I’m Not Sure There’s a Workable Path for Professional Online Writers

by Freddie deBoer

So it won’t surprise anybody to learn that I really, really don’t like Buzzfeed.

Sometimes, when I consider the Buzzfeed phenomenon, I think I’m living in some sort of fictional satirical world where Buzzfeed is a symbol of how far media can fall. It’s like living in a Douglas Copeland novel. Buzzfeed’s particular brand of lowest common denominator clickbait, their “14 Giraffes Who Totally Look  Like Steve Buscemi,” their “25 Things Only People from [Insert Geographical Area Here] Understand,” their “Which of Fat Cat’s Minions from Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers Are You?” quizzes, their corpsefucking glurge, sitting side-by-side with their “branded content” like “12 Most Crunchtastic TV Moments Brought to You by Frito Lay,” subsidizing imperial stenographer Rosie Gray’s smears of Max Blumenthal (an actual journalist),  powered by an aggregation model that comes pretty close to plagiarism even when it doesn’t devolve into the serial copy-and-pasting of Benny Johnson (thanks BlippoBoppo and CrushingBort), in an environment where they can memory hole 4,000 posts and think they don’t have to say anything in particular about it publicly, all lorded over by dumb-faced Ben Smith’s dumb face…. It’s bleak, man. I mean, I can see somebody getting a job offer from Buzzfeed and trying to rationalize it, telling themselves, “well, they’re not so bad….” Yes, they are. They are exactly that bad.

The thing is, I don’t know if there’s some more ethical path writers these days can walk and still end up being able to support themselves. It’s looking pretty grim out there for our professional online writers.

I’m someone who writes a lot of what I guess you would call media criticism. And that means that I’m frequently in the position of saying some not-very-nice things about people who write professionally online. But I criticize because I think that job is important; I happen to have some old-fashioned, corny ideas about the role that journalism and political commentary have to play in a democracy such as ours. We need professional writers– not just dedicated amateurs– to observe and comment on our society and our government, in order to ensure that both are functioning the way that they should, and to give our people information they need to make rational political choices. The problem is that the basic economics of that work have become so threatened that I don’t know what independent writers are supposed to do. I hate when talented people join up with outfits like Buzzfeed, which I think are genuinely making our country a stupider place. But I don’t see any clear path that people can take to preserve both their integrity and their ability to eat.

I could, if I was feeling masochistic, run down some of the publications that have recently shuttered or dramatically restructured in a way that has trimmed a lot of talented writers from their payrolls. Sports On Earth, for example, was a bright spot in the shouty, gimmicky world of online sports coverage, a place that provided steady work to talented writers like Tomas Rios and Jeb Lund, and which was willing to take a chance on genuinely unique work in a media world growing ever-more homogenous. Or look at the uncertain fate of The American Prospect, for decades an incubator of young liberal writing talent. TAP has prestige and it has a legacy, but you can’t pay the bills with either of those. NSFWCorp was always controversial, but everyone has to recognize that it was a bold attempt at producing real journalism with a new and unique funding model. But that model fell through. For awhile, there was a lot of hype about how hyper-local reporting would be the next wave in web publishing, but AOL’s massive Patch effort crashed and burned. Well, Patch is now a “new, nimble company,” and profitable– thanks in large measure to laying off 85% of its news staff. Even that mild success stems from putting a lot of people out of work.

There are way too many great writers– people like Lund and the brilliant and provocative Yasmin Nair and others– who don’t have a steady, secure gig that can keep them doing what they do best.

The basic economics of all of this are truly discouraging. Many people who are able to scratch out a living as professional writers have to do so with content mill writing, churning out four or five or six or more posts a day, sometimes for as little as $15 a post. Many have their pay tied to performance incentives, based on clicks, essentially mandating that people play the clickbait game if they want to pay the rent. The importance of Search Engine Optimization may be fading but the days of Please Facebook Favor My Post in Your Algorithm are in full bloom, and if anything that master is even less knowable than Google ever was. Freelancers might get $500 or $1000 for a strong, researched, reported story. That might sound like a lot, but when you’ve spot months conceiving, researching, reporting, and writing that piece, the math is dismal. Clearly, getting a job as an editor or staff writer at a deep-pocketed publication is best, and there’s no substitute for that kind of security. But I think people would be amazed at how little those positions sometimes pay, and they often require living in New York, DC, or Los Angeles, three ludicrously expensive places to live. I know people who work for well-known, national magazines, the kind of jobs thousands of young journos and writers want to work for, who still have to work on the side doing copy writing to make ends meet. And they’re the lucky ones.

