Saturday, April 5, 2014

Unpopular Opinions: In Defense of the Unpaid Writer

Last week, Entertainment Weekly announced that it was launching a new web presence, The Community, that would feature writing by “people formerly known as the audience” or, in other words, unpaid writers.  EW is leveraging the power of the blogosphere to create a site filled with young writers who want to launch their careers, but aren't sure where else they can be published.  This has, understandably, sparked a great deal of sturm und drang among the professional media collective, especially given that it was followed by the firing of one of EW’s finest film critics, Owen Gleiberman. 

It’s easy to understand the initial criticism towards Entertainment Weekly.  Here is a prominent, for-profit entertainment publication that is apparently outsourcing its critical work to unpaid laborers, a practice many media outlets have been exploiting for years, even as others fought against it.  I agree with where the critics are coming from.  For-profit media outfits should pay for content.  If you’re making money off of something, you should be paying for it.

On Thursday, however, attention shifted from EW itself to the writers who would deign to work for free for it.  The result was a lot of critics, who have been paid for their content for most of their careers, criticizing unpaid writers, who have never been paid for their content, taking positions in which they continue to not be paid for their content, but now for a prominent entertainment outlet.  NPR’s Linda Holmes tweeted “Before you write for free, consider what the path is. Consider where you're trying to go. Look what happened to those who were once there.”  The Week’s Scott Meslow called it “a trap”.  Some unpaid internet commenters even went so far as to call such contributors “scabs.”

Here’s the thing: Not everybody writes to get paid.  Sure, those who have been paid for writing all their lives will expect to get paid for writing, but people who came to the whole “writing about television” thing later - people like me - tend to write because they enjoy it.  Most importantly, they don’t want to write about television to get paid, they want to write about television as a means to engage in cultural conversation.

To be clear, I have no intention of engaging in EW’s Community even if I were invited because I write for my own enjoyment.  I like being able to write about Hannibal, or Cosmos, or Television Without Pity, or How I Met Your Mother, or writing itself.  But if you’re going to tell me what I have to write about and when I have to write it, you’d better be willing to pay me for that privilege. 

I’ve read a lot of what the EW Community has to offer and I’ve looked at the sites of some of the people they’ve tagged as contributors and, for the most part, these aren’t people who have been aspiring professional writers their whole lives.  They are people who have day jobs and who write about television in their free time because it’s what they enjoy.  They write because they enjoy the cultural conversation and being a part of it.  They don’t want money, they want an audience.  And EW is ready to give it to them when other outlets are not.

The thing that most critics don’t understand is that there is a large segment of the population that doesn’t want to read.  They want to talk.  NPR proved this in a rather hilarious April Fool’s Day prank a few days ago.  They posted an article titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore” with instructions within the text of the article not to comment on the article, but just to “like” it.  The response, obviously, was a veritable deluge of comments responding only to the headline and not to the article. 

The takeaway from this article for some people might be that others are just dumb, unwilling to read the plain text that is put before them.  My takeaway is that the internet has spawned a culture of people who don’t really care about the content of criticism, they just want to talk about the piece.  Some sites are able to bridge this gap.  The AV Club’s television section, for example, manages to combine both insightful criticism and intelligent commenters willing to discuss it.  But even the best of these sites generally cover a limited span of television series.

What Entertainment Weekly seems to be trying to do is to create a community where people can come to talk about any show they want.  Television Without Pity served this function for readers for many years (I myself contributed a lot of “free” content to its forums for a while) but it will be shutting down in May.  There are several multi-show sites out there, but I’ve yet to find one that regularly covers Castle or Hawaii Five-0 or a number of other shows that I watch regularly.  Granted, these aren’t the shows I care to discuss regularly, but some people out there do, along with The Bachelor, The Voice, and pretty much every show on television. 

