on the job


Bloggers of the world, unite!
January 17, 2008

As a journalist and especially as a blogger, I sure picked a hell of a time to move to Los Angeles. No sooner did I settle here late last fall than my fellow writers in the film and television industries went on strike. I’ve never done their kind of writing in a professional capacity, but the more I’ve engaged with the issues at the center of the current dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the more I’m convinced that bloggers could soon find themselves making similar complaints against their own employers.

Yes, dear reader: the Bloggers Guild of America may be on its way. The dispute between screen and television writers and media conglomerates has its roots, after all, in the Web. The sweeping changes it has impelled in the media over the past decade or so have made film and TV writers feel less in control of the products of their labor. The current strike is the culmination of that: the writers are fighting for additional compensation when a product they’ve created for film or TV is distributed in some form over the Internet. Their current compensation? Nothing.

Bloggers often earn that same salary. There are exceptions, of course, those fortunate few who have become quasi-celebrities in their own right and found themselves, and their sites, snatched up by major media companies (which in some cases are owned by the same large conglomerates that the Hollywood writers are, as of this writing, striking against). These big media outlets are making money from the Web traffic that bloggers bring, via the online advertisements that that traffic helps to sell.

And 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.

Which is not to say that the answers—or even the questions—will be easy. How, for example, do you define and otherwise distinguish “bloggers” themselves? Bloggers are an (in)famously diverse bunch: grouping them isn’t just grouping apples and oranges, but apples and oranges and bananas and the occasional kumquat. There are the Andrew Sullivans, for instance, whose blogs are acquired by major media outlets (in Sullivan’s case, first Time, then the Atlantic). They become, essentially, contract workers—sometimes even staff members. If and when they do, an at least somewhat recognizable form of journalistic (or freelance journalistic) economics kicks in. As a freelancer myself, for example—though not at Sullivan’s level—I’ve negotiated contracts with several blog sites to contribute regularly and be paid per contribution. The rates for such work can rival or even exceed online writing for, say, political magazines—and it tends to be far easier work, given the informality of blog-style writing, its generally minimal reporting requirements, and its lack of much editorial oversight (which is, after all, contrary to the spirit of blogging).

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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.

The paradigm shifts we’re in the midst of—in media usage and, then, in standards of intellectual property—demand that we rethink not just what writers contribute to the media marketplace, but also how they should be compensated for their contributions. Individual blogs, and Web sites hosting large numbers of bloggers, are profiting—not just culturally and intellectually, but economically—from bloggers’ work. Organizing, in that sense, seems not only inevitable, but necessary; “professional” bloggers need to be compensated for their work. It’s only fair. 

Chris Mooney writes The Intersection blog with Sheril Kirshenbaum and is the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming.