Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Professionalism and Profit

The New York Review of Books recently ran an article on blogs by Sarah Boxer. Boxer discussed differences in print versus online media, such as hyperlinks and multimedia. She also differentiated between bloggers and professional writers:

Bloggers are golden when they're at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn't the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that's no way to blog.
Suggestions that bloggers and journalists are at opposite ends of the media spectrum run throughout Boxer’s review:
Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don't even stop to punctuate…

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford who writes for newspapers and radio and sometimes contributes to the blog Language Log, admitted on NPR back in 2004, "I don't quite have the hang of the form." And, he added, many journalists who get called upon by their editors to keep blogs are similarly stumped: "They fashion engaging ledes, they develop their arguments methodically, they give context and background, and tack helpful IDs onto the names they introduce." Guess what? They read like journalists, not bloggers.
Citizen journalism, which the blogosphere has allowed to flourish, is defined as citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information…to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”

When done right, this sector of bloggers counters many of Boxer’s generalizations. But the ethics of paying for blog postings is a concern that’s being raised by many others.

To what extent does removing the independence factor affect the reliability of citizen journalists? What kind of blog postings merit payment? What percentage of revenue for ads run on blog hosts should go to the writers? Where’s the line between sponsored product reviews and influence peddling?

Chris Mooney, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests that a bloggers' union or guild might be the answer to some of these questions:
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.

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