Dec 152012
Michael arrington became an unpaid blogger

“Online bloggers and tweters are not subject to the financial incentives which affect the print media.”

While there’s much to disagree with in Lord Justice Leveson’s Australian speeches last week, particularly the bizarre suggestion that bloggers and social media are driving the decline in journalistic standards, he is correct about the economics of online publishing. It’s tough to make a buck on the web.

It’s so tough, many of the new media startups are founded on not paying for the articles they publish. This model has become so entrenched, that some venture capital investors will only invest in media start ups if they don’t have any reporters or editors.

Pure platforms

New media startup Buzzfeed‘s founder, Jonah Peretti, mentioned Silicon Valley’s reluctant to pay writers in a staff email republished by Chris Dixon;

Tech investors prefer pure platform companies because you can just focus on the tech, have the users produce the content for free, and scale the business globally without having to hire many people.

This antithesis to paying creatives and content creators is one of the notable aspects of the current Silicon Valley model, who needs editors and writers when a billion people will post to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

Arianna Huffington has been the most successful with this model in the media industry, parlaying a largely unpaid for content business into a fat pay-off.  Chris Anderson described this model best in a description of his website Geek Dad’s economics.

Reading the comments

For readers, much of the value in sites like the Huffington Post and Geek Dad lie in the comments stream where readers give their views and experiences and build the communities so many investors and advertisers are looking for.

This is a point made by Rachel Hills when commenting about Australian website Mamamia’s payment policies;

When I visit Mamamia. I don’t go to Mamamia for the articles, which usually don’t tell me anything I haven’t already read somewhere else. I go for the comments.

Rachel concludes with the thought that Mia Freedman’s Mamamia is providing a platform for discussion. This is true, but that’s no different from newspapers, the six o’clock news, current affairs shows or even the weekend’s football match.

Those football players, newsreaders and journalists are all paid for their work, just like Chris Anderson and Mia Freedman were as magazine editors.

The hypocrisy of unpaid content

Which leads us to the core hypocrisy of the unpaid content model; its promoters – people like Mia Freedman, Chris Anderson and Arianna Huffington – have all been well paid in their careers yet now choose to deny the next generation of writers and journalist an income.

A business adviser once remarked to me that the management of a corporation that were locking in their entitlements while cutting middle management were “pulling up the drawbridge”, that line seems apt as older, affluent journalists demand younger ones work as unpaid contributors or interns.

The bleat from online publishers is “we can’t afford to pay contributors”, in most other industries being able to pay your workers is a measure of whether your business is solvent. That many new media outlets can’t may mean that the entire industry is insolvent.

Writers get exposure

Were the local cafe to say it couldn’t afford to pay its waitstaff, but it was giving them valuable work experience they’d be rightly scorned for exploiting workers. There’s little difference with online publishers.

It may well be because there is no shortage of manipulative, attention grabbing garbage designed to provoke reactions and increase pageviews, which is the flaw in the “writers get exposure” excuse used by many of these sites.

As middlemen, publishers have to add value in order to have a role, ‘offering exposure’ to unpaid writers isn’t a reason in itself. This is an industry with shaky foundations and it’s not surprising founders are desperately trying to find greater fools to fund their exits.

Image of Michael Arrington from Kevin Krejci on Flickr.

  9 Responses to “Pulling up the drawbridge”

  1. Hey there Paul. At the risk of sounding like a Mamamia apologist (which I’m not) …

    I am not familiar with HuffPo model (although many have suggested that Mamamia’s model is based on HuffPo) but 70%of the content on MM is produced by a team of full-time and part-time staff writers. So I think it is not quite accurate to say that Mia is denying a generation of writers an income.

    I also don’t think it is valid to compare MM’s community to that of news sites because the only people who comment on news sites are not there for discussion – they are there purely to throw abuse at the poor writer. While the MM comments feature plenty from the ‘too much time on their hands/keyboard cowboy parade’ – there is also genuine community interaction there as well. And this community also contributes a lot to the sites content.

    As for the exposure argument – I would ask you this ‘is money the only currency in this world?’

    • Thanks for the comment Kelly, the answer to the question is “no, but it’s the only currency that pays the bills.”

      As far as comparing Mammamia to news sites, that’s exactly what MM is – the model is the same.

      If we take the dinner party analogy a little further, some dinner parties are polite and well-mannered while others are a rabble of obnoxious, foul mouthed trolls. We can choose the ones we want to attend, or read, according to our own taste. Each has its own niche that it caters for.

