Chris Blattman

Are writers the slaves of the Internet?

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.

…This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them.

…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.

That is Tim Kreider writing in the New York Times this weekend. I’m a big fan of Kreider’s pieces, but this one got me riled up.

I’m reminded of a story I heard Friday night. Jeannie and I are lucky to have in our lives two veteran New Yorkers, one in her 70s and the other in her 80s, both ladies made of steel. The elder reached, in her middle years, head of pediatrics at one of the great public hospitals in the city. This is a remarkable feat for a woman in her time. And she was grossly underpaid compared to her male colleagues. Before her, there had been maybe one generation of eminent female heads of medicine, and they had the honor of being paid nothing.

I recoiled at one story, and felt cynical about the other. Why is that?

In my doctor friend’s case, the culture and the profession colluded against her. She was willing to work for free because it was better than the feeble alternatives that the world offered a person of ambition and generosity who sought fulfillment from work. I’d find this cultural collusion reprehensible even if it it didn’t discriminate by gender.

Why does Kreider’s writing example feel different to me? It’s not just writers who have this experience. People work (initially) for peanuts in a great many professions–the humanitarian aid worker, fashion designer, or restauranteur often make next to nothing at first.

I don’t see collusion of the buyers here. I see professions where entry is not so difficult, and people find fulfillment and esteem in the work itself. There is excess supply, at least on the lower rungs of the profession.

But this has always been true. What is new about writing? The Internet. It has lowered the barriers to entry and so increased supply and competition.

At the same time, writers can reach a wider audience at lower cost, and so (in principle) there is less demand for people who produce content for a mass audience.

The same might not be true of niche or quality content. People who have a differentiated talent, specialized audience, or skillful ways will command good sums, maybe even bigger sums than before.

I feel for Kreider, but he tells only his side of the story. Writers were, to a degree, protected by costs of entry and distance and communication. That protection is falling away. This is painful and disruptive, especially because it is so abrupt. But the other sides must be told.

One is that more people get a shot at an audience than ever before, from academic development economists to North African activists to precocious 20-year olds with talent. Another side is that more people get more information and ideas at a lower price than ever before.

If good writing and ideas are valuable, surely making it cheaper and more widely available is a good thing? Especially for the people in the world who before could least afford it.

Kreider’s suggestion sounds like a guild–basically to raise the barriers again. Indeed, he urges sellers (writers) to collude–to raise their prices (or at least do nothing for free). This is a time-honored tradition: Cartels and guilds are good for the insiders but bad for the outsiders. I’d need to hear why it’s good on net to buy in to his idea, and I don’t see it.

I think there are good arguments in Kreider’s favor, but they are different than the ones he made.

If professions like journalism, fashion or aid require people to work for free to eventually enter, it will keep out the poorest. Sort of like law and medicine. This will be terrible if true. (On the other hand, the voices least heard–developing countries where real wages are low–will have an advantage.)

One also worries that the trend is towards bad content, poorly researched, with little work behind it.

I was once concerned about this, but am not now. One reason is that every time I return to my hometown, Ottawa, I am struck by the horrible quality of news reporting. And this is the nation’s capital. If access to news and ideas on the Internet is an unadulterated good thing in much of the world.

Also, I can honestly say that I’ve never had such access to high quality, in-depth researched pieces than I do now. I don’t know if there is more or less investigative journalism going on in the world, but I see and can access more of it. Plus I hear the voices of activists and academics that would otherwise be condemned to silence. the content is more and better, but much of it is coming from new players.

The tragedy of technological change and the market is that people get caught in the middle of change, and suffer, most of all when that change is fast. Journalists and news organizations are hurting, and this is worthy of concern. But journalism and news, in my mind, are doing better than ever, and this is worthy of note.

I’m eager to hear the counterpoint from journalist and writers who read the blog.

The fist one should start with: “Easy for you to talk about the beauty of markets, jerk, when the government and your students’ parents pay your salary, subsidizing you to give away for free what the rest if us have to work for.”

