Quick thoughts on HuffPo & Arianna Huffington, because of a tweet.

Yesterday Arianna Huffington tweeted a ridiculously cloying aphorism. Being in a bad mood, I responded thusly:

Because, you see, Arianna Huffington built a media empire on the unpaid labor of a huge percentage of her content producers, and you know what? Wealthy, influential “Progressives” who build any part of their wealth on unpaid labor make me very, very angry. Because it’s wrong.

(Full-disclosure: My work has appeared on The Huffington Post, and I knew ahead of time that I would not be compensated. I agreed to those terms because the content was old and my reach is small, and I am beaten down enough to just be glad that it would get a broader audience).

My tweet got a bunch of RTs (for whatever that’s worth) and one person (only one) replied to tell me that I should Google HuffPo’s business practices going back nine years — that HuffPo employs paid journalists, and bloggers post “without expectation of being paid.” All of which is true. And yet. Aside from the fact that the dividing line between “journalist” and “blogger” isn’t actually a line (I’m a journalist who writes for blogs. What does that make me?), here’s how that whole “bloggers post without expectation of being paid” thing happened:

The world of print media was in the throes of a long, drawn-out wasting illness when it collapsed spectacularly in the spring and summer of 2008. This wrecked futures and ruined lives. People who had made their livings and used their hard-won skills to build careers slowly and carefully watched all of it crumble and fall, through no fault of their own.

People like Arianna Huffington (and there are a lot of them) recognized a depressed market, and, savvy business people that they are, understood that they could profit from the chaos. In Huffington’s case, she understood that she could profit financially and extend her cultural and political influence by exploiting the labor of people who had literally lost their means to make a living. Get lots and lots of hungry writers to agree to give you their skills, experience, and time in exchange for “exposure,” and your news outlet (and the full time journalists who you do pay) will have the constant churn of content required to keep it relevant and competitive in a market that demands constant churn.

This situation is now industry-wide, and I hate it no matter where I see it, because it is wrong.

It is wrong. It is wrong. Let me repeat myself: IT IS WRONG. It is wrong to make a profit off of someone else’s unpaid labor. IT. IS. WRONG.

But, as I say, the entire industry looks like this now, so it’s very hard to combat. Everyone publishing anything is doing so with on a very slim budget, and if you want to be able to compete, there’s only so far you can go in trying to stand up for what’s right. So of course there’s a sliding scale: Is your site largely an advocacy site and your writers are doing their work as a contribution to the cause and even the people making salaries aren’t getting rich? Well, ok. Is your site a small for-profit site, and you at least make a good-faith effort to pay folks a little something out of respect for their time and effort? Well, ok. (And I should note that I hold no anger, grudge, resentment, or even judgement toward the people actually employed by these organizations — they are not the problem).

But HuffPo (and the many other sites and online presences of dead-tree publications with similar business models, the names of which I won’t try to list now) fits in neither of those categories. HuffPo, with Arianna Huffington at its head, became a large, money-making venture with genuine sway over American culture, its uber-wealthy founder a player in national politics. So, a) it’s wrong; b) it’s a very bad look for an influential Democrat; and c) what this ultimately means is that HuffPo and its ilk are the Walmarts of publishing.

We lefties sure like to take Walmart to task for keeping wages down across the entire economy by virtue of it being the single largest employer in the country and paying its hungry-for-any-job employees terribly. What Walmart does literally affects mid-to-low-paying jobs everywhere, because it sets the bottom-line standards against which every other employer has to compete.

Which is precisely what HuffPo, et al, do when they continue the “bloggers who don’t expect to be paid” model. They perpetuate and deepen a terrible, unethical industry standard that writers (and photographers and artists and so on) should not simply expect to be paid for their work — that on the contrary, merely having one’s work used for someone else’s profit should be seen as recompense enough.

So yeah. If you’re a creative, ask yourself: Are you living your dream or are you living somebody else’s dream? Because unless you’re one of the relative few who’ve managed to get a decently paid full-time gig out of this (and confidential to my young writer friends: If you have a full time, professional job and still have to live with roommates — you’re not paid enough), then you’re living Arianna Huffington’s dream.

UPDATE: Please note Brian Spears’s comment below re: Huffington’s celebrity buddies, because that is absolutely part of the problem.

*correction: Thanks to my girl Minna’s eagle eye, I’ve corrected the spelling of Huffington’s first name throughout (this is what happens when you can’t afford a copy editor, amirite?)

** Please also note: It occurs to me that in my white-hot fury, I forgot to note that The Huffington Post was bought by AOL for an obscene amount of money a couple-three years ago. Which doesn’t change the basic point — AH made literally millions and millions of dollars off of that sale — but she’s not the one CURRENTLY exploiting unpaid labor. Just her name is.

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Resolved: It’s ok for creative people to not be consumed with self-loathing.

Typewriter keyboardI am, rather famously (for some, very limited values of “famously”), a writer.

I’ve considered myself a writer since somewhere around late-junior-high, and for a sizeable chunk of my life, I’ve attempted to make some kind of living from being a writer. I am at heart an essayist, but I’m also comfortable with reviews, features, research papers, straight-up reporting, pretty much any non-fiction thing you might toss at me. Poetry and make-believe, not so much, but everything else? I’m on it. In the past, I would occasionally feel that if I were more serious, I would write fiction. And then I realized that I don’t want to write fiction. So I got over myself.

That’s the extent of my writer’s angst — the whole, entire enchilada. I used to kinda think maybe I should try my hand at fiction, and then I went: Nah.

