Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Bloggers Guild of Asheville?

Some food for thought, cross-posted from Ashvegas at the behest of Gordon:

Should bloggers unite? Should there be set standards for bloggers? Do bloggers want to be paid for their work?

All intriguing questions that have been chewed over quite a bit. But there's more to mull. This Columbia Journalism Review writer takes on "blogonomics" in light of the current Hollywood writers strike and provides a thought-provoking article. Here are some essential bits:

Yes, dear reader: the Bloggers Guild of America may be on its way. The dispute between screen and television writers and media conglomerates has its roots, after all, in the Web. The sweeping changes it has impelled in the media over the past decade or so have made film and TV writers feel less in control of the products of their labor. The current strike is the culmination of that: the writers are fighting for additional compensation when a product they’ve created for film or TV is distributed in some form over the Internet. Their current compensation? Nothing.

Bloggers often earn that same salary. There are exceptions, of course, those fortunate few who have become quasi-celebrities in their own right and found themselves, and their sites, snatched up by major media companies (which in some cases are owned by the same large conglomerates that the Hollywood writers are, as of this writing, striking against). These big media outlets are making money from the Web traffic that bloggers bring, via the online advertisements that that traffic helps to sell.

Ok. So where does that lead us?

As top-tier blogs, in particular, become increasingly profitable, it will be fair to ask just how much of their proceeds are going to the writers who, ultimately, make it all possible.

In short, it’s a Wild West out there for bloggers—even though, without them, the Internet’s frontier would not have expanded so broadly or so rapidly. And even though, without them, the Web-derived profits many of these blog sites are starting to rake in simply wouldn’t exist.

You still with it?

At the same time, though, there’s sense in diversity when it comes to compensation: not all bloggers should be treated equally with respect to remuneration. Most bloggers, after all, don’t draw very much traffic; neither are they part of a blogging conglomerate that is making real money selling advertisements. Were bloggers to organize, a threshold would have to be established between blogging “for fun” and blogging in a way that should be considered “labor”—between amateurs and professionals, if you will.

Such distinctions are hardly unprecedented—the Writers Guild of America, after all, does not include everyone with a screenplay squirreled away in his sock drawer. That’s why it’s a guild—you have to be a professional to be a member and reap the benefits. Something similar could happen for the blogosphere. As Nancy Lynn Schwartz relates in her history of the writers guild, The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, initial organizing was undertaken by an already successful group of writers—the Andrew Sullivans, as it were, of Hollywood in the 1930s.

It’s possible and even desirable, I think, that the same may eventually happen for blogging, perhaps under the auspices of the existing National Writers Union, which recently voted to make organizing bloggers a priority. I imagine it something like this: the most successful writers take the initiative to organize, because they’re the ones who will actually be listened to by employers. Then, they’ll set up a structure that separates the workhorse bloggers (those who make large collective sites like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post possible) from the pure “hobbyists.” Whatever these distinctions may be, they should have nothing to do with whether or not the blogger in question has another salary from another job. (Not all writers in the guild work full-time on TV and screen writing, but all are equally protected.)

A bloggers guild could also, of course, work to protect bloggers’ intellectual property and help ensure they’re compensated for it. In 2001, the Supreme Court heard The New York Times Co. v. Tasini, in which six freelance writers took on publications that had run their work in print, paying them for the copyright, and then republished that work in online databases. In a 7-2 vote, the Court found in favor of the freelancers, ruling that writers should be compensated for work published online in addition to their print compensation. It takes only the tiniest of logical leaps to apply this ruling to the work of bloggers.

The paradigm shifts we’re in the midst of—in media usage and, then, in standards of intellectual property—demand that we rethink not just what writers contribute to the media marketplace, but also how they should be compensated for their contributions. Individual blogs, and Web sites hosting large numbers of bloggers, are profiting—not just culturally and intellectually, but economically—from bloggers’ work. Organizing, in that sense, seems not only inevitable, but necessary; “professional” bloggers need to be compensated for their work. It’s only fair.


zen said...

To me this is a part of the general commercialization of the internet that has been happening the last few years. Not necessarily a bad thing, but i think the realm of internet content has been expanded by a lack of a clear line between those who make money and those who do not.

I just hope in the necessary process of giving hard-working bloggers fair compensation doesn't in some way diminish the strength and reachability of the burgeoning and very creative DIY Blogs that are out there.

Gordon Smith said...

I think a lot of folks would love to get paid to blog. I'd like it, but I don't want to go to the trouble if the return isn't much. I've never spent a penny on ScruHoo and never made a penny from it. There's a puritanical streak in me about it. At the same time, I do like increasing my readers.

As a blogger, I haven't ever made claims of "intellectual property". I think of ScruHoo as a public space. But it would be good for bloggers who'd like that protection against having their work exploited by others for profit.

There's a lot to think about here...