New media business model builds on volunteer content, but at what cost?

Categories: Chicago Tribune


Once or twice a year I’m invited to talk with a classroom of university students about my career. Afterward the students pepper me with questions related, naturally, to their future: How do I find work once I graduate? How do I get a byline out of college? What do employers want?

They’re smart to ask, but maybe not as much to think I have any answers. But that’s not their fault. Up until recently, emerging writers dedicated to craft and truth-seeking — and the natural thrill of chasing after a story! — might do what many before them did in order to get a foot, then a leg, and eventually their whole body in through the door of a publisher: Build a body of work, starting small (alt-weeklies, neighborhood weeklies, trades) and move up to outlets with bigger outreach, budgets and mission. Perseverance, pluck and ingenuity — no less, craft — were qualities that paid the writer in spades, both in money and hard-knuckled experience.

This system was not perfect. Yet it worked. A byline meant you were a writer. A check you received for said byline meant others besides your mother believed so, too. In our society, where cash is king, getting paid a sum to report, research, write and file represents currency that goes beyond making rent. It creates an identity. And soon, as the checks build, the identity is less fantasy than more reality. This is you. Numbers don’t lie.

That was then. Digital media, ruled by metrics measuring clicks more than content, means that writers, especially young ones, are not valued as much for their craft, creativity or passion as they are for speedily filling holes. The emerging new media landscape ranges from community-supported outlets like The Chicago Reporter or The Lens in New Orleans, to hyperlocal commercial start-ups like in Chicago and New York City, to the aggregators.

Those in this third category are neediest for content, and unfortunately, they are the cheapest. You can find some original reporting, but generally they operate via a new model of content production: blogs. Indeed, blogging platforms have merged the boosters who may not have scruples with the professionals who do. Editors, those valuable curators invisibly assigning and arranging the content, are often absent.

This model is most often predatory in that it seeks volunteer content providers with the promise of exposure. But exposure in and of itself does not pay the bills and is a currency that means less and less. The Huffington Post pioneered this model to such great success that major media companies are seeking to both cut costs and expand their operations at the same time by pursuing their own plug-and-play newsrooms.

Locally, there is Chicagoist — owned by Gothamist LCC of New York City, which operates eight hyperlocal news sites globally that collectively reach about 6.7 million people per month. In late April, the site advertised it sought “to add several more people to (its) staff to fill in some gaps in coverage and make the site even better.” Included were job descriptions for nearly 20 “staff” entertainment, news and lifestyle positions. In seeking a film critic: “Do you love to opine about the latest blockbuster hits or art house favorites at the Music Box? … Then throw your hat in the ring.”

Chirpy copy aside, the litany of opportunities came with a catch: “No need to send us resumes though … writing positions are unpaid for now.”

Seeking volunteer boosters, not journalists, is a hallmark of this new media economy; it’s a practice employed not just by aggregators, but by major operators that are clearly seduced by the extra spoils generated by lowering the bottom line. In March, Entertainment Weekly announced it would join People and Forbes — their fellow Time Inc. subsidiaries — in creating a contributor network that invites volunteers to generate content on niche subjects. Digiday reports that the company “has been finding the bloggers through social media and J-schools” in an effort to “expand coverage — and generate audience at a low cost.” EW plans to start with up to 30 bloggers with a goal of 1,000, which puts it into the same league as Forbes, which now has 1,200 volunteer contributors. While some bloggers will get paid, most will be “compensated in the form of prestige.”

It should be noted this news arrived one week before EW laid off longtime critics and writers Owen Gleiberman, Nick Catucci and Annie Barrett.

The website Who Pays Writers? ( is an archive that collects data documenting similar low-pay scenarios, with outlets like Vice, Esquire, Time, In These Times, and many others paying meager or no sums for content. One contributor noted writers for USA Today’s college edition “are paid with either a Target or Amazon gift card.”

However no new media oligarch is as shameless as Arianna Huffington, who sold her site in 2011 for $315 million and pocketed $21 million. Today she is rebranding herself as a wellness expert who tours college campuses promoting “a life of well-being, wisdom, and wonder,” which happens to be the subtitle of her new book. Speaking at Northwestern University in April, Huffington told students, “If we’re lucky, we have 30,000 days to play the game of life and how we play it will be determined by what we value, and what we value will be determined by how we define success and how we define a good life.”

What she didn’t mention is that one of the ways she defined success was not paying writers, since Huffington Post consists primarily of unpaid bloggers. To put it another way, amid news of the website’s sale to AOL, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the business model that made her rich could be characterized as “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

These are indeed rudderless waters for new writers, but for musicians, it’s business as usual. Their stock and trade — song publishing and the recorded performances of those songs — have devalued so much in the free economy that many are resorting to giving them away to market live gigs or merchandise — a refuge from streaming services, where royalties are often meager. Musicians have been flogged to play for free for so long that they are used to a common promise also newly offered to promising writers: Exposure.

They now may ask: Exposure to what? The new media vanguard is so addicted to free labor that exposure is elusive. When everyone has a voice, and the curator’s hand is no longer present, doesn’t that devalue all content?

These websites staffed by volunteers might best be perceived like open mic nights for musicians, especially those new to town seeking a place to play. A few times makes sense to meet new people, get a feel of what works onstage, but anyone with serious ambition wants to be a short-timer in that game because playing too long to a room that isn’t listening is a surefire way for sloppiness to creep in, and ultimately, indifference.

As with the music industry, I fear that this new system will discourage new writers with unique voices from being read. So what I say to students asking the usual litany of questions is this: Become an independent expert in what moves you to write. The Internet is deluged with attitude writers whose commentary piles on but fails to add to the conversation; it lacks voices that reflect a profound understanding of a subject, no matter what it is.

Writing for many is vocational — not necessarily a way to look cool or get free stuff. Writers may benefit from participating in the free economy, but they’ll ultimately move beyond it if they invest the time to get to know a subject intimately, dig up stories that move people or change conversations, write with compassion and not snark, and show an authority with a subject that, even in shrinking newsrooms, can be a luxury. These are qualities book and magazine editors see as worthy investments.

Look at recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who turned his passion for civil liberties into a blog, which became a column for The Guardian and resulted in several books. His reporting was written with such authority that it ultimately earned notice from whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who was searching for an independent journalist he could trust to hand over leaks that changed history.

Getting published is no longer a metric for quality, so there needs to be a new one. It’s called hard work.


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