WARNING: what follows is some fairly-heavy, naval-gazing non stat/rumour, inside baseball type stuff (which means don't bother leaving that "yawn" bullshit in the comments). Most of you after all probably don’t care what kind of money changes hands before soccer news and opinion meets your eyes, unless there’s a paywall involved. And the most annoying thing to read for a non-writer type person is a blogger whinging about not getting paid enough money.
Part of the reason however why bloggers whine about money and newspaper columnists don’t is because the latter make a truck load of union-guaranteed cash for pumping out a column a day, while bloggers toil away spinning thousands of words and hoping they’ll generate enough pay-per-click ad payback to chip off one fifth of their rent. As far as careers go, blogging in and of itself (i.e. without additional paid writing work) is still fairly shit.
I write this in light of a recent development with the redesign of the popular Guardian Sport Blog, source of information and amusement for soccer enthusiasts the world round (save for you hardcore Canada nerds). They’ve recently struck a deal with some talented “independent” (I’ll get to those inverted quotes later) bloggers to post links to their blogs on the site, and to cross post some content once-in-a-while.
This was met with some derision in soccer blogger circles because the Guardian doesn’t pay the writers to cross post their content. While the paper argues the writers get a much bigger audience (and a few more PPC hits on their home sites for a tiny bit more cash, in theory) and a boost to the CV, others say that by writing for free, these bloggers are making it hard for writers to get paid everywhere. If the Guardian can get the best for free, after all, then so can anyone.
I disagree, and here’s why.
First of all, while many hardcore union-types boast about how they never wrote for free in their life, that’s usually not exactly true. Many journalists got their start after all writing free content for their university student newspaper, which they later used as clips when sending out freelance pitches. Others generated clips by writing for free (or practically for free) for community newspapers.
Why did they do this? To get their stuff out there in print to prove to editors with an actual budget they could write. In the old days though, this period of free or cheap freelancing didn’t last long (unless you were crap or lazy). A good freelancer would compile their best clips and pitch story ideas to newspaper or magazine editors, and then get an assignment (after twenty rejections).
Then came the Internet like one massive self-publishing press. A ton of soccer bloggers hit the scene, and generally relied on PPC ads to make (relatively miniscule amounts of) money, which meant generating as much traffic as possible. Digital media also took the stuffing out of the old print publishing industry, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
Yes, digital news made the whole newspaper model suddenly seem ridiculous, but Craigslist arguably did far more damage by killing the money-making classified ad section. And while the web did a lot of damage to writers’ livelihoods by undermining the print publishing business model, it did not destroy it altogether. If anything, it provided a much wider pool of talented writers with a free platform on which to hawk their wares.
The “writing for free” period in a freelancer’s life expanded and the work got more competitive, yes, but talented bloggers who worked their angles regularly and could write well sometimes got picked up for assignments, or better yet, full time gigs, often from traditional publishers. I don’t want write a laundry list of recent examples, but there are many. It should also be stated that it is very much still possible to get money by sending out pitches to magazines and newspapers the old fashioned way, no blogging required. There is a long list of contributors at the football magazine When Saturday Comes who don’t have a Twitter account, let alone a blog.
That’s why I put quotes on “independent.” A lot of the writers featured in the GSN have other jobs, which they picked up by getting noticed for their work as bloggers. For those who don’t, GSN offers an opportunity to expand their profile, to use the Guardian in a clipping, and to shop around for paid work.
The system isn’t perfect—blogger 2nd Yellow pointed out a big problem with SEO for blogs on the network, for example — but GSN’s approach is far different than that of offering bloggers a chance to write original content for free, which at least one recently expanded Canadian sports network has rumoured to have done recently. I also think that more should have been done to compensate individual bloggers for cross-posted content (although my sources tell me an offer to join the Guardian ad network was put on the table), but I don’t see how exposure to a wide audience can’t be levered into more paid work.
The reason writers struggle to earn a living now has little to do with giant, wealthy publishers exploiting working writers (although there are many, many examples of that, well before the advent of the Internet). You tend to get labelled a neoliberal in blogger circles for saying this, but sometimes there are in fact abstract, economic conditions that affect a certain trade or type of work. Computers made typewriters obsolete. Craigslist have killed print classifieds. The Internet wildly expanded the supply of written content, in relation to demand, driving down price i.e. how you much you get paid a word. Writers don’t get paid as much as they used to. The ones who latched on to union jobs early are the real “winners” here.
I absolutely agree that it’s an insidious practice for a major media company to solicit original work for no pay. But that’s not what GSN is doing. It’s offering a blog a permanent link and a chance to have content cross-posted. It’s not ideal, but it’s not black and white exploitation. Each blogger involved could have said no, and chose not to. That's because exposure is a lifeline in very difficult economic circumstances for soccer writers. The path to full time writing work exists, it’s just a lot longer, a lot more difficult and arduous, and in certain circumstances, it means writing for free.