Journalism’s last stand

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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I've written regularly here about the 'acting for free' (or very low, profit-share) model that sustains a lot of so-called professional theatre. And just the other day I mentioned an album that many musical performers appeared on that also did so for free (and were then asked to buy tickets to support the concert that resulted – unless they were actually appearing in it, which may or may not have been for free).

But just so you don't feel so alone, that seems to be a model everywhere now. Michael Riedel recently reported running into his old pal Broadway actress Jackie Hoffman on the subway, and they exchanged pleasantries.

“I’ve just come from my swim,” I say, arching an eyebrow, Roger Moore-like.

“I’ve just come from my MRI,” she deadpans.

“Are you going to an audition?” I ask.

“Are there any auditions anymore?”

Not like the old days, I say, when Times Square was full of actors making the rounds.

“Yes. Now we make the rounds to do podcasts. In fact, I’m off to do yet another free podcast! Bye!”

And it's the same thing with a lot of journalism about the arts in turn (but not, I hasten to add, here on The Stage, where I am paid to write this!). The entire Huffington Post business model is based on the fact that writers will forgo a fee for a column for the visibility that it seemingly affords to their work.

While the actors giving away their talent for free to CD producers do so to altruistically support new writing but also promote their own visibility, I suppose free journalism is the same. That's all very well, but visibility doesn't help pay the bills. So I was distressed when another friend – a former London arts reporter who is now based in New York – recently capitulated and started writing free blogs for the HuffPo.  (His reply to me was 'Who pays you to tweet?" But in that case, it only increases my personal visibility, and I'm not directly helping anyone to make money in return for my efforts).

HuffPo seems to win either way; its generating of original content like his is entirely gratis. But meanwhile, the site – which earned its founder a whopping $315m when it was bought by AOL – has long been in the business of something else: aggregating other people's content. (This column often does so, too, of course, as I'm doing right now, but I try to also provide my own take on it in turn).

Bill Keller of the New York Times recently wrote a brilliant feature on the whole aggregation business, and said:

"Aggregation” can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe. It kind of describes what I do as an editor. But too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy. In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.

The queen of aggregation is, of course, Arianna Huffington, who has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.

Referring to the sale of the site to AOL, he went on to say,

It was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.

But if everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate. Huffington has therefore hired a small stable of experienced journalists, including a few from here, to produce original journalism about business and politics.

That's a step in the right direction; but as Keller also points out,

I can’t decide whether serious journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like The Huffington Post, or if that’s like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters. But if serious journalism is about to enjoy a renaissance, I can only rejoice. Gee, maybe we can even get people to pay for it.

I'm probably trying to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted, but I wish respected journalists wouldn't give their work away free for other people to make money with. If you're going to work for free, rather work for yourself via your own personal website. Who knows, they may even start making money one day. Or AOL might buy you, too.

And it requires journalists to make a stand for themselves when they are asked to work for free. Just the other day, a friend linked me to a blog by another freelance journalist Nate Thayer, writing about an exchange he'd had with the global editor of the respected Atlantic Magazine, asking to "repurpose" one of his articles on their website.

He asks after word length, deadlines and fees. He's told:

"Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month."

As he replies,

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts… Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.

The rest of the exchange is even more compelling about the ongoing challenges writers like Nate face.