Thursday, 3 November 2011

Why getting paid for writing is a good thing

Writer Milo Yiannopoulos is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. The tech press has failed, and he's going to rescue it.

According to Yiannopoulos (memorably described by Stephen Fry as a "cynical ignorant fucker", after the then-student said Fry was "opportunistic" for offering to pay the fine of Twitter joke trial defendant Paul Chambers), start-ups, particularly those in Europe, are not getting the attention they deserve. And it's all the fault of bloggers.

Because the emerging technology industry is small, there's a shortage of brilliant, opinionated writers with the wit and intelligence to make people smile, and, more importantly, think. The ones who are out there, for whatever reason, are not getting jobs. Instead, we have a glut of rather embarrassingly illiterate bloggers who, in their competitiveness for pageviews, feel pressurised into churning out rewrites of press releases and other people's posts, occasionally over-reaching themselves to pen opinion pieces.

Having derided the entire technology press for constituting a "cult of the mediocre" and failing to "make insightful links between technology and other disciplines, draw distinctions, see revealing connections", Yiannopoulos goes on to complain that founders and venture capitalists are not getting their voices heard.

Who is providing founders and venture capitalists themselves with a platform to share their expertise in pieces whose appeal reaches beyond the tech blogosphere? […] Where, too, are the sketch-writers, the gossip columnists, the people writing about the people, places and events that shape the headlines? Fundamentally, people are interested in people, and we don't hear nearly enough about the faces behind the technology that is so rapidly changing our world.

The answer to this crisis of journalism? "The Vanity Fair of European tech", a "gorgeous online magazine" that will see "the technology industry explored, celebrated — and sometimes, yes, debunked — for those who work in it, but perhaps more crucially, for everyone else too".

I've no idea what it might eventually become, but the new publication I'm about to flip the switch on will showcase only the very brightest and best original writing, particularly from entrepreneurs themselves, but also from journalists, academics and big thinkers looking to share fresh ideas: visionaries who want to inspire, educate, enrage and amuse others with their experiences, opinons [sic] and insights. People who can place what's going on in technology in a much broader context. This is your opportunity to articulate a vision of the future at length and to people outside the technology world.

Most of this sounds great. It is indeed the case that not enough attention is paid to the sociological implications of technology and its proliferation. It's also true that an awful lot of tech writing is utter bilge, consisting of little more than reheated PR material and wild, hit-chasing conjecture. Also true: Europe doesn't get its fair share of coverage in a US-media-dominated industry.

The problem here is encapsulated in this sentence, intended to refer to the fact that Yiannopoulos doesn't yet know precisely how his operation will make money, but with wider implications too: "The economics can wait."

New contributors will normally be unpaid. […] We will, however, experiment aggressively with ways to financially reward our writers. We may, for example, have subscription-only premium content or one-off article fees for the really thrilling stuff — such as our Special Reports, the first of which will be a comprehensive survey of the European tech PR industry.

In my years as a technology journalist, I have made this rather obvious observation: those who are paid the worst or are, worse, unpaid tend to be the most biddable and least critical. Yes, there is nothing wrong with being young and starting out — we all have to do it — but it takes a while to know what you're talking about. Until you have gained a reasonable amount of experience, you will take most of the PR material fed to you at face value. PRs are persuasive, technology is complicated and deadlines are tight.

(I might add, though I will not moan about it in depth right now, that the odious practice of exploiting unpaid interns leads to a skewed socio-economic demographic in the media, with those lacking financial backing being less able to get their foot in the door. I'm sure the Cambridge-educated Yiannopoulos is aware of this widespread injustice.)

Many journalists never choose to become more than they were at the start. Chasing hits can be very profitable and digging for the truth can be arduous and unrewarding. These people would probably fall into Yiannopoulos's category of "embarrassingly illiterate bloggers" (although many bloggers are much better than this) and he's right — fuck 'em.

But there are also those who are serious, funny, incisive and genuinely educational writers. They don't necessarily shout the loudest, and they may not be part of the Great Tech Media Circlejerk™, but their output is there. As I am not trying to ingratiate myself with anyone here, I will refrain from citing examples of who I mean, but, if you pay attention to the European tech press, you will already know them.

In most cases, those writers get paid for it. Some do not — independent analysts in particular will often maintain a blog as a way of attracting clients for remunerated work — but the majority do it to get money. That is only right. Everyone who writes has a motive for doing so, and earning enough to eat and get shelter is at least a transparent imperative. Provided the publication has editorial independence, financial reward can even be seen as the most honest of motivations.

I'm not saying paid writers don't also do it for love of the subject material. As with any profession, those who love what they do will produce the best work. I am also not commenting on the academics, founders and VCs that Yiannopoulos hopes to attract. The motivations of these potential contributors are equally transparent and — provided he can get the execs to talk about more than how great their product is — honest.

But as for journalists, well, I'm not sure what Yiannopoulos is after. If he really wants writers who can "educate others with their experiences", and do so without an ulterior motive, he will have to pay them. Unfortunately, the economics cannot wait.

(PS — I am aware that I have just written a lengthy piece here for no remuneration. However, I'm doing it as catharsis and for my own satisfaction. I do very occasionally write for others for no money, but only when it's the kind of self-indulgent drivel I can't sell, at least not yet.)

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