Monday, June 19, 2006

Thoughts on keeping the wolves from the door. Every now and then I feel angry and helpless about professional exploitation. Good people really are wasted in today's job market, where the plum jobs go to unpleasantly aggressive networkers or plodders blindly following well-worn career paths. My sneering, materialistic philistine of a younger brother loves to gloat that all my education and my enthusiasm for independent creative projects have merely won me a poverty-line existence in which my continued solvency depends on the whims of idiots like him. Of course, he wouldn't have put it quite like that. Still, it depresses me to think he is right and this is the way things are.

They are especially so in journalism, an industry that ties abstract ideas of writing and editing 'quality' to particular mastheads or brands. (I have written before about this.) Journalists, in turn, draw authority and professional leverage from their employers, regardless of how good at their jobs they are. Whenever I am at a social function and am asked what I do, the follow-up question is always, "Oh, who do you write for?" People wanting to "get into the media industry" therefore want to work for media 'brands' that reflect well on them: either large, well-known newspapers and magazines whose authority and venerability will rub off on them; or smaller, edgier cult publications whose street cred will rub off on them.

These ideologies of 'quality' work against the idea that more talented staff can demand higher wages. Rather, if you have a reputation for 'quality', you can pay as little as you like. Even at places like The Monthly, which famously pays a princely dollar per word, you won't get published unless you have a pre-existing professional reputation garnered from having worked at the 'quality' media outlets. This annoys me, because I know I am a very good writer and editor, and I see how much bad writing and incompetent editing gets published in these supposedly 'quality' outlets.

Ideologies of 'quality' work in blogging as well. Except where 'quality' in traditional media is dependent on the reputation of a brand, 'quality' in blogging is dependent on readership. Political blogs, or niche topic blogs, are the ones which garner respect and authority, and they are the most professionalised. And in the blogosphere, it's seen as a mark of hubris, something to mock mercilessly, if any smaller-scale blogger believes themselves to be any good at it, or has any ambitions to get paid to blog.

In this light, I recently read about ScooptWords, a syndication agency for blog content. Its sister agency, Scoopt, was established to capitalise on the trend towards "citizen paparazzi"; ScooptWords aims to bring blogging content to a wider audience. Members place a "buy this content" button on their blogs, and when editors come a-trawling for stuff to fill their pages, they can click on the button, taking them to a Scoopt interface which handles payment and licensing. One-time-only syndication, in a single publication in a single territory, is only a copy and paste away.

I find this trend both outrageously exploitative and strangely exciting. It's exploitative in the sense that it sees the blogosphere as a greenfield to be shamelessly plundered. In exchange for delegating to Scoopt the headache of negotiating rights, bloggers allow the agency to take a staggering 50% cut for the first sale and 25% for subsequent sales. Publications also don't have to credit the blogger, and are free to edit their articles without the blogger's explicit permission.

Now, I've worked in media long enough not to believe that pure gold drips from my keyboard and that it's a crime against literature to tamper with my posts of genius. As a professional writer, I write for the money. And as an editor, I do what I'm told. But I do have a problem with the idea that because I blog for free and on my own time, I ought to be grateful to let a third-party agency join in the orgy of exploitation.

So I've done up a little button of my own. In order to doff my hat to the whorishness of it all, the peer-policed shame of wanting to earn money in an industry that expects something for nothing, it's a tasteful little pinup.

It's more of a rhetorical statement than a serious attempt to make money from blogging - a reminder that portfolio workers in the culture industries deserve to get paid for the contributions they make. But if any editor should actually want to republish anything I write, they can click on that sucka and deal directly with me rather than with another agency. I wouldn't anticipate much of a need for such a button on this blog, but I'm seriously thinking about doing something like this for Footpath Zeitgeist, because that's probably my most 'professional' blog.

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