9 Responses

  1. Being asked to do something for free is nothing that is peculiar to writers or journalists, nor is it anything new. I am a lawyer and almost every day people try to get free advice out of me.
    It’s up to me whether I give it. I sometimes do, mainly when I think it will lead to paid work later (either by the same person or by others who will read my free advice given online).
    That’s not slavery. It’s a decision to show off some of your skill from time to time. It’s marketing.

  2. By definition, an academic’s research labor is the creation of new intellectual property, often in the form of writing. That labor’s reward requires (refereed) publication. And those publishers mostly require the IP’s copyright assignment.
    Academics neither use nor understand IP licensing, because it’s irrelevant to them. Non-academics who’ve just fallen off the turnip truck will, for awhile, be content with giving their work away in hopes of a vague future reward. This is a reward long proven much less tangible than advancement in rank and tenure. Think of it as the spread of ‘precarity’.

  3. At one level I’m very sympathetic to the original article — making a living off of writing has never been more difficult. And believe me, it is a skill to be able to write cogently, let alone in a way that a wider audience can engage with and understand what you’re trying to talk about. There’s lots of value to it!

    But I guess the biggest disruption is exactly what you allude to in the last paragraph of your post — you quite accurately note that you are effectively paid for your writing and blogging using a different business model. i.e. you’re a professor at a university and you do original research. Your business model is: write stuff on a blog for free > get my ideas out there and gain exposure > use that credibility (brand) to the government to win research contracts and to attract students to your university (and maybe secure book contracts). It’s the other bits that are paying you, not the writing of ‘content’. And so that is the challenge that the writing profession faces — not everyone is playing by the same rules (i.e. using the same business model), and models that employ cross-subsidisation (of money, power, prestige, etc) are killing the model whereby one is paid for writing in popular press.

    But it’s not just writing and journalism that has faced this challenge. The music industry is another good example. The money isn’t in the downloads (or the listens on a streaming service) — the money is in the gigs. Why do you think concert tickets cost so much? Does it mean the music industry is less open to newcomers? Maybe. If I were a label I’d be betting on people who could pack concert venues and stadia, not necessarily people who make good music.

    And writing is taking a similar approach. Getting paid for public lectures is one way to cross-subsidise writing (though even then, Tim was bemoaning being asked for pro-bono speaking engagements). Your model is another. At on think tanks (www.onthinktanks.org) we’re exploring different models — it’s definitely not the blog that pays the bills! But it might be the associated portfolio of projects. And it could be that we develop different types of content, some of which people would be willing to pay to access. There was a great profile in the WaPo about Marty Sullivan yesterday (http://wapo.st/1dzDeb0), and how businesses are willing to pay for his six-page newsletter ‘Tax Notes’.

    So while I’m sympathetic to the article (people don’t value good writing enough!), I think Tim isn’t being open enough to exploring other business models than the one he’s used for the last 20 years…

  4. Much of the academic publishing business is in the hands of powerful gatekeepers who resist demands for making it freely accessible to a broader audience. While I see the merits of blogging and putting ungated publications in working paper format on the web, I am not so sure whether we really get free access to high quality research thanks to the Internet. Second, Free web is a blessing only for those who know how to get around the massive data deluge we are exposed to and I suspect that this is only a minority group. Being a member of this privileged community has hidden costs that are not immediately visible (i.e. your human capital–education, computer and language skills etc.). You are able to make the most out of this new publishing environment because your earlier investments enable you to generate positive returns: your social capital goes up thanks to blogging, you publish solid papers with better data, because you have the technical skills to manage it. This gets reflected in your salary perhaps in higher sums, thanks to promotions etc… Those who do not have the opportunity to generate future returns in this new publishing environment naturally complain. But it is not because they are not happy about this new “Internet freedom and equality”, they just can’t afford to pay for it.

  5. My reaction to the piece was pretty much the same as Chris’. I write for a living myself.

    And I’m absolutely overjoyed when some other part of the economy, one that supplies me, gets turned over by new technology. It means that I can get more of what I desire more cheaply. I really cannot complain when the part of the economy where I am a producer gets the same treatment. To do so would make me a hypocrite after all.

  6. Chris:

    1. Should minimum wage exist?
    2. If so, should writing be exempt?
    3. If so, why?

    My take: no doubt your arguments are sound, but there are sound arguments against you, too.

