post by someone who was rejected by Suite 101 says they claim to accept only 20% of applicants. Notice the clever use of "only." Twenty percent is dang high if you think about it. Most online lit journals fall in the area of accepting around 1%-2% of submissions. Given the number of people who probably submit without checking the guidelines and send samples of the wrong type of article, my guess is it still isn't very hard to break in.
I will give Suite some credit (as you know I do write for them) in that they do have many writers at the site who are experts in their fields and/or thoroughly research articles to make them informative and even provide some new insights. We tend to be writers who are just looking for a little more exposure than we'd get through our blogs and, hey, making a few pennies wouldn't hoit. Unfortunately, I don't think the ability to write those articles is a criterion for an invitation to join.
While I and others may have our reasons, it pains me in the forums to read posts from people who really think writing for Suite or other content or pay-per-click sites gives them some kind of bragging rights and inroads that outweigh the minuscule pay. They attend writers conferences and return crestfallen when other writers don't consider them professionals, or they attempt to submit their articles as clips for better writing gigs and don't understand why they aren't taken more seriously.
If writers want to make a few bucks writing for these sites, I have no problem with it. I just wish the sites would be honest about what they are and what they count for, so more writers could go into it with their eyes open.