But existing in a world of writers, as I do — and more broadly in a world of creatives of all types — I’m forever hearing (reading) a sort of ritualistic expression of self-loathing, often embracing the idea that if you’re ever genuinely satisfied with what you’ve created, your muse has died. DIED.

What the hell is up with that?

No, seriously. What the hell? Sure, we should all strive to improve. There’s always room for “better.” The top is never truly achieved, because in reaching it, the next mountain is created and if you want to grow in your field, you have to climb it, too. I am absolutely down with all of that.

And there is also such a thing as shitty work. There’s such a thing as work-produced-when-young-and-inexperienced. There’s such a thing as wishing now that you had done something differently then. No doubt.

But I am here today to propose an apparently world-shattering idea: It’s ok to think you’re good at your job. Even if you’re an artist.

There is nothing inherently noble to thinking that you suck, or that all your past work is unreadable, or that every true turn of phrase can only be born of blood, sweat, and dark nights of the tormented soul. Nothing.

I mean, if that’s your bag – if that’s how you produce your work and you really can’t do it any other way – well, ok. I suppose we all have to have our process, and if that’s yours, you do you. It sounds painful, but honestly (really): Who am I to judge?

But can the rest of us just stop acting like that’s the way it has to be? That if you’re a Real Writer (painter, poet, circus clown), you know nothing but dark nights of the tormented soul? We don’t expect brain surgeons, teachers, or software engineers to doubt their every step — why do we expect it of each other?

I’m a good writer. I’ve always been a pretty good writer. This is my gift — my one, single, solitary gift, the only thing I actually know how to do. I won’t deny it, and I refuse to treat self-doubt as a sign of purity. I strive to improve, and on one dark night when I believed I’d never write under my own by-line again, tears streamed down my face as I told my husband that now I’d never get a chance to be as good as I might be able to be. And yes, when I look back and discover work that doesn’t hold together like I thought it did at the time, I cringe. I’ll bet surgeons and teachers, et al, do the same. I may never be great — very few people are — but I’m good at my job.

If you’re a creative, I challenge you to consider that you, too, might be good at your job.

And that maybe less self-loathing and fewer dark nights might allow us to achieve even greater things.

The End.

The pitiless limit to the hours in the day, & shameless self-promotion.

Why look! It's me!

I have a post that I’m working on, a follow-up of sorts to my Lara Logan post, but it’s not ready yet, and frankly, I am dazed and confused and exhausted from a sudden – whoosh! – onslaught of work that came right at the same time as –whoosh! – a sudden onslaught of rage about rape and then – whoosh! – a sudden onslaught of lovely response to the post that my rage produced! And I got a flat tire.

So I’ve decided to take advantage of the rush of new eyeballs to my end of the Internetsylvania Super Information Highway of Dreams, and offer up a small handful of older, far more light-hearted posts for your enjoyment. Please: Read, enjoy, comment, and come back now and then! (Or at least tomorrow, when I hope to have that follow-up up!)

1) THINGS I SHOULDN’T HATE NEARLY AS MUCH AS I DO.

You know how there’s genuinely annoying stuff that you kind of don’t really notice? And then there’s pretty mild stuff that you actually actively hate? And probably shouldn’t?

Oy, don’t get me started.

Oh, ok, I’ll get started:

– People who say “ATM machine” and/or its direct corollary: “PIN number” – So ok, I’m not a monster. I don’t hate those people. But I fucking hate what they say! People, people: You don’t need to tack the noun on — it’s right there in the acronym! Right there and handy! All bundled up, for the ease of your elocution! Lesser hate: The use of the word “social” in place of the apparently-far-too-long-for-mere-mortals-to-get-their-mouths-around “social security number.” To read the rest of this sorry list of shit I really should let go of, click here.

2) THINGS YOU CAN’T PUT ON YOUR RESUME.

I may have mentioned that I am bereft of work. You know, a time or two. Ahem.

This is not, however, a post about that! No, it’s a post about resumes, or rather: the things I can’t put on mine, now that I’m thinking about it so much.

Like most people, I have skills — not to say skillz — that are finely honed, often unparalleled, and frequently dead handy. But useless on a resume.

SUCH AS:

I can collate a messy pile of papers faster than just about anyone you might meet. To learn more about my rockin’ skillz, click here.

3) BUZZ KILL.

Lately the husband and I find ourselves sharing deeply personal cultural artifacts with the boy and the girl.

The girl and I are working our way through the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books, having not long ago completed the Little House series, and even more recently, the Winnie the Pooh books. In each case, it’s been a joy and privilege to share these pieces of my heart and soul, and in each case, I’ve been stunned by the quality of the work. Of course, it was always quality, but one hears things differently when one is an adult — one gets to see, I suppose, just how genius is The Man/Woman Behind The Curtain.

…Here’s the thing though: Not everything that carries a place in one’s heart is of equal value. Not everything that we might want to share is worthy of it. By this, of course, I mean: John Denver. To find out just how much John Denver sucks, click here.

4) I CONTAIN MULTITUDES!*

I recently mentioned that I often don’t enjoy the publications geared to my demographic.

Which is what? You may ask.

I think that, in terms of advertising, my demographic is probably this (though I’m sure an advertising professional would put the following in a different order):

  1. Upper middle class
  2. Highly educated
  3. 45 years old
  4. Female
  5. Married mother of two
  6. White
  7. Suburban

The cover lines just write themselves, don’t they?

Here are some of the things that More thinks will interest me: “Get Sharon Stone’s Body”; “Shirtless Stars We Love”; “MORE talks with Jennifer Aniston’s Trainer”; “How Not to Act Old at the Beach.”

…Oh.My.GOD. So much do not want. To find out what else is wrong in the magazine publishing world (not to mention where that asterisk leads!), click here.