Back in my movie review days, the goal of many of my peers was to get paid for what we do. Even many bloggers, at least earlier on, hoped that someday they'd be able to either monetize their own blogs (best scenario) or get paid to blog either at one of the Big Boyz, or at one of the blogs being started up by mainstream media outlets. In 2007, a group consisting of Melina (whom I hadn't met in meat world before), ModFab, Tata, DBK, MaryAnn, and me attended a New York Bloggers Summit at NBC headquarters, where we were told that the local affiliate really NEEDED us to help them out by providing content for them. And what do WE get in exchange for the shrimp, the glimpse of what was then Conan O'Brien's set, and being able to say "Oh, and I also blog for WNBC"? Well, they told us it was "increased traffic".
Now I've been blogging here for six and a half years, which makes me one of the longer-duration low-traffic blogs still in existence. Traffic has picked up in the last year for some reason, from the stubborn 350 page views a day that we had for a long time to around five or six hundred. It varies depending on what inbound links I have on any given day. I don't charge for subscriptions, and I'm fortunate not to have to ask for money because I've never regarded this blog as how I earn my living, and I've never been enough of a dreamer to think it ever will be. I value my readers, but mostly I blog because I have to write as much as I have to breathe. And as much fun as it might be to make my living blogging, the nice thing about NOT doing that is that if I don't feel like writing on a given day, or if I don't feel inspired, or if the state of the world is too depressing, I don't have to. I had a shot at an editor/blogger job when I was laid off from my last job, but there were reasons that site had to delay a decision, I got an offer I couldn't refuse from Giant Multinational Corporation, and here we are.
One of the problems with providing free content is that people get used to, well, getting free content. We all saw how Times Select worked out, and now the New York Times is trying a subscription model again. The other problem is that you have to have readers who would still read if you charged them to read. And in an age in which anyone who can type can set up a blog, it's not difficult for people to go elsewhere, no matter now smart, clever, funny, or knowledgeable you might be.
My old movie review friend Mary Ann has continued to do the movie review thing even as film criticism seems to be largely going the way of the dodo, Roger Ebert's new show notwithstanding -- and is still trying to earn a living doing it. She's obtained some pretty prestigious gigs in the quest to have online critics be regarded as just as good as print critics, but since shrinking print outlets are cutting such things, it probably says more about the state of print journalism than anything else. Online critics tend to be obsessives about particular genres and aspects of movies. Nathaniel is the go-to guy for awards handicapping. Michael Dequina knows more about Bollywood than anyone I've ever known. Mary Ann has always been good at what she does. She's an unabashed geek, and while you won't find her reviewing the latest art film auteur out of the Czech Republic, she knows her pop culture. Nick is your art flick guy. Then there's Vern, whose work I can't even describe because he's all over the lot. But aside from a few guest gigs on larger sites, not one of these great critics is making a living doing it. Mary Ann comes closest, but even she has decamped to London in search of greener pastures (and tall, gaunt, brooding men with cheekbones you could grate cheese on).
And it's via Mary Ann that I found out that NOT ONE of those people whose names appear in the left-hand column of Huffington Post gets paid. Think about it: Arianna Huffington is about to pocket around $40 million on the sweat of people who just want to see their names and photos in front of a lot of readers.
That's just wrong.
It's one thing for smaller bloggers to write because they want to, though every blogger worth his salt accepts donations, and for some who have lost jobs and are over 40 (and Goddess help me I know far too many of them), such donations are a lifeline. It's quite another for Arianna Huffington, who already had more money than she can spend in a thousand lifetimes, to run what is essentially a writing sweatshop, except that even sweatshop workers get paid a few pennies a day.
This is an issue that seems to have gone viral in the last few days, and it's striking a chord. Yes, there are writers and reporters like Ben Smith and Jason Linkins (who writes a vigorous defense here) who are actual paid staffers. And despite what Linkins seems to think, no one is out here enraged because John Kerry doesn't get paid for contributing an article. It's about people like Mayhill Fowler, who decided to stop giving the milk for free last year. And she's not the only HuffPo writer who has had enough. Just Google "Huffington Post write for free" and see what you get.
I've spent the last two and one half years working my ass off, learning a new job for which I had only a smattering of background. Some days it amazes me when I hear myself talk at work, just how much I've learned. Some days I sit at my laptop at ten o'clock at night after I've been working all day and cry, wondering how I'm ever going to do this. And some days I just pray that this job doesn't kill me before I'm able to leave it behind -- or until it spits me out for being too old, whichever comes first. But at least I'm working for a company that pays me well and provides health insurance and a pretty good 401(k) match. My employer doesn't expect me to come in and work eighty hours a week for free.
It's one thing for bloggers like me, or like Skippy, or like DCap, or any of hundreds of others, to give our work away; or even for writers like Amanda, who's managed to parlay Pandagon into book deals and speaking gigs, to write for free. I've never pretended to be a "citizen journalist." What I am is an op-ed writer. What I do is write about topics about which I need to vent, or things I want my mother to know about, or whatever moves me on any given morning. I'm grateful for the people who feel that what I have to say is worthwhile enough to visit here every day. But what I DON'T do is write so that an NBC affiliate, or Arianna Huffington, or anyone else can get rich. Where I do that, at least I get some remuneration for it.