There are some people who enjoy the blessing of working under a patronage model, where someone or some institution with deep pockets can afford to subsidize work that isn’t meant to pay for itself. But most writers simply have to chase clicks if they want to survive. What that means is that even the most independent writers tend to chase the same stories, writing post after post about Robin Williams or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, knowing that those stories can succeed because they have succeeded already. That makes online writing a brutally homogeneous affair. Choire Sicha– who I think has as much integrity as anybody, although I’m sure he’d roll his eyes at that– made the case recently, saying:

I do not read a lot of things anymore. A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that. I opened up my Digg reader the other day, because I was on blogging duty at work, and everything was so duplicative of each other. I was like, yeah, okay, there’s that piece of news filtering through all these different websites, all the same things… no wonder I don’t go to them. I need to make a new folder in my Digg reader, I guess, that’s “Things That Are Surprising and Interesting and Maybe Weird.” It’s sort of… it’s not… I don’t know, something’s wrong.

That is hardly an experience unique to him. I posted a photo of a cluster of Slate stories about Robin Williams to my Facebook, a half-dozen different angles from the same website about the same dead celebrity. But I could have done the same thing with any number of other websites.

You probably know the causes by now. Even if you don’t believe in the Peak Ad thesis, you’ve got the essential problem that with so many websites and the ever-growing number of ads on social media like Facebook and Twitter, all competing with the Google behemoth, you’ve got a nearly limitless supply of online advertising, inevitably pushing down the value of ads. Sites have responded by coming up with new and innovative ways to fool readers into thinking ads are legitimate stories. We laughed at the Atlantic Scientology fiasco, but they were just a little ahead of the curve. We’re starting to see more and more attempts at direct monetization, with paywalls and subscription services, which is great. I hope they succeed. But the idea that online content has to be free is so deeply baked into the culture that it’s going to take great effort to get people used to the idea of paying. I think that the widespread mockery of the New York Times Times Select experiment was a major failure by the industry to think long-term. Sure, it was a failed experiment, and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. But the deep mockery of the very idea of a paywall helped contribute to a precedent that is still alive today. I clicked on a Haaretz link yesterday and was deeply annoyed to find that it was paywalled. It took me a little bit to realize that, when I get angered by the idea of a newspaper asking me to pay for its content, I’m part of the problem.

The sad fact is that there may just be too many mouths to feed, right now, and not enough money to go around. But even so, I don’t know how you solve this problem on the supply side. People are either going to be willing to pay for what they read or they aren’t.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. There’s lots of great stuff getting written out there. And I’m hoping that a combination of various models and formats can sustain the industry moving forward. Paid, niche-audience newsletters like Michael Brendan Dougherty’s The Slurve, the patronage model of Pierre Omidyar and First Look Media, porous paywalls and gated content like at The New York Times, and hybrid models like this very website– these can all work alongside sites paid for by advertising. There are some great new independent publications out there, like Jacobin Magazine or Rachel Rosenfelt’s The New Inquiry, although I have no idea if they are self-sustaining or close to it. I’ve come to a point where I recognize that universal condemnations of clickbait content simply aren’t fair, if I want to continue to enjoy lots of free stuff to read online. The question becomes what the clickbait is subsidizing, and who, and what the percentages are. Under the steady leadership of Max Read, I think Gawker has done a good job with achieving that kind of balance, for one example, but it’s always going to be a negotiation, and a struggle. And while I admire what Andrew has built here, this is a model that simply can’t be replicated by most people. It’s a functioning, self-sustaining website, but it isn’t a model or a plan.

We’ll have to see where this all goes next. For myself, I am merely trying to be more understanding and less quick to judge, while remaining adamantly opposed to PR and advertising masked as journalism. I used to mock people who spent their lives writing the same “Top Ten Dumbest Things Said on Faux News This Week” piece over and over again, but I don’t anymore. I don’t bring my online life into my day-to-day life; I think a majority of my classmates and professors have no idea I write online. But I still get undergrads who seek me out on campus, who come to me looking for advice on how to break into online writing as a profession. I never  know what to tell them. I have always written from the position of privilege of not needing to write to live. Sometimes I give them advice,  sometimes I put them in touch with editors I’m friendly with. But for their basic questions about how to make it, I don’t really know how to respond. It’s a tough business, and an essential one, and I genuinely don’t know if it’s going to survive.

(And for Christ’s sakes, if you like a site, whitelist it on your AdBlock, OK?)