But, you know, the big wheel keeps on turnin’, and though periodically hamsters tire and fly off into the wood shavings, they’re replaced by fresh hamsters from whom at least six months to a year worth of hard digital labor can be squeezed.
In a sense, this has long been the Way of Journalism, which should never be mistaken for an ocean cruise. In the newspaper era now ending, that meant something like this, according to my completely unscientific observation: Of print journalism majors, about a third managed to work for the college paper. Of them, roughly a third—so, a
sixth ninth—went on to work for a real newspaper. A goodly number burned out five years in and went to law school to be burned out but have nice things. Fifteen or twenty years in, half of the rest had gone to the dark side, PR or some such. A hefty percentage of those remaining do okay; some do very well; others are brain-fried after decades of daily deadlines but they make it.
The demands of the Internet have just speeded up the winnowing process. Where hard-pressed reporters on small-town papers used to get eight or ten bylines a week on cop stories and school-board meetings, sometimes a few more, sometimes a lot less, content farmers are writing eight or ten things a day on stuff like this:
I was given eight to ten article assignments a night, writing about television shows that I had never seen before. AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one-to-two minutes in length — clips from “Law & Order,” “Family Guy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” the Grammys, and so on and so forth My job was then to write about them. But really, my job was to lie. My job was to write about random, out-of-context video clips, while pretending to the reader that I had watched the actual show in question. AOL knew I hadn’t watched the show. The rate at which they would send me clips and then expect articles about them made it impossible to watch all the shows — or to watch any of them, really.
That alone was unethical. But what happened next was painful. My “ideal” turn-around time to produce a column started at thirty-five minutes, then was gradually reduced to half an hour, then twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes to research and write about a show I had never seen — and this twenty-five minute period included time for formatting the article in the AOL blogging system, and choosing and editing a photograph for the article. Errors were inevitably the result. But errors didn’t matter; or rather, they didn’t matter for my bosses.
That’s Oliver Miller, who used to work at AOL, in a harrowing piece in The Faster Times on what it’s like to work as a content slave, as he puts it, making $35,000 a year putting in 60-plus hour weeks to churn out, wait for it, more than 350,000 words a year. That’s two-thirds of the way to War and Peace, people.
“The AOL Way,” as the document is called, lays the whole plan bare — long flowcharts, an insane number of meaningless buzzwords the works. One slide is titled “Decide What Topics to Cover.” It then lists “Considerations” from top to bottom. “Traffic Potential” is the top consideration, followed by “Revenue/Profit” and then “Turnaround Time.” “Editorial Integrity” is at the bottom.
Lest you think that the prioritization of those bullet points was a Power Point foulup, Miller is here to tell you it was not:
I still have a saved IM conversation with my boss, written after 10 months of employment, when I was reaching the breaking point:
“Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?” I said.