    An aside: Ottawa is probably the capital of unpaid journalism in Canada.

  7. Also missing from the writers-as-slaves metaphor: there’s no forced labor, coercion, terrible violence, etc. I’m hoping this is just a case of the writer not choosing his own headline, but that soured me on the piece from the beginning.

  8. I’m sorry but I see no connection between what Kreider says and any kind of guild. I fully support what he wrote and I agree that writing for free (except maybe on your own blog) is a damaging enterprise all round.

    I am a journalist, I paid for my postgraduate (practical) professional training that included major components on law and ethics, raised 2 kids alone while doing it and was never able to intern gratis in order to get on. So I have to ask why would I work for free or have my chances to earn a living undermined by someone else who works for free?

    I don’t see a ‘booming’ media certainly not in Europe where I am often based when I am not in Africa. I see a media that is struggling, downsizing and desparate to be viable. This applies to most of the major outlets from the Guardian to the publicly funded BBC – all of them still riddled with elitism. I see a US media that is mostly closed to Europeans one way or another plus a globalised ‘content sharing’ (read swaps for free) and mass re-writing. So that’s the English language outlets sorted.

    I also see a lot of untrained people entering what was a profession where you started local, learned your craft, learned to question local powers and made your mistakes before hitting the big outlets. Now that progression no longer exists, local papers are mute when it comes to speaking truth to power and generally full of adverts and newbies get in soley on the basis of youth and the ability to survive without an income for long periods. This makes it a place only for the privileged – those with money behind them or wealthy parents.

    The price for that (particularly in international writing on Africa) is a mass market of competitive, desperate freelancers, often devoid of a sense of the ethical repercussions of their writing, lacking in the background expertise of their region or subject. Yes, there are also some great things being produced but often by people who already have another source of income. A source that is not available to me. I can read up on development, I studied anthropology before journalism, should we apply the same principles to your field and let me grab your grants or run a cheaper course? Is the market really king?
    Does your experience, training and hard graft not count for something? Doesn’t mine? But then your ‘profession’ wouldn’t allow it so why does mine? Do my years spent studying the nuances of African politics and history, the risks I take with rebels in DR Congo, the slog of long term investigations and fact checking not count?
    Your attitude devalues my craft, plays to the tune of a discourse that is horribly shallow and is a contributing reason as to why young reporters are dying in ever higher numbers in Syria, Libya and so on. The problem is multiple, includes a glamourised fantasy of ‘the reporter’; replaces the slog of others with quick internet searches and valourises youth over experience. Everyone loses in the long term.

    If anything, it is time the profession of journalism was formalised even more. I’m not talking about writing novels or running a blog, or papping a celebrity, I’m talking about the time and skill it takes to unravel conflicting details or dodge the dangers on the ground to paint a rock solid picture that holds those in power to account, the technical skills to manage the kit, the data crunching that separates fact from fiction. That’s why I mortgaged my soul and my future to become a journalist and that’s why I believe its job that deserves to be paid.

  9. One musing on the changes you note: do reduced barriers to entry at lower levels, absent reductions to barriers to move further up (save by dint of incredibly shining natural talent being able to emerge), entrench within societies and even globally a lack of mobility? You cite approvingly the fresh 20-year-olds and North African activists who can now publish things, and I would agree that that’s good – but will those entrenched elites who have time to read all of their stuff be the only ones who can synthesize that data and eventually rise to the senior editors/publisher levels where they get paid for it? Will there be a glass ceiling for these new voices?

    Sounds somewhat like guilds, but also somewhat like the offshoring of jobs affecting manufacturing sectors but not financial sectors in Western economies. That is, it may be a case of one rule for regular folks, another rule for the upper class/owners of things, with a benefit to consumers but a price paid disproportionately by those who revert from middle-class-with-pension-and-job-stability to just another schmo in competition with most of the world, particularly those who are older and have greater responsibilities and commitments to a given place and way of life.

    I don’t think it’s enough of a case to argue that collusion between writers would be a welcome return, but perhaps there is a collective action problem implicit in the post-disruption organization of things…

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