Thursday, November 4, 2004

Media Bistro and Writer Exploitation

Media Bistro Monkey

The following discussion is from the members section of Media Bistro in the Forums section. I've removed all the names to protect the innocent, but left in Elizabeth Spiers of Gawker fame since she's the MB staffer who responded to the rants. But first, the "Who We Are" profile provided by Media Bistro:


Media Bistro

Who and what we are. is dedicated to anyone who creates or works with content, or who is a non-creative professional working in a content/creative industry. That includes editors, writers, television producers, graphic designers, book publishers, people in production, and circulation departments — in industries including magazines, television, radio, newspapers, book publishing, online media, advertising, PR, and graphic design. Our mission is to provide opportunities (both online and offline) for you to meet each other, share resources, become informed of job opportunities and interesting projects, improve your career skills, and showcase your work.

> Sponsor an event or advertise with us.

Our greater goal: to revolutionize the way creative/content industry professionals relate. Call it the AvantGuild, a new guild for the new guard in media. Media professionals have so much in common, yet we work in our little cubicle worlds, rarely meeting, rarely sharing our collective experiences. We want to create a new version of the 14th-century guild system — so that talented professionals in related industries can meet informally, mentor each other, work on projects together, and more. Go ahead, call us idealists. Call us medievalists even!


And now for the rants:


Anyone know how to pitch MB's essay department? They tell you how to pitch about everyone but least, I haven't found anyting on the website about this. I sent the site an email but no one answered. I also heard a rumor that they don't pay anything whatsoever. Any truth to that?


For a site that is supposedly for members of the media, I find it sad and even irritating that they expect writers to donate their services. If they manage to pay the staff and the company hosting the site and the landlord for their office space and the electric company and so on, why should writers provide for nothing that which actually helps draw people to the site, which in turn allows them to charge for advertising? And even the idea of in-kind compensation is something that the writer has to know to ask for? Even while Laurel is quoted by a reporter about this being a money making machine?

This sounds more and more like so many other things in writing - the magazines, the seminars, the newsletters, the editing services. Yes, there are some that are more than worth the money (ASJA and Freelance success are that for me), but in all too many cases, there is a common smell. It's the aroma of someone people who had been in the business but had then decided that writers were strictly suckers and ought to be treated that way. ''Oh, yeah, we can get writers to do this - they'll fall for anything.''

I will donate my time to non-profits that I particularly like. I will spend time trying to help other writers if I can. But I'm not giving away time and effort to what is clearly a for-profit business.


Seems to me a fair in- kind trade would at least be a year's worth of free advertising in their freelance marketplace, to maintain and upkeep such a listing costs a fraction of what they're actually charging individual writers, or a spot in one of their writing bootcamps.


I think that's one of the things you can negotiate for, if you know to ask. Now you do. I like MB, and have found the site extremely useful, especailly for jobs. But it seems to pose as a money-making business when it's convenient, and as a struggling nonprofit when that suits its ends--when it needs to rationalize or explain not paying writers or its constant call for volunteers (the latter seems to have ebbed, though). What businesses call for volunteers? Again, I don't like to bash MB, because the site, and many of its panels and short classes, are good and useful, and not that expensive. I just wish it would get over its irritating hypocrisy. Instead of advocating for better treatment for writers, it perpetuates the writer-as-victim philosophy--bad pay, late pay or no pay, bad contracts, the idea that writers should be grateful to have their work displayed anywhere--that it should be working to combat.


Elizabeth Spiers

Posted – 11/3/2004 12:12:39 PM

Here's what I told a few people who inquired yesterday:

The standard policy right now is that we don't pay for essays, but historically we've compensated people who write for the site on a regular basis w/ avantguild memberships, other freelancer services, or whatever we can scrape together. there seem to be (at this point) enough good writers who will write for free to build a clip file and to get their writing in front of editors (and a wide variety of editors, at that) so there's not a tremendous amount of pressure to do otherwise. That said, the policy is very erratic and where we need to compensate, some people already have avant guild memberships so i'm trying to come up with a better way of doing that. If you have suggestions (besides the obvious $1 a word, which doesn't appear to be tenable*) do let me know. I'm looking for creative solutions. And money isn't entirely out of the question, but it'd probably come out of my own pocket and not my budget, so it'd have to be really fucking good. I don't exactly make Anna Wintour-level money.

*MB is profitable, but more on the solid-small-biz level than the media conglomerate level. And it was never a non-profit (which is a descriptor of intent and tax treatment, not profitability. Most non-profits are profitable.)


For those who don't have her finance background, let me explain in simpler terms what Elizabeth is saying (which, in fairness to her, is no more or less than she can say as mouthpiece for the business plan Laurel created):

Newbie writers are essentially like illegal immigrants, or mine workers in pre-union times, or underage children in third world sweatshops. It's fair to exploit them because they are willing to be exploited. You want the clip but don't want the exploitation? No problem. Someone else will put up with it. You, unlike the utility companies or the landlord, are completely expendable. Don't like it? No problem. There are plenty of other suckers out there who will be more than happy to create the content that creates the page hits that create the numbers MB uses to sell its classifieds and otherwise continue charging forward as, in Laurel's words to The Economist, ''a money-making machine''. You're a log to be thrown on the engine. Don't want to get burned? There's plenty more logs where you came from, so screw off.

This is, as Erik Sherman already said, a shameful way for a business to treat the professional community it allegedly exists to serve.


With all due respect, Elizabeth, the theory that editors are (more) likely to call you with work after you write for free on this site is, in my own limited personal experience, not necessarily true. My essay on trauma ran here last spring -- yes, because the potential payoff was some increased exposure for my new/first book and no, I was not paid. Nor was I paid to run a concomitant BB discussion on the same topic, a thread that ran for several weeks with many thoughtful messages. Maybe my writing just sucks, but no one has contacted me since then to assign work to me. So you pays your money (or do not receive any) and you takes your chances...Flame me for making that decision.

I did it once, but am unlikely to do it again. I doubt anyone with a choice (i.e. experienced writers; see floruja's comments) or without a timely or specific need for (greater) exposure for their ideas or POV will repeatedly do so either. The only writer whose name I've read here and then recently somewhere more exalted, (and you can guess wildly and inaccurately as to cause and effect), who may also have worked for free, is Lizzie Skurnick whose byline has recently appeared in the NYT Book Review. With all due respect to Lizzie, and good for her, did Sam really come trolling the MB site for new writers? I somehow doubt it.


Good grief, call off the dogs. I think it's great that MB is willing to work with new writers, even if they don't have the $$ to compensate. It's a great way to get clips. I've written for other sites for free, and for the pleasure of it, and for clips, and it was a great stepping stone to get paid assignments. If you don't like the policy, you don't have to write for MB, for free, in-kind payment, or otherwise! There's lots of other outlets out there!


Media Bistro Discussion on Pay for Freelance Writers

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