Monday, July 13, 2009

Comment is Free (and bloggers are cheap)

For all my bluster about how traditional media outlets are no longer economically viable, I was still taken a bit aback when the Guardian, which pays me to contribute to CIF America, sent out notifications that budget cuts would result in a decrease in payments to commissioned bloggers. The decrease amounts to about a 30 percent pay cut per piece.

My first thought was: This is exactly what I deserve for mouthing off to Big Media. My second thought was: I wonder what I should write about next.

You see, I'm still so surprised--stunned, flattened, overwhelmed, overjoyed--by the prospect of somebody actually wanting to pay me on top of giving me what I wanted anyway (an international platform to broadcast my ideas) that even after the pay cut I still feel like I'm getting away with highway robbery. I've been a writer for most of my adult life, beginning as a beat reporter for a local newspaper (you get paid, but not very much, and nobody really cares too much what you think as long as you tell them how the school board voted last Thursday), then drifting toward creative writing (poetry; and no, you don't get paid) before landing in the world of online reportage. I'm young enough to be electrified by the seemingly limitless potential of a good blogpost to draw in traffic and responses, yet old enough to not completely accept that blogging is a real, authentic form of journalism (and many of the commenters to CIF, as I'm sure they will point out, agree with me on this).

Technology guru Clay Shirky writes that "the future belongs to those who take the present for granted." He argues that young people are better poised than any previous generation to take advantage of new media platforms "not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do." I'm old enough, for example, to know for sure that the privilege of broadcasting your opinions to thousands of readers is the sacred domain of the elite few. I'm old enough to believe in the scarcity model of knowledge: The right to speak is reserved for the privileged few, because if we all had the right and resources to speak then nothing would be worth saying at all.

And now I'm unlearning all of these things, because they're less true with every new blog that gets tossed up, with every new online forum, with every drop in price of video editing software and word processing technologies. It's not, after all, knowledge that's the scarce commodity anymore; everybody with Internet access has a passkey to approximately the same information as everybody else, regardless of credentials, experience, or IQ. Now, the commodity is the ability to filter that knowledge, to identify key ideas and spin them in an interesting way for an information-laden audience that's waiting to hear something new.

When we do it well, we become the touchstones for hundreds of others to weigh in and have their voices broadcast to the thousands. That's what the Guardian commissions its writers to do. That's why it pays. It may not feel like work to me, but then again, I suppose the best jobs never do.

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