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April 07, 2008

Digital piecework and blogger burnout

Atrios has little patience for this story by Matt Richtel about the stresses of certain types of blogging:

Indeed, this kind of thing is really ignorant. Like any other job, blogging can have various stresses associated with it but the idea that its comparable to working in an actual sweatshop just reflects a bizarrely stupid class bias by people who write for elite newspapers.

The story's hook is that two prolific technology bloggers died recently of untimely heart attacks, while a third survived a coronary. The author suggests that these and other health problems might be linked to certain bloggers' frenetic work schedules. Some of the surviving tech bloggers mentioned in the article are effectively on call every waking hour, every day.

The author explains why these bloggers have such crazy schedules: Many are payed by the post or by the click. They are rewarded for being first, even if they only scoop the competition by a fraction of a second. The 24-hour news cycle is unrelenting.

As Ezra points out, correlation doesn't equal causation. There's no evidence that blogging killed anyone. In fairness, it should be noted that the author explicitly concedes that point.

Both Ezra and Atrios find the comparison between bloggers and sweatshop workers offensive. Of course, Richtel is engaging in hyperbole, but I think he's making a valid point about the working conditions of a subset of paid bloggers--the pieceworkers and contractors who occupy lowly positions within for-profit media.

This particular compensation model is rare in the liberal blogosphere, where paid bloggers are more likely to sell ads on their own sites, or to draw a salary from an institution. Blogging is just another revenue stream for many media outlets. Tech and pop culture bloggers at commercial blogs routinely toil away under contract, often paid by the post or the click. Their working conditions are symptomatic of larger ills affecting the media and economy at large.

The pop culture empire Gawker Media recently rewrote its rules for paying contract bloggers. Under the new system, bloggers get a monthly base rate, plus a bonus based on page-views-per-post, with the base rate to be adjusted quarterly. Refreshes of a blog's front page don't count toward the bonus, it's all about the click-through rate to individual posts.

The new scheme is supposed to reward quality over quantity. However, it also carries greater uncertainty for the contractors, who are hard pressed to predict how much they're going to get paid every month.

Defenders of the new deal say that tying bonuses to traffic frees bloggers from having to curry favor with ediors. But of course, management retains the power to influence how much traffic individual posts get by adjusting the layout of the home page, promoting certain posts, and so on. As Greensmile noted in the comments, below, rewarding individual writers for their traffic may reward sensationalism over sober analysis.

HeyPaul of Valleywag writes about the new regime at Gawker Media:

Since this plan was announced in late December, we've known that the pay rate is to be changed on the first day of every quarter. I expected to be informed of the pay rate before the month started, but that hasn't happened, even after repeated requests to my superiors. We're working in the digital equivalent of a sweatshop, effectively being paid based on how many views we can drum up — and now the goalposts are being moved mid-kick. This is unnerving and a slap in the face to the "creative underclass" that writes for Gawker's blogs.

If a potential advertiser asked Gawker to start running its ads and promised to negotiate terms later, they'd be laughed out of the room — but that is exactly what the company is asking of its writers. If I were a salesperson, I'd expect to know my quarterly sales goals well in advance. [VW]

Some journalists grouse about how low-paid, slipshod bloggers are stealing their jobs. That's a gross overstatement, but again, there's a grain of truth. The error is blaming bloggers for the agenda of profit-driven management.

Well-paid, secure, salaried jobs are being replaced by insecure low-paid contract work across the board.  Good reporting jobs are disappearing, just like good jobs elsewhere in the economy. That work is being farmed out to low bidders.

There's no magic link between the blogging medium and journalism. Given the resources and the inclination, a journalist can report as easily for a blog as for a broadsheet.

As usual, the issue is the resources. Some kinds of reporting virtually require institutional support. Woodward and Bernstein were on salary. They didn't have to finance their Watergate coverage first and hope to sell their story later. 

Today's media companies don't want to invest in people or product development. They'd rather outsource their content to a pool of hungry, disposable freelancers and contractors. Over the long run, quality is bound to suffer.

Most freelancers simply can't afford to invest as much in a story as salaried writers. They deal in volume. They are likely to flit from assignment to assignment, writing about whatever will pay, instead of cultivating a beat like a salaried reporter. Editors have little incentive to nurture talent that's likely to be gone next week. The bias is towards quick, safe, salable stories.

I recently applied for a job as a blogger for a well-known local news organization.

I respectfully withdrew my application when I learned that the quota for this "part time" position was five posts a day, five days a week, for $300 a week. The job had no benefits, unless you counted a press pass from an established news outlet.

The successful candidate was expected to provide play-by-play on breaking news and original reporting. The recruiter conceded that she didn't expect the blogger to use that press pass very often.

I tried to explain that five posts a day, even five short entries, would be a full-time job. The blogger would be tied to the computer, scanning RSS feeds for the entire working day. By my calculations, the job required at least two or three hours of daily reading to keep up with the core news outlets and blogs that defined the beat. That wasn't even counting the time spent writing, editing, fact-checking, or moderating comments, let alone leaving the house to cover anything. It was hard to see how this position could be combined with even the most flexible day job.

