But most bloggers aren’t as high-profile as Sullivan or don’t come from a journalistic background. They’re not being hired, nor are they freelancing in the traditional sense. They’re political activists or college students or professors or celebrities, or simply opinionated and informed citizens. In many cases, they have day jobs (or are retired) and blog for “fun” or out of devotion to a cause. They don’t expect to be paid well, if at all—or they don’t know that they should expect it.
These types of bloggers comprise a significant part of the core content base of economically significant sites like Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and ScienceBlogs (where I maintain a regular blog). And current standards for their compensation are hardly uniform. The Huffington Post, for instance, recently came under fire when cofounder Ken Lerer told USA Today that the site’s “financial model” did not involve ever paying bloggers. There’s a similar lack of compensation for writing “diaries” at Daily Kos. ScienceBlogs, by contrast, pays bloggers invited to join the network based on their traffic.
In short, it’s a Wild West out there for bloggers—even though, without them, the Internet’s frontier would not have expanded so broadly or so rapidly. And even though, without them, the Web-derived profits many of these blog sites are starting to rake in simply wouldn’t exist.
At the same time, though, there’s sense in diversity when it comes to compensation: not all bloggers should be treated equally with respect to remuneration. 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.
It’s possible and even desirable, I think, that the same may eventually happen for blogging, perhaps under the auspices of the existing National Writers Union, which recently voted to make organizing bloggers a priority. I imagine it something like this: the most successful writers take the initiative to organize, because they’re the ones who will actually be listened to by employers. Then, they’ll set up a structure that separates the workhorse bloggers (those who make large collective sites like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post possible) from the pure “hobbyists.” Whatever these distinctions may be, they should have nothing to do with whether or not the blogger in question has another salary from another job. (Not all writers in the guild work full-time on TV and screen writing, but all are equally protected.)
A bloggers guild could also, of course, work to protect bloggers’ intellectual property and help ensure they’re compensated for it. In 2001, the Supreme Court heard The New York Times Co. v. Tasini, in which six freelance writers took on publications that had run their work in print, paying them for the copyright, and then republished that work in online databases. In a 7-2 vote, the Court found in favor of the freelancers, ruling that writers should be compensated for work published online in addition to their print compensation. It takes only the tiniest of logical leaps to apply this ruling to the work of bloggers.