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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Greetings from Part of the Problem

Despite her famous conversion from conservative to liberal, Arianna Huffington still displays some unreconstructed attitudes toward labor.  Specifically, she seems quite content to allow most of the The Huffington Post's content providers to toil away in unpaid semi-obscurity.  Not to bash Arianna: She's not the only media mogul to take advantage of unpaid labor and probably not the most egregious offender either.  One could fairly point out that many--if not most--if not all--of these uncompensated scribblers are only too happy to see their writing published (or re-published) in so prominent a venue.  Hell, if La Huffington saw fit to purloin any portion of my meager output, you can bet that HuffPo's virtual ink would scarcely have time to dry before I promptly slapped a link on my Facebook page and updated my CV to boast of this unexpected honor.  And therein lies the problem.

It's become a truism that the Internet has virtually (pun intended) destroyed journalism.  No longer can The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other bastions of the Fourth Estate serve as defenders of journalistic integrity.  They can no longer serve as gatekeepers, protecting the reading public from shoddy reporting or even bad grammar.  How can they, when anyone with an iPhone and a few minutes to kill can become a cut-rate Cronkite, reporting late-breaking events in his hometown or expounding her more-or-less informed views on ObamaCare?  Even if the major news outlets took it upon themselves to cleanse the internet of ill-conceived or blatantly false incidences of attempted journalism, they would be playing an unwinnable game of Whac-a-Mole.  The Internet has become a journalistic thrift shop: Thousands of items, mostly worthless, with the occasional gem waiting to be found if one is willing to look hard enough.

But we really shouldn't blame the technology for destroying journalism and impoverishing journalists.  The technology simply enables the legions of writers willing--and eager--to work for free to serve as a sort of standing scab army for un- or semi-scrupulous publishers.  While a trained, professional writer may often do a better job than a dabbling blogger, such is not always the case.  And why should a publisher buy the cow, so to speak, when the cow is willing to write a 1,000-word commentary on drone warfare for free?

As a writing teacher, I can't help but derive a small amount of pleasure from the fact that an  apparently limitless number of people exist who so love the written word that they are willing to devote large chunks of unremunerated time to their passion.  But I am also a firm believer in the importance of paying the writer--I'll take any contributions anyone happens to throw my way.  I agree with the notion that journalism, especially, should maintain its elements of professionalism, but I am at a loss as to how this can be done when the Internet has allowed amateurism--in its literal sense of doing something for love--to flourish.

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