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Two weeks ago, a knucklehead muckety-muck at Forbes announced to TechCrunch that it was going to cut back paying journalists. It no longer wants to engage seasoned professionals to research and craft expensive articles. Instead, it planned to get its stories from a thousand unpaid bloggers. It’s going crowdsourced, the empty suit said, and “Forbes editors will increasingly become curators of talent.”
If Forbes has become so brazenly lazy as to codify its impotence into a mission statement, I can no longer assert that journalism is dying. It died when writers agreed, with no mass objection, to give their work away like that.
You’d expect a journalist to defend a journalist’s paycheck. But my biggest fears aren’t only about the future of quality work. Stories that are properly funded are properly done, yes, and career journalists have the contacts and access that trust creates. So obviously, that’s certainly a different debate worth having.
No, right now, my biggest objection is about quality of life for any fool who agrees to this arrangement.
I know of no researcher can sustain him or herself on a policy of “give it away for free.” I know dozens of young writers who are blogging at their own expense and losing money, or working for free or for too little. Most of them think that will get them noticed. Most of them will give up before it does.
People sometimes ask me how they can be a travel writer, and I used to suggest they work for free a few times to get some clips together. That advice is probably too dangerous now that publications like Forbes want to brutally rape the eagerness of starter writers.
The ugly truth is that when you work for free to help a publication inflate the public impression of its output and grab emptily at clicks, you won’t find the kind of editor oversight for you to learn much. You’re the equivalent of a firewoood chopper, not a reporting apprentice, and your efforts will be quickly thrown on the fire and burned up for an hour’s worth of fuel.
Each “clip,” or a sample of writing, is also devalued. It used to be that the publication that published you was a mark of the quality of your research and reliability. Now that Forbes, and other outlets, simply demand quick words to toss into the maw of their daily publication furnace, the imprimatur of their name means next to nothing. When you participate in “crowdsourcing,” the by-product is that you become indistinguishable from the crowd.
This new formula for payment cannot be sustained, and although many fledgling writers think they’re wedging their foot in the door of the career of their dreams, in fact, they’re the co-authors of a new literary underclass that they won’t be able to escape.
Over the past decade, the media has fragmented into hundreds of tiny shards. Where a city might have once had five or six major news outlets, now there are dozens, even hundreds. The size of the pie hasn’t increased, but market share has plummeted, and with it, resources.
So now Forbes wants to get away with paying contributors nothing or nearly nothing, and it wants to be applauded for justifying it with a fancy word like “curators,” as if this laxness somehow makes it cutting-edge.
Companies refuse to admit the game has changed. They cling to their glory days, and they want to appear to operate with the same output and esteem even though their accounts are harshly diminished. Harlan Ellison recently appeared in a video rant that chastises companies for trying to bleed artists of every level and stripe.
Ellison’s explosion is warranted, but theatrics aside, blaming companies is only half helpful. We are equally guilty because we indulge this charade. Backed into a corner by the recession and by the realities of a shattered media system, we accept nothing or nearly nothing for our hard work. The pillars of Versailles are rotting but we donate cans of gold paint to cover then up and make it look like we still dwell in an intact palace.
“Curators of talent”?
I’ll say. Increasingly, talent can only be found in museums.
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