I received an email from a member of the Newspaper Guild asking me not to write this blog. This week that union called on bloggers to form an "electronic picket line" around the Huffington Post and boycott further posts until the HP changes its business model. As the son of a union shop steward, I am pained, but I guess this makes me a digital scab.
While I appreciate the angst and anxiety of those caught up in a fading economic system, I am astonished by the Newspaper Guild's profound lack of understanding about how the world works today. To my fellow writers, I promise that you will make a living at this craft: just not the way we used to.
Of course, history has seen this transition before. In 15th century Europe, few were more culturally and politically powerful than the literate Scribes who hand-wrote and illustrated the books of the time. By interpreting and editing ideas, Scribes were the arbiters of what people knew (and didn't know) and they jealously guarded their position of power. When the Gutenberg printing press arrived and quickly displaced them, the Scribes did not go easily into that good night and did everything they could to enlist the elites in fighting the arrival of the new technology. But it was futile.
Today, networked communications is making print obsolete, and that transition is just as painful, but the fight against it just as futile. Publishing has changed forever; no one will make a living at writing the same way again. For those of us who write books, or pen columns or chase down the first draft of history as journalists, these are unsettling times. And no publisher has it quite figured out yet either, so there is little comfort to go around.
Here's what we do know:
You can't fight the Network. Networks, such as the Internet, don't like impediments to the free flow of ideas and information, particularly toll booths. The ease by which information gets exchanged has altered the perceived value of that information. Nobody happily pays for information anymore, and if the Huffington Post charged for its content it would likely be out of business in months. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal may be able to charge for content, but that is on the strength of 100-year old brands. HuffPo readers don't vote with their subscription dollars, but rather with something else important--their willingness to show up every day.
Attention is cash. The Huffington Post took the risk to amass an enormous online footprint which benefits all those who write for it in the new currency of the times: attention. Today's marketplace of ideas is measured in energy -- traffic, cross-links, friend shares, tweets and retweets. HuffPo bloggers largely fall into two camps -- national experts who want to share their ideas and may receive ancillary benefits from the visibility (increased book sales, for example) and solid up-and-coming writers who need the exposure and a break. No one I know of is dragooned into writing for the Huffington Post; everybody has their own reasons and perceived ROI. Attention is chief among them.
Agency, not ownership. The Guild is going to have a hard time portraying the Huffington Post as some sort of sweatshop of ideas. In reality, the HP and sites like it simply host the interactions of readers and writers in community together. They aren't the owners of the football teams we watch play but owners of the stadium the teams play in. To argue, in this specific context, that we should be paid to share our ideas with each other is analogous to paying individuals on Facebook to post their own profiles. Or paying readers to comment on blogs.
Finally, the Newspaper Guild is tilting at a long gone windmill. Publishing has already crossed the Jump Point. It will never go back. Writers need to think differently about their careers now, need to be their own brands, in demand for their unique skills and product. Rather than think like employees, we all need to see ourselves as entrepreneurs -- we all work for ourselves now. And, like smart businesspeople, sometimes you use lose leaders, like an unpaid post here and there, to drive traffic or make a sale elsewhere.
As for the union, it needs to understand what little leverage it has anymore. Yes, the unblinking media beast must be fed, but there is no scarcity of content--no dearth of talented writers -- willing to storm the breach. The Newspaper Guild -- as an institution -- is making itself look out of step and irrelevant by calling for an action it can't explain, never mind enforce. Asking hustling journalists to sit it out on the sidelines while the world marches by is no way to be in the new news business.