The recruiter held fast on the pay issue. I'm sure they eventually found someone to fill the job. Ironically, whoever takes the position will be counted as one of those nasty bloggers stealing work from a journalist. Somehow management is never responsible for offering the terms.

One of the great myths that perpetuates inequality is that nobody's exploited unless they're literally starving: Of course white collar tech bloggers have nothing in common with waitresses, couriers, and the millions of other Americans struggling to make a living in the global economy. Tech bloggers have college degrees and write about gadgets! So what if they have no health insurance, no job security, and little income? If they complain, they're just entitled whiners.

Neither Atrios nor Ezra is saying that. They're criticizing an admittedly flawed story that deserves a little more credit than it's getting. A New York Times trend piece tacitly acknowledging the exploitation of white collar workers is probably a step in the right direction. I'm glad that the Times stopped to consider a growing divide between haves and have-nots, even within a relatively privileged industry.

Of course, it's silly to think that blogging is onerous, per se. Some bloggers are hobbyists. Others are small business owners--who choose to pour massive amounts of time and effort into their own fledgling enterprises. Still others draw salaries and benefits for their work. It's hard to see how these kinds of blogging are inherently more stressful or dangerous than any other pursuit. None of this detracts from the very real predicament of bloggers who are working low-paid, insecure contract jobs for profitable corporations. Even if they aren't dropping dead, a lot of them could use health insurance.


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great post Lindsay...and you would know this topic well.
Best background and analysis since the NY Times first put out the story.

Under the new system, bloggers get a monthly base rate, plus a bonus based on page-views-per-post, with the base rate to be adjusted quarterly. ...
Defenders of the new deal say that tying bonuses to traffic frees bloggers from having to curry favor with ediors

Well that is true as far as it goes but one thing that was also more visible in the Times write up was that the same economics that drive Fox to pander are driving the paid-by-the-click-through blogger to tart up the writing and the topics and not make unfashionably long posts, all to draw readers...and I find that antithetical to "quality". Give readers what they need, not what they want or what they deserve.

YOU manage quality in many of your posts, original and well grounded insight. I don't know who reads, for instance, wonkette and the fact that it is not written by A.M.Cox any more goes even further in saying that some blogging is a commodity. Having a reputation may be good for traffic but I'll read a blogger who has a clue ten times before I will read just because the snark is saucy.

Oh my gosh!

I better go to the doctor right now!

Oh my gossssshhhhhh!

I just realized that I am NOT being paid for my blogging efforts!

Atrios' work experience is as similar to the average blogger's as Tom Cruise's work experience is similar to the average actor's.

An excellent, thoughtful post. Thanks.


Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep; take one aspirin a day; get plenty of exercise; take vitamin C; eat all your vegetables; drink 8 glasses of, scratch the water stuff.

Thanks, Lindsay. This is happening all over, and it's awful. I took a job in engineering after a six-year hiatus, and I was appalled. It had been structured in the way you describe. There was no real job security. The stresses of the job damn near killed me.

There's been a tectonic shift in the US job market, all over the place. And it's very destructive.

Blogging for clicks isn't so different from being a freelance stringer for a newspaper. Dickens was paid by the word - one of the reasons he wrote so many of them.

Someone will always be willing to work hard for free. Most of them won't be much good. The best aspect o the system is that it allows newbies to break in and develop their chops, before they move on up the food chain. The bad news is that there's a pool of hungry journalists all wanting to move up, which depresses wages for the rest of the profession. Which is why guilds and unions were invented.

Making a living from blogging is a difficult, if not impossible, task for all but a few. You would think that media outlets would want to recruit excellent talent, nourish and reward them. Without the content and intellectual property, any media outlet is just a hollow shell. Print media's been trying to kill itself for a while now, TV has jumped the shark, so maybe 'new media' doesn't possess any particularly special insight - it's just using the newest, most efficient technology.

Without disagreeing with you about the substance of your post, I want to note:

Five posts per day, five days per week for $300 works out to be $12 per post.

I was doing digital freelance piecework during the dotcom boom, back in the day when any warm body with a pulse could find full-time employment in an Internet startup, the going rate for contract workers at home writing 40-word Web site reviews was something like $2 per review. That works out to about 5 cents/word -- a pretty good word rate in the 1950s, but dirt cheap contemporary standards, ten years ago and today. Guestimating a typical blog post to be in the 100 to 200 word range (call it 120 words, to make calculation easy), $12/pop works out to 10 cents/word. That's a halfway decent word rate for a freelancer.

A question that comes to mind is whether this weekly news blogger position was a contract 1099 position or an actual W2 employee. If it was contract work, that $300/week is illusory, because a bigger bite is taken out by the Feds for self-employment tax.

Disclaimer: I myself am a paid blogger -- I get my first $100 check for a year of Google AdSense at the end of this month. Wheeee!

They wanted five posts a day on city politics as the news came over the wires.

Which meant that the blogger had to commit to watching the wires all day, plus all the reading and research required to cover a demanding beat at a professional level. They hoped the blogger would also find time to actually do original reporting on top of everything else.

So, the blogger was locking in to a full-time job for a flat rate of $60 a day with no benefits.

I thought I would let you know that launched yesterday and there are only 25 members right now. If you join right now you should be able to get a lot of referrals and start earning some decent money.

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