I Write the Blog. Then I Get Paid.

In the latest Columbia Journalism Review, I have an essay that builds upon some blogging I've done here over the past few months--which, in turn, was inspired by the writer's strike out here in LA.

In essence, in thinking about the strike, I have been inspired more and more to make the argument for unionizing bloggers, to help ensure payment and fair treatment. Now, Columbia Journalism Review has published the case--and this may be the most prominent articulation of it yet.

Let me quote a few passages:

...blog traffic is growing. According to Technorati, which compares blogs with mainstream media Web sites using "inbound blog sources" (e.g., measuring how much a site is being linked to by other sites), the biggest media sites--nytimes.com, cnn.com--still have more linkage cred than any blog. But the blogs are catching up: in the fourth quarter of 2006, Boing Boing, a collaborative blog, had about a fourth as many inbound blog sources as nytimes.com (19,438 to 83,740), and The Huffington Post and Daily Kos had over an eighth as many (12,703 and 11,093, respectively). Tellingly, both The Huffington Post and Daily Kos were slightly ahead of The Economist's site--and considerably ahead of The New Yorker's. Even more tellingly, on Technorati's list of the hundred most-linked information sources, twenty-two were blogs.

But blogs aren't just part of the proverbial marketplace of ideas; they're also part of the plain old marketplace--and site viewership, of course, translates into ad sales. (Profits add up quickly: A single, week-long, premium-slot ad run on Daily Kos, according to Blogads, sells for $9,000.) As top-tier blogs, in particular, become increasingly profitable, it will be fair to ask just how much of their proceeds are going to the writers who, ultimately, make it all possible.

So there's real money in blogs. But does that mean we should therefore unionize and pay every last blogger? Well, no. We would have to draw some distinctions:

Most bloggers, after all, don't draw very much traffic; neither are they part of a blogging conglomerate that is making real money selling advertisements. Were bloggers to organize, a threshold would have to be established between blogging "for fun" and blogging in a way that should be considered "labor"--between amateurs and professionals, if you will.

Such distinctions are hardly unprecedented--the Writers Guild of America, after all, does not include everyone with a screenplay squirreled away in his sock drawer. That's why it's a guild--you have to be a professional to be a member and reap the benefits. Something similar could happen for the blogosphere. As Nancy Lynn Schwartz relates in her history of the writers guild, The Hollywood Writers' Wars, initial organizing was undertaken by an already successful group of writers--the Andrew Sullivans, as it were, of Hollywood in the 1930s.

And now, I'm interested in your responses. Let the wild ruckus begin....

And again, the full Columbia Journalism Review piece is here.

More like this

Chuckle. This is going to go down crosswise with some of the liber-ight-arians, isn't it?

Tying online writing to advertising seems odd to me too.

Is this going to work against those who go on owning the means of production -- their own IP address, their own website, their own server, their own freedom from the kind of damage that can be done -- instead of unionizing to work in someone else's property surrounded by advertising?

But I'm nobody. I'd like to see you invite others whose writing I've followed for a long while to comment. E.g.


By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Jan 2008 #permalink

This is connected with the broader issue of payment for electronic rights.

I am a member of a class that has a suit against a number of newspapers for use of print articles (book reviews in my case) on websites without additional compensation.

Meanwhile, I just got a new contract from one of my newspaper clients that specifies that it wants all rights (non-exclusively) and has a sentence that asks for those rights to previously published articles without offering any payment. In addition, that sentence states that granting those rights is necessary in order for my future submissions to be considered.

I think that's extortion, since the law suit might earn me a few hundred dollars for those rights. Essentially, I am being told to give up those rights if I want to keep working for that paper.

The class action attorneys are looking the contract over and have asked me not to sign the new contract. It would be better, however, if we freelancers had a strong union. The newspaper would have had to offer to pay something in exchange for those rights in the first place.

Freelance writers in general are fair game for big corporations that want to get electronic rights as cheaply as possible--read $0. Because of the economics of the print media these days, they are able to get away with it.

Stay tuned!

Far be it for me to take too much wind out of your sails, but there may already be an organization for bloggers. Doing a quick and dirty Google search I found this website: http://www.nwu.org/nwu/ for something called the National Writers Union. They list web content providers among their target members - I presume that is you?

Sadly, I'm not sure unionizing will really solve the larger societal problem. Unions have been on the wane for about 20 years all over the economy, but the biggest blow was when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers union, effectively ending federal support of union activities. Since then, corporations have done everything they can to marginalize unions in the economic realm, even though unions gave us many of our most cherished work conditions (the 40 hour week anyone?)

The real need is for the general public to understand how writers are or are not compensated, and to understand how people make money off using other people's work without attribution or compensation. Bloggers can help tremendously with that education - as you already have. And when networks can roll out new shows, or delay season starts to compensate for a strike, that real economic need is masked.

By Philip H. (not verified) on 17 Jan 2008 #permalink

I hope that's a Firefly reference, for I will then love you!

Yeah, definitely a firefly reference.

Joss Whedon is a big supporter of the writer's strike.

Philip, I mentioned in the piece the NWU's efforts to organize bloggers.

But I have to say, except for from James, above, and a few others, I feel like my repeated pushing on this subject is being met by stone cold silence in the blogosphere--including the science blogosphere.

I'm pretty disappointed by this.

Has to get past "hobby" to "livelihood" for a greater percentage, I guess. There are plenty of other creative types that, for whatever reason, distrust the "union" word. Right now they just don't know how their creativity is valued, other than in a very straightforward fashion. The internet, meanwhile, is blurring all sorts of boundries.