Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writers, "Free Labor," and the Politics of Online Media

As a writer, I'm very interested in the ways in which writers are being treated by online media outlets. One of the reasons behind my recent post about Elephant Journal was a desire to see writers, and potential writers, be treated with more respect and dignity. Although I didn't mention it in the previous post, I've grown deeply ambivalent about Elephant's policy of not paying it's regular writers anything. I get the argument that it's still a somewhat small publication in the grand scheme, and not raking in the dough, but at the same time, writers can't pay their bills with the extra bit of website traffic that comes with exposure on a site like Elephant. Where's the balance between making enough income to survive, and recognizing that said income is made as a direct result of the work being done by the writers themselves? In the case of Elephant Journal, I don't know what's appropriate.

However, in the case of the Huffington Post, which has a fair number of Buddhist and other spiritual bloggers amongst it's "staff," the lines of fairness and respect were long ago crossed. Blogger and Buddhist Joshua Eaton makes the following points:

the Huffington Post relies on 8000 to 9000 unpaid writers—euphemistically called “bloggers”—for much of its content. Many balked at AOL’s purchase of the newssite, and two labor unions—the National Writers Union and the Newspaper Guild (AFL-CIO)—have joined a boycott of the Huffington Post started by Visual Art Source. So far, Ms. Huffington has refused repeated requests to meet with union leaders.

This is hardly an isolated incident for either AOL or the Huffington Post. Earlier this month Huffington Post Politics outraged the graphic design community by holding a contest to design their Twitter logo—for free. Back in June AOL followed Huffington Post‘s lead by adding almost 6000 unpaid bloggers to Patch, a network of hyper-local news sites over which Ms. Huffington now presides. (This is aside from the fact that Patch is already run by contracted editors making $38000 to $45000 per year while working 60 to 80 hours per week and freelancers making $50 to $100 per article.)

I encourage people to read his entire post, which includes the shoddy experience he had last year as a candidate for an intern position last year with the Huff Po.

One of the reasons I bring these two publications up in the same post is that fairly or not, the kinds of criticisms being laid upon the Huffington Post are also happening to the Elephant Journal. In some ways, it's irrelevant that Huff Po's budget is in the millions of dollars, while Elephant's budget is probably no better than the annual income at a barely above minimum wage job. People see unpaid writers, increasing popularity, and increasing revenue, and the words "exploitation" and "users" come flying out of their mouths.

Now, to provide a bit of contrast, one of the webzines I write for,Life as a Human, pays it's regular writers a monthly stipend. They have done this since the beginning - I know this because I have written for them since the website was launched in February 2010. Now, the stipend isn't a lot of money, but I do believe it's a recognition of the fact that any revenue coming in to the website is due, in great part, to the quality of writing being presented. In addition, the editorial team has always treated my writing well, and frequently is excited to see new work from me coming their way. Being writers and artists themselves, they chose to share the website with their fellow writers from the beginning, even asking our imput on various design changes that have been made over the past year and a half. Although I hope to someday be bringing in more money for some of my writing than I currently do, the leadership at Life as a Human is an example worth upholding of how to support the talent that keeps it running.

I intend to write more on these issues in the future, as it's likely to remain a source of contention for all writers doing work online. Your thoughts and comments on this are encouraged here as well.

*Image by Mike Licht of notionscapital.


Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, I would add that visual artists are often treated in a similar fashion - we are continually asked to donate work for benefits, etc., as if we should be grateful for the opportunity to give away our work for free. Of course I do donate work when I can but it is that attitude that is most irritating. I am working on a project right now for which the compensation is exposure and possible media attention, not money. Well, I agreed to do it, so I am, but when is it ok to say no to this kind of thing? I haven't been able to answer that yet.

I also wonder if your fair treatment at Life as A Human isn't related to its being based in Canada, where artists are required to receive artist fees for their participation if the organizers want to receive government funding - even small, local organizations. I find the general attitude towards cultural workers across the board much more friendly and respectful than anything i have ever encountered in the US.

Ultimately, there is a double standard that is very frustrating for artists. As a society, we admire the high fees that seasoned professionals receive - think of lawyers, doctors, and architects. It is a sign of their accomplishment to get the big bucks. But an artist who has worked all their life to hone their skills and create good work - that is supposed to be given away without complaint and with gratitude.

Well, I could go on and on about how this double standard plays into the perception that government funding of the arts is wasting money, etc., but I will spare you : )

Thanks for pointing to this topic.

Jana said...

Thanks for this Nathan. This has also bothered me. I could dump on Huff Post and Elephant Journal, but it is the writers that I fault for providing free content to support those money making websites. I think most of these writers are not professionals anyway and it seems like an ego thing going on with simply seeing their words on a popular site. I don't think they really respect their own talents as writers and have cheapened their own work by offering it for free. I suspect though, that they might just be using these sites as a means to drive traffic to their own websites and blogs.

Algernon said...

Excellent topic. Michael Yates wrote a terrific piece about Huffington Post and its exploitation of writers here, in which he makes the point that "Liberals...seem to work under the assumption that there is always a compelling reason to throw working people under the bus if there is a chance that the greater good they claim to be striving to achieve can be pushed ever so slightly forward."