      Personally I don’t care for the latter and I understand why MM and similar sites are attractive for commenters as there isn’t the pointless abuse you find on other sites. It’s sort of like the difference between YouTube comments and Pinterest.

      The attractiveness of these sites to investors and buyers depends upon the content and the discussions generated around the articles. Without those the proprietors have no income or status. They need content more than the content creators need them, which is why their models are doomed.

      Ultimately though, what sticks in my craw is that we have a generation of editors who don’t want to pay writers. The most hypocritical of all is Joe Hildebrand telling a Daily Telegraph contributor that there was a “moratorium on paid contributions”. No doubt if Rupert Murdoch decided there was a moratorium on paying journos, Joe would be off having a good whinge down the pub.

      The best take on this topic is from the legendary Harlan Ellison and his rant “Pay The Writer.” We could all learn a lot from Harlan, he was the guy who humiliated James Cameron over non-payment of creative works.

      On the topic of non-payment, here’s also a great flow chart on how to determine whether you should work for free.

      This isn’t to say I’m against working for free, but I question the viability of any business that relies on unpaid labor.

  2. “Mamamia is providing a platform for discussion. This is true, but that’s no different from newspapers, the six o’clock news, current affairs shows”
    This is where your logic evaporated. When you said something providing a platform for discussion was the same as three examples which do not.
    And I came to the story from a link you provided on Twitter which stated that the article was about why the model of not paying writers will fail, and then you write her about why it should fail. And at the same time, you point out – why would content platforms pay for content when there are a billion people publishing to Facebook for free.
    Or, in arguing against your central premise, were you being ironic?

    • I’m not sure I follow your logic Dermott.

      As far the footballers, TV news and current affairs shows go, they all inspire discussion whether it’s at the pub, the workplace or online. You might have noticed that on Twitter, people are talking about what’s on the telly right now if you choose to follow them.

      Saying “we’re giving people a platform” is disingenuous.

  3. As your quote says Paul: “Mamamia is providing a platform for discussion” which you agreed with, and then you wrote “That’s no different to newspapers, the… news, current affairs shows” which are all broadcast mediums, with no ability for the audience to participate in a discussion. So they’re the not the same in relation to your stated criterion of providing a platform for discussion.
    That’s where the logic goes off the rails.
    However, is your point that sites which do not pay content providers should fail, or that they will fail? Because you seem to be arguing they should, while giving us evidence they wont.

    • Dermott, where do you see the evidence in that story that they won’t fail. The whole business model is based upon flogging the operation to a bigger, dumber organisation. Huffington and Arrington found their greater idiots in AOL, which is bleeding money, while others are closing shop as they burn through their funding. Most of the unpaid content operations aren’t making enough to cover their expenses.

  4. Sorry late to this, though would like to know if the following could work? With the payment issue? I know a lot of websites take ages to make any money, but once you get to a certain popularity, the banner advertising, data mining etc., is all quantifiable on a site, so if you are going to cry poor about no funds, would it not be acceptable to say maybe work out an algorithm for that with some odd equation of ad views / ad click throughs / page views / re-tweets / facebook likes / google + etc., and the writer received a percentage of that? As the publisher is then only paying out funds they are getting, it is quantifiable as to the popularity of the writer, and if you only got 5 bucks, well is not hurting the publisher but at least you know as the writer that you are getting something and they are not lying to you when they say they are not making any money?

    Then again, as I said, I am not a tech, writer, or publisher, I am just a punter, so could be looking at all this wrong?

    • Thanks for the comment Noely.

      There’s a number of sites that have a revenue share model, unfortunately it hasn’t been too successful as the revenue from online ads isn’t that great for most sites so the writer’s lucky to get pennies.

      Another problem with the revenue share model is that it creates “link whoring” where the writer makes the headline and article as provocative as possible to get attention and pageviews so they can boost their income. As the editors are usually subject to the same KPIs, they let this go and the quality of the site starts to slide – I think there’s a few sites we know that have suffered from this.

      It’s a good though and we need to figure out revenue models that work for publications so they can pay their writers. Whoever does this will be the Randolph Hearst of the 21st Century.

  5. […] I can see no reason to blame the editor, who is obviously under pressure to find writers who would be willing to share their work without payment, but what about the media outlets who consistently share content from unpaid writers, while pocketing advertising revenue? Atlantic is far from the only one doing this, many other online media sites do the same. I enjoyed this article about online media start-ups not paying writing staff. […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: