You can be a writer with a conscience; but if the publication you write for has a revenue model based on advertising alone, I’m not sure how you can act in a way consonant with your conscience. You can start a publication with a specific politics; but the drive to secure eyeballs has no politics. I mean, work forces you to make moral compromises, film at 11, I get it. I work for Boeing and Monsanto University. And let’s be real: there were no halcyon days in the past of perfect editorial independence, no time when the published word lived free of the necessity to generate revenue. But the fact that things were never great before doesn’t change the fact that things are heading in only one direction now. The hardy-har-haring the last few days has had the distinct sound of whistling past the graveyard. I hope you like your news brought to you by Skittles.
A website that defines itself through, and prides itself on, its explicit mission of promoting social justice also runs a never-ending stream of propaganda on Venezuela that, many would argue, articulates the views of Venezuela’s small lighter-skinned, moneyed elite, against the interest of its large poor, darker-skinned population. Some might find that discomfiting. But that’s where the dollars are coming from.
Yesterday I was thinking about what I’ve written and been paid for in my life. The ten best-paying web-only pieces that I’ve been paid for in my life add up to about 28,000 words and brought me about $3,200 combined. I am currently contracted to have three big print magazine stories published by the end of the year. If all goes to plan, that will add up to about 11,000 words, and I will be paid $20,000 combined. Guess which payscale has a future, and which doesn’t. (Never mind the billion dollar valuations.)
I say none of this with an ounce of enjoyment or insult. It’s true that I think there are many people who want to be writers more than they want to write, if you get me. But that’s only to say that they’ve grown up in a culture that presents them with a set of increasingly limited definitions for how to live without being a loser. You’re meant to admire the starving artist, but you should skip the starving, thanks, it’s embarrassing. The quest for meaningful work becomes indistinguishable from the quest for minimally-degrading work that allows you to pay the rent. There will remain a small population of people who are able to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence by trading their words for dollars, without having to embed endorsements of the Chocolicious Half-Caf Latte from Sonic in their work. But that will be a rarefied condition, and like almost all success in our system, it will come as a result of chance, received advantage, connections, and whim, rather than merit, whatever that is. And as long as you spend all day reading words people put on the internet for you to enjoy while directly giving them $0, you are as much a part of the cynical manipulation as the CFO at CrankBuzz.
I wish for a lot better for the people whose only sin was being told that writing was something worth doing, and believing what they were told.