Exploiting labor is nothing new. What makes the exploitation of artists uniquely acceptable is that so many people in the broader public do not consider what artists do to be legitimate work.

A writer or other artist may choose to invest some labor in a concern that is not guaranteed. For instance, as hard as it is to believe, Jackson's "Lord of the Ring" project was seen as a highly risky project with no guarantee of success. Actors worked in that film for very low fees, far below what a legit union actor contract would guarantee them, because of the risk.

Now of course those movies were enormous hits that made multiple fortunes for the executives (and for the film's director). When Jackson began working on a film of the The Hobbit, the actors wanted to work on normal actor contacts since the film's financial success is not in doubt. No go. In fact, the producers (and the director) moved production out of New Zealand to get away from the actor's union.

I won't be going to see The Hobbit -- the book is wonderful anyway -- and my boycott of the Huffington Post continues. It's one thing for an artist to invest in a concern in hope of future work and compensation; it is quite another to be told "you should be HAPPY to work for free and earn profits for us!" To hell with that.

Nathan said...

I totally agree that this attitude extends to visual artists, actors, and others. And no doubt, the underlying sense that what we contribute to society is either "extra" or not needed at all plays into these issues.

It seems to me that the extension of opportunities for artists and writers online has also extended the opportunities to be exploited, or treated as hobbyists who should be grateful to gain a bit of attention or traffic.

I actually want to be generous with my writing, to share what I can for free, and just let people enjoy that. I have no problem offering some of my work for free, but know that if it goes too far in that direction, it's an easy excuse for media organizations to just keep expecting more of the same.

Jana - you bring up an interesting point as well, that perhaps too many of us are willing to give it all away, hoping for some reward in the future, or hoping that the traffic to our websites will eventually help support us financially. There have been a fair number of folks - including myself, Algernon and Robyn - who have been raising some of these issues more regularly on our blogs. I kind of believe this is the natural process where the novelty of just being online and having some readers or admirers of your art isn't enough anymore. That when you see an outlet like Huff Post sell for $300 million dollars, after having paid so little to it's writers over the years, it's hard to just keep going along feeling good about donating your efforts and getting a few nice comments in response.

Robyn said...

Just came across this based on someone else's post on the same topic (something must be in the air):

Apparently the idea that artists should give it away for free spans all disciplines. I think I have finally found my limit after reading your post and these others. "Vocation isn't an invitation to disrespect". Yah.

Nathan said...

What gets me is how many of these organizations have enough money to offer something for the work, but just won't. The excuses are endless, but in the end, they'd rather get everything free.

I'm sympathetic to the start up orgs or groups that have little or no money, but once a certain line is crossed financially, any argument against offering artists and writers something for their work falls flat in my opinion.

Nathan said...

Here's another one. It's totally in the air.

Tammy said...

It's disheartening to see someone like Waylon Lewis of Elephant claiming he doesn't have enough money to pay writers while he is living in an $800,000 house in boulder. Guess he'll never have enough money.

Nathan said...

"$800,000 house in boulder" - that's just sad. Makes me even less sympathetic if that's how much his house is worth.

Anonymous said...

Not that you asked before writing this...!...but I very much want to pay writers. I'm only a year out of foreclosure, so give me time. My father and myself and his father and his father all works in media and's something I hope elephant can get toward. Remember this fact, before you get into the blame game: if every reader at elephant paid even 5 cents an article, I could afford to pay writers handsomely tomorrow. It's a chicken and the egg thing. For now, mentioned Huff Post (35 million readers a month, corporate-owned) and elephant in the same breath is flattering, on some level, but off the mark. We have one half-time staff person other than myself. Period. We just paid off our last (modest) debts three months ago. Like I said, give us time—and if you subscribe ($1/month) that'll help get us to a point of profitability—enabling us to pay our writers (which would be good for elephant, not just our writers—we'd get more quality, consistency and accountability—you know, journalism, not just blogging).

yours in the vision of a strong, noble fourth estate,

Waylon Lewis

Anonymous said...

Nathan, Tammy, now you're just getting gossipy and personal. How would you like us to go through your finances?

I bough my home, my first home, with no family money, after working on elephant and other jobs for 6 plus 5 years...I don't own a car, I bike everywhere, my house is solar offset (uses almost no electricity)...and my interns and Lindsey have worked out of my home, first floor, for years, saving me on expensive office space.\

Oh, and Tammy—I regularly have about $500 - 2000 in my account, have never traveled (always worked), work 7 days a week and 10 hours or more a day (and enjoy it, for the most part), and am trying my mom (not neeearly enough). "Never enough money?" Hah. I do hope to do well by doing good, but I'm not there yet. I grew up with nothing—it's the American dream to start your own gig.

Not that any of this is any of business, or worth responding to—but I've had some respect for Nathan, though he ignored my personal email when he last criticized me/elephant.

Okay, back to work.

Nathan said...


In response to the gossip comment, I responded to Tammy's comment, that was all. You're right though, I could have said something differently, like "how do you know that?" or "why is the cost of his house important here?" I'll consider that next time.

As for my not getting back to your e-mail, I didn't have anything else to say or discuss at that time.

But what provoked you to come back here now and leave these comments, nearly a month later? Odds are that few of the regular readers here will see them, including Tammy.


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