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Welcome to my Sweatshop

MsExPat's picture

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."

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wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

That's really the key here. Ms Fowler has it, in a time that encourages people to have none.

Submitted by Elliott Lake on

farmer looks at what they do. I could accept commodity pricing as the only model for farming........ produce the most I could of one thing, and sell it at the lowest price (that's how commodities are priced, at what's offered).... wholesaling myself out of existence but making the corporate buyers happy; it's what farmers are trained to do by ag schools, unv's, state ag depts...

Or, I can grow a bunch of different things, process them myself, sell retail only, not wholesale, and keep the profits myself. Yes, it's more mental work than pooling my wheat at the elevator and taking the price everybody gets, yes it's more mental work to research what is new and different, and to market and promote and package what I grow and make. But it also pays the bills in a way in which I am free of the demands of the commodity market... and there's the whole being paid retail rather than wholesale pricing.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

Because even if you sell your work retail, you still have to sell it. And, as we all know, the Internets are free!

Professional writers are in the same boat as musicians and a lot of other workers who deal in the production of, ahem, "Intellectual Property". It's very difficult, if not impossible to make a living by selling your writing, your CDs and your novels directly to buyers over the internet (as anyone--hi Lambert!-- who's tried to blog and get rich can confirm.)

It would be great if you could just set up a booth at your weekly Greenmarket. "Hey! Get your tasty, locally grown pesticide free thought provoking essays here!!!"

But, sadly, there's no free or low cost Farmer's Market for journalists and writers.

If you want to make a living at it, even if you stay independent, you have to deal with one of the rent-extracting corporate devils like Google, Amazon, Apple.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

promoting one of her books, I turn whatever it is off.

Besides the books, someone is making a ton of money from those ads at HuffPo and it's not the writers. Plus, that whole tabloid thing in the right-hand column makes me nuts. Seriously, with all that's going on, who cares which starlet is peanut smuggling or which reality star is imploding? In a few months, no one will even remember who they are.

And she's not the only one who treats writers that way. It's truly frightening to look at the job boards for journalists these days. So much of the work is from places like Demand that pay $5 ($5?!!) for an article. Plus, they have such strict criteria in terms of SEO that it's not so much writing as filling in blanks with key words.

I've been a writer for a lonnnng time and have a decent enough resume, but absolutely no work. But lots of offers to write something "on spec" or for free. As soon as I find a grocery store, a gas station, and a veterinarian who don't charge for their services, I'll be sure to look into that!

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

Thirty years ago I made a promise to myself that I'd never work for any media outlet that didn't pay me fairly. And I've kept it. (I make an exception for my "Pro Bono" work, like Corrente, of course).

I find supporting something like Huffington to be as repugnant as crossing a picket line.

One of the reasons why Versailles has gotten so, so powerful and clubby in the last twenty years, I'm convinced, is because of the collapse of the writing profession. Any journalist and writer with ambition and savvy realizes instantly that there's more future in being part of the echo chamber than in being a passionate and daring writer.

There's always been a media elite, but there used to be a real alternative press, and even the mainstream press made space for long form articles and commentary by writers like Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion.

Submitted by Elliott Lake on

focus than repeating Arianna. (Though there are authors selling books, and musicians selling their cd's, at our local market ;) ) ---I haven't read huffingtonpost since before the election, so I'm unfamiliar with how things are over there. Surely though it's not blog over there or nothing, though?
In my case, it's a mix of sales to locals, internet, mail order...and oh by golly gee whiz, it isn't only journalists that have intellectual property to defend, or profit from. Anyone can sell plants--- or try to. Anyone can make soap or other value added botanical stuff--half assedly. What you do with what you make, and how you package it, how you market it, make the difference.

As long as you spend your time feeling like you are only in opposition to Arianna, you are stuck in the same box with her. Take some marketing courses maybe, see if there might be an idea out there that will work for you that you haven't already thought of. If there's a trade group for journalists you can become part of, there would perhaps be a raft of information there, too.

I guess though if you internalize Arianna's clique's m.o., you will be stuck within her payscales. It's up to you.