Thursday, July 1, 2010

More impetus for that mid-life career change...

From this interesting article in AdAge

After Andrew Brining took the bar exam two years ago, he had plenty of time on his hands, and he made a habit of perusing sports news online as he awaited the results. The 31-year-old San Francisco Giants fan, however, found the predictably captious nature of sports coverage frustrating. "It's perversely counterintuitive," he said. "You're interested in this to be entertained, right?"

On the hunt for more positive fare he stumbled onto, where anybody can apply to post an original sports article. So he contributed a post. Then another. And another. In the past two years, Mr. Brining has written more than 500 articles for Bleacher, a prolific output that is more stunning for another fact: He wrote them all for free.

He is one of more than 3,600 Bleacher authors who willingly write without remuneration, and their gratis efforts suggest there's a major adjustment going on in the economics of content. Despite the attention around search specialists such as Demand Media, Associated Content and Examiner, a growing group of sites is betting on something better than cheap content: free content.

...Despite a widespread jingoism among media watchers favoring new forms of journalism, some observers say no-cost writing is a disquieting trend. "I wonder whether we're seeing the 'Craigslist effect,' but for content," Newsonomics author Ken Doctor said, referring to how the free-listings site has vitiated the classifieds business. "You make the cost of content creation so much cheaper, but in so doing you are ruining the economics of traditional news publishing."

Indeed, publishers have caught on to this changing tide. Bleacher Report has inked content deals with major media companies, including Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle,,, and the ailing, a property of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which, along with Philadelphia Daily News, was bought out of bankruptcy in April for $135 million. Bleacher publishes a page for each partner, which has the look and feel of the publisher's content but which entirely features Bleacher writers. The site splits ad revenue. An insider says Bleacher will be profitable this year. The company just appointed a new CEO, Brian Grey of Polaris Venture Partners and the former senior VP of Fox Sports Interactive.

"I'm sensitive to writers who say, 'What are you doing giving your writing away for free?'" said Mr. Brining, who after failing the bar three times decided writing was more than a hobby. He is supported by his family. "Yes, Bleacher Report is reaping the financial rewards of my work, but it's also helping me achieve my career. If I am good at this, the compensation will come."

Really? If he's good at it the compensation will come? From where, exactly? It would be like me saying that obviously I'm writing this blog for free, but if I'm good someone will suddenly decide to pay me for the privilege of reading it? (Line forms to the left, BTW. Please get out your pocketbooks...).

There are legions of good, uncompensated writers out there, so I won't even touch the issue of how massively naive this poor guy is in his assertion of a correlation between talent and success. Anyone who's ever tried to hustle a buck off the written word knows the publishing industry is full of profoundly talentless people in positions of success and power. How they got there remains a mystery, but there they most certainly are.

And nothing illustrates that little truism better than the trend represented by Mr. "If I Write Good They Will Come." Most free content is worth (in an editorial sense) about as much as it cost: nothing. But leave it to the geniuses in the flagging publishing industry to hang their hopes not on quality, but on the hucksterish and quientessentially modern American notion of trying to sell nothing for something.

I don't know what makes me more depressed: that this is the future of publishing, or that it seems to be working. Who woulda ever thunk that high quality, original writing for which the author is duly compensated (in actual currency) would someday be relegated to niche publishing?


  1. Mentally, you appear to be stuck in an older paradigm that may no longer apply to your chosen profession. This can be perfectly illustrated by your line "that this is the future of publishing".

    The notion that "publishing" is a hard undertaking to the point of it almost being a capitalized event no longer holds. Until recently, this was indeed true because the very act of publishing required great resources to get printed word to the masses. Heck, even an amateur running a basic, low-level 'zine found it necessary to xerox stacks of paper and hand them out on a street corner, which is not a trivial exercise in either time or money. Scaling up to a full-color glossy magazine capable of reaching a significant portion of our population ratcheted up the costs enormously. In that environment, yes, Publishing is a big-dot-deal because the cost structure required it to be so.

    But, the easy distribution system that we know as the internet removed most of the roadblocks to getting your ideas, opinions, news, etc. out to the masses, and times they are a-changing. For you, it's bad. But, for the folks who follow you, it's a great time to be alive. The restrictions on the flow of information are effectively gone, and the barriers to learning a new hobby (such as hunting) or getting better at an existing one (such as hunting) are falling dramatically. I view this as a good thing on the whole.

    Of course, it sucks if your livelihood is dependent upon being paid by the word as your competition has increased dramatically. Sorry, but that's the new paradigm.

    BTW, I'm already on my second career and anticipate at least one more before reaching retirement age. At least it's not boring ;-)

  2. Good points, Bobby. Can't really argue a single one you make. However, I'm not so much decrying the end of traditional publishing (although to be fair I do a helluva lot of that, too) as I am the destruction of the content generators (writers) actually being paid for the work that provides a profit for whatever publishing entity (be it online, print or whatever).

  3. And just to placate the concerns of my English teacher wife, yes, the grammatical error in Mr. "If I Write Good They Will Come" was indeed intentional. It was meant to convey a subtle sense of sneering superiority...

    Sometimes it's hard living with the grammar police

  4. And she just pointed out that I have no period at the end of that last sentence...

  5. Chad,

    "If I Write Good They Will Come".

    I actually thought that was pretty funny.

    No one knows for sure what will happen to authors during this present difficulty; whether they'll give way entirely to the untrained (but free) masses or if there will be some equilibrium reached where a few, lucky few, will still make their living that way. Just in the short decade since blogging took off, we've already seen the vast majority contributors burn out once they realize that writing isn't easy. Or very profitable.

    TV Advertisers faced similar disruptions with the introduction of DVRs and their ability to skip commercials entirely. The 30 second commercial is still king, but I've noticed a lot more product placement in the content of the shows themselves. In a way, it's a back to the future funding model the mimics the early period of television.

    I wonder if we won't see something similar in blogging/publishing where companies will pay authors directly for targeted pieces that cut out the middle-man of magazines, newspapers, books, etc. If so, then the important thing will be who can maintain an audience large enough to temp advertisers. Oops, that takes us right back to "If I Write Good They Will Come" territory.

  6. It's funny that this man started writing articles because the sports news was so bad, and yet, his stuff is now "so good" that it gets picked up by them. He is the one who got suckered here: Sports writing is "bad" because fan is short for fanatic. The subjectivity in the reader is off the charts. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of his readers are also sick to death of his tired angle - unless they share that angle.

    As for any payments, this feller will learn soon enough the Taco Bell syndrome: when you get too expensive to keep, they'll just chuck you, not pay you more. It's not like there aren't thousands of other yayhoos out there will to drive down prices.

  7. While we're passing what do you chaps think of the Gawker model, where 'bloggers' get a small amount per post and a slice of the ad revenue that individual post generates?


  8. SBW, I have no experience with the Gawker model of paid blogging, but unless you were a really big name generating tons of traffic I can't see it paying much at all. Of cours, relatively soreaking not much at all is better than nothing at all...