If EW is finding a hole in the current coverage of television and filling it, that’s not their fault, it’s the fault of media critics who haven’t yet realized that there is a large segment of the population who doesn’t actually care what they have to say, they just want to have their own say.  Reading the current content of the EW Community, that’s the only conclusion I can come to.  The recaps there are largely free of deeper consideration, content with merely regurgitating the stories and plots of the episodes covered.  But, again, the audience here is not people looking for careful insight into television.  It’s people who want to talk – people who are ready to skip from the headline to the comments just to have their voices heard.  There is apparently an audience for a website that will only shallowly cover everything but will provide a discussion venue for everything as well.  That EW is employing unpaid writers to fill this niche is disappointing, but I don’t blame them for finding it.

I can understand the immediate hesitation by people who see unpaid alternatives usurping their current roles.  I, too, work in a profession that’s constantly being told it’s irrelevant in the twenty-first century.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read that libraries aren’t necessary because “everything is on the internet” or “you can just use Google to find it,” well then I wouldn’t need to be a librarian anymore.  But libraries are still relevant today because we’ve kept them relevant.  We may no longer principally be warehouses for books, but we provide access to computers and the internet and to teachers trained in technology.  We do still have books, but we’ve adapted with the changing needs of our users to provide the content and services they want. 

I’ll admit it’s not a fair comparison.  Writers are content creators while I am merely a content facilitator.  But, at the same time, the entire function of the Web 2.0 movement has been to significantly blur the line between content creators and content consumers.  How many YouTube musicians have we seen become paid music stars?  How many bloggers have we seen turn their content into books or other paid material?  And the fact is, many writers, even those of the “Fuck you, pay me” variety write for free all the time.  It’s called Twitter.  Sure, there are the lucky few who can count Twitter as “work,” but many writers put their thoughts out there completely for free.  Why?  Because they want to be a part of the cultural conversation and to increase their audience, the exact same reasons why many bloggers are writing as well. 

What the television criticism world is going through right now reminds me a great deal of what the sports writing world went through about a decade or two ago.  Amateur writers from across the country started up their blogs and began cranking out content that could rival the work of the traditional sports media.  While many professional writers and athletes derided sports bloggers as working “in [their] mother’s basement on [their] mother’s computer,” as it turned out, a baseball game or a football game is, like a film or a television show, a text that can be analyzed from myriad perspectives by intelligent people whether or not they have formal training in the medium.  More and more writers joined the medium and it turned out that a lot of them, despite writing and working only for themselves (and what little ad revenue they could get from their blogs) were really good writers and thinkers.  They helped to launch the popularity of advanced statistics in sports – now fundamental in any discussion – and many moved on to either working for prominent media outlets or forming their own.

Television writing has reached a similar crossroads.  There are a lot of writers doing good work (and some doing bad work) for free because it’s something they enjoy doing.  They’re not writing in hopes of a future in the industry.*  They’re writing to have their voices heard above the rabble and, thus far, they haven’t had a venue to do so.

* Have you seen the state of the media criticism industry?  Good writers are getting laid off left and right.  Who would want to leave a good day job for that?

If Entertainment Weekly is using The Community to rid itself of paid television critics, I think that’s a foolish decision.  In the long-run I believe it’s bound to fail because writing is hard, especially churning out the kind of weekly recaps that EW trades in.  And the downside of employing free labor is that, since you have no loyalty to them (in the form of payment) they likewise have no strong loyalty to you.  I’ll be interested to see what kind of turnover in writers the site has because I have the feeling it will be too high to effectively manage.  But let’s ease off the writers, shall we?  Just because they write for different reasons doesn’t make their contributions less valuable and it doesn’t make them scabs.  That Entertainment Weekly has found a way to exploit them to fill a niche that hasn’t yet been met only serves to show that nobody else has met that need with paid writers.  What the future holds for media criticism, I don’t know.  But I do know that unpaid writers aren’t going away anytime soon.  It’s only becoming easier for the average television viewer to make his or her voice heard. The traditional media criticism environment can find a way to fill the gaps in the entertainment world with paid writers or it can resign itself to hoping that the "scabs" will eventually get bored and go away.  For now, I know which side I'll be betting on.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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