The internet killed the journalism star

You wouldn’t walk into a store and walk out with a New York Times without paying for it, would you?

Tim Kreider has a brilliant piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”. In it, he perfectly describes the situation that many “content providers” on the internet, writers like me, Amy, and LOLGOP, and my wife, photographer Anne Savage deal with on a weekly basis: people asking us to provide content for them for free.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. [...]

I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.

I will freely admit that writing beats baling hay or going door-to-door for a living, but it’s still shockingly unenjoyable work. I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

Early in my writing career, I did provide free content in order to gain further exposure. Even today, I cross-post my stuff to Daily Kos from time to time. What has changed is that the stuff I put up a Daily Kos is stuff I want the rest of the world to see and react to and they have a larger audience than this blog has at the moment.

But when Huffington Post Detroit launched last year and asked me to be a contributor and when one of the major news outlets asked me to write a couple of pieces a week for their news site, I turned them down. Why? Because they wanted to make money from my writing but weren’t willing to pay me for the “privilege”.

I can’t tell you how often Anne and I are asked to give our stuff away. Anne, in particular, is trying to establish her career as a photographer. She’s built up quite a portfolio of material, photographed for the White House and President Obama (yes, they paid her), and is recognized internationally. People love her photos. And for good reason: she’s outrageously talented. But, as Kreider points out, they don’t love her photos enough to pay her for them far too often. There are just too many people out there with digital cameras willing to give their photos away just to see their name on a website somewhere and free-but-average trumps paying for quality most of the time on the internet.

Kreider has this advice for up-and-coming “content providers”:

I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

I concur with his advice with one caveat: If you can get something tangible from the exchange, go ahead. There are times when the exposure is worth it. You have to make that determination for yourself. But always keep it in your mind that when you give your material away, you risk being seen as putting a $0.00 price tag on your art and if YOU don’t value it any more than that, others probably won’t either.

My strong feelings on this are precisely why all of the contributors at Eclectablog are paid, even if it’s far less than I wish I could and that I think they are worth.

One more thing: if there are artists and creative types whose work is important to you, reward them for it. When we run fundraisers here at Eclectablog, the $5 donations with notes saying, “I just wanted to do something even though I can’t do much” are just as important to us as the $100 donations. If we don’t support artists and writers and photographers, some day they may not be there for us. And that would be a tragedy of monumental proportions.

Thanks for reading.

H/T: My good pal Abby C.

UPDATE: From Scopedog in the comments, here’s video of Harlan Ellison on this very topic back in 2007. It’s positively brilliant:

Also, so you can have the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” brainworm in YOUR head, too ; )

  • judyms9

    People must pay to warm their homes and they should pay to warm their souls, which is what the arts do for us.

    • Eclectablog

      Well said. Thank you.

  • Scopedog

    I just read Tim Krieder’s article, and boy, does he hit the nail on the head. As a freelance illustrator, I’ve watched in disbelief as artists, writers and musicians have gone through this (myself included). Worse, the tech industry and members of academia have _defended_ the process, offering nothing to artists except, “Well, at least you’re getting exposure.” Thankfully, it seems that there is a push back, but the mood still exists that all we are is just content providers, and our work doesn’t mean a damn.

    Writer Harlan Ellison has been warning about this for years, starting back in the 1990s when the Internet was gaining notice. There’s a great video of him talking about “paying the writer”, and it’s spot-on:

    Thanks for this.

    • Eclectablog

      I love Kreider’s joke about “Artist dies from exposure”!

      Thanks for your comment. It definitely adds to the conversation.

  • helzapoppn

    F*** Yeah, Harlan Ellison for the WIN!
    The man NEVER gave his work away for nothing – not when he was in his 20s, writing under pseudonyms for “true crime” pulps and “mens’ magazines” in New York, not when Hollywood studio execs asked him to draft a premise or touch up a script on “spec,” not during the Writers’ Guild strikes when producers or other execs threatened to use scabs to rewrite his scripts.
    Harlan has done more for the cause of writers and other creative types getting paid for their work — even in this “New Media” age of cross-posting, “listicles” and other forms of content aggregation — than just about anyone else alive.
    On the flip side, his no-compromise stance has cost him a LOT of work over the decades (but then, if it’s mostly unpaid why should he want to do it?), and is a big part of the reputation he’s earned for being “difficult” or “angry.”

    • Eclectablog

      Great comment. And, yeah, he’s certainly angry in that video. Epically so!

  • Steve Faber

    A huge problem is that too many “writers”, even some with a modicum of talent, are willing to write articles necessary to feed the voracious Internet content marketing monster for $5. These gigs are all over, and numerous other sites.

    While professing their desire to grow their careers as professional writers, these simpletons are too blind to see the irony they’re helping create. The very nature of their offer devalues writing in general, and makes their dream of earning a good living writing that much harder to realize.

    The fact that many of these people hail from countries where one can eke out an existence for a fraction of what it costs in the US only serves to make the uphill battle that much steeper. After all, if the monthly food budget is $100 in these countries, accepting what we’d consider a pittance for hammering out some prose suddenly becomes that much more attractive.

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