Welcome to my Sweatshop
Mayhill Fowler's goodbye to the Huffington Post sums up for me all that is wrong with the way that "citizen journalism" has been re-purposed for the internet-age:
So let this be a warning to you, citizen journalism enthusiasts. In the end, what you are doing really is enhancing somebody else’s bottom line. And think for a minute what it means when you throw yourself into working for a place, as I did, without first walking into the company’s human resources office to sign some paperwork that legally binds you and your employee to a relationship.
Okay, what follows is a rant, a very personal one. I feel Fowler's pain. I've made a living from writing all of my life, struggling against the workplace policies of media institutions like the NYT, who pay non-staff writers below professional scale (even those on contract)--because they can get away with it. Because, after all, it is the NYT and, oh, think of the exposure!
(Ten years back, someone from the National Writer's Union told me that up to half of the NYT content is written by non-staff writers. I'm not sure if that's still true, but it looks like it to me. Certainly most of the extra online content is by paid contract workers. A contract worker doesn't belong to the union, and has none of its protections, natch.)
But at least, at the end of a day's work, you'd get a check from these guys. Never did I expect there would come a time when media outlets would be able to get away with offering NOTHING in return for one's work.
I call it Domestic Outsourcing. It is in the process of swallowing my profession. That's why I boycott places like the Huntington Post. I don't go there, ever, if I can help it. I don't even want to give them a single hit. I would urge you to do the same.
Since we are all blogosphere types here, I know what you are thinking: isn't it a good thing that these bastions of information gatekeeping are crumbling? Isn't the world a better place now that we are not at the mercy of elitist professionals, and anyone with a computer can upload live videos to YouTube?
Well, theoretically, yes. At first flush this was true. But with lighting speed The Powers that Be have figured out how to game the "citizen journalism" model. From the Huff Post, to the "reader feedback" blogs at trad newspaper websites, to content farms like Demand Media, corporate media has turned community journalism into a cash cow.
How does Domestic Outsourcing affect the flow of information? Well, it means we get a lot of Wal-Mart journalism. Like all the outsourced crap in that store, Domestically Outsourced content is abundant, cheap, and disposable. Yes, often local bloggers do a much better job of covering an event than paid reporters. But then what happens to these "citizen journalists"? The best, most talented ones try to keep going. That means they either have to squeeze writing and reporting in on the side of a day job, or get used to being poor. It's not sustainable. So they drift away, and soon are replaced by another eager crop. The career trajectory of a Citizen Journalist is about the same as a lean and hungry Chinese factory worker who migrates from the village to the city.
Meanwhile, if you happen to be among the lucky writers who actually hold a secure, paying gig, the Domestic Outsourcing model is there as a looming threat, to keep you from doing anything that might challenge the conventional wisdom, and cause you to lose your place.
Domestic Outsourcing privileges the Blah Blah Blah of punditry. It's the reality TV of journalism--cheaper to produce than actually reporting, reflecting, thinking. So be aware: when you read something in a "community" media source like the Huffington Post, remember that "community" is just media newspeak for "sweatshop."