You should absolutely read Noah Davis's overview of what it means to be a freelance writer in 2015.
Many newer outlets offer upwards of fifty cents per word or more—sites like The Verge might pay a dollar per word—as do established publications including New York's blog network and The Guardian. “You can expect that two hundred and fifty dollars is an ultimate baseline for anything that you do,” Kyle Chayka, a New York-based freelancer, told me. “No one is paying less than that. My own perception is that fifty cents per word is a fair going rate for an experienced freelance writer who’s writing something primarily for web that’s been reported.” But still: figure twelve hundred or fifteen hundred words per piece, and you’re talking closer to twenty cents per word. “That’s depressing math when you’re doing your budget,” Erik Malinowski, a freelancer writer, said.
It's not all bad news — more outlets are paying freelancers than ever before — but freelancers are balancing on a cliff made from venture capital cash, and publishers still, almost two decades after the birth of the mass-market internet, don't know how to make money out of advertising clicks. (We have our own revenue system here at Seattle Review of Books, and the response has been solid, though we could always use more Sponsors.)
So what can you do as a reader? In short, it's tough out there for freelancers and if you read a piece you like, you should share it far and wide, because clicks (unfortunately) are the way that most publishers determine a piece's worth. If you really like a piece, you should write in to the publication to let them know how much you like it. And, as always, a little bit of praise never hurt anyone; maybe track the writer down on Twitter or Facebook and let them know how much you enjoyed their writing.