Ass, grass or gas: Nobody rides for free

It’s that time of year again, when I start ringing up editors to inquire whether come the new year they will keep flinging good money after bad by continuing to accept contributions from Your Humble Narrator.

This process always involves a bit of give and take — the editor explains what s/he wishes to take from me, and I tell the editor where and how I plan to give it. A good old time is had by all, often at the top of our lungs, and before long the spreadsheets, knuckle-dusters and restraining orders are set aside and we all go back to earning our meager livings.

bite-meAnd meager is all I ask. My needs are simple, not unlike myself, and I retain no illusions about the freelance rumormonger’s position on our long list of must-have items in the 21st century. (Hint: It’s more than a couple of folds down from the top of the page.)

Today, there is no more writing, illustration or photography — it’s all “content,” and a smart fella can get that anywhere.

Just ask Evan Williams, Twitter co-founder and Innertubez gazillionaire. Now one of the guiding lights behind a newish venture, Medium, Williams has moved beyond the 140-character limit in search of “thoughtful, longer-form writing,” says Matt Richtel of The New York Times.

Well, not all that far, perhaps. To be sure, Williams wants more characters for his new enterprise, but he’s offering the same level of compensation — to wit, nothing. Writes Richtel, 745 words into this paean to long-form work: “A few writers are paid, with their work solicited by a small editing team, but most are not.”

Do tell.

Medium employs some 40 folks; I assume that they are taking home paychecks, though being an Innertubez gazillionaire, Williams — whose personal fortune recently ballooned by nearly $2.5 billion, thanks to his 10.5 percent share of Twitter — may not require anything so mundane as compensation for whatever it is that he does.

Well, I do, and thus you should not expect to see my byline over at Medium anytime soon.

I don’t object to writing for free. In fact, I’ve done and continue to do plenty of it.  I kept a journal for a decade or so; covered cycling for free at The New Mexican (where I was paid for editing) just to get it in the paper; and have been blogging gratis for longer than I can prove (the archives back at the old home place date to 1992).

But it seems Williams is after something a little deeper than the product of a guy who is interested primarily in keeping the old editorial muscles loose by jotting down whatever comes to mind, just for the hell of it, without interference from editors, publishers or advertisers. Though precisely what that something is, the story never quite says.

There is chin music aplenty, however. Long form. Rationality. Nourishment. Holistic. The one thing that seems certain is that whatever it is that Williams wants to sell, he is not willing to buy.

Sounds irrational to me, even assholistic. Hey, yo, Williams! I got your long-form nourishment right here, pal.

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13 Responses to “Ass, grass or gas: Nobody rides for free”

  1. Patrick O'Brien Says:

    Twitter my ass. They should have called it “Drivel.” He can call his new venture “Claptrap.” The old rule, you get what you pay for, generally applies to writing as well. The few exceptions include your blog.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Aw, I’ll confess, Twitter can be kinda fun. It reminds me of writing headlines, which I always liked. And there are some imaginative jokesters putting it to good use. But it’s still irksome that free “content” should prove so valuable to everyone save the poor sods who create it.

      • Patrick O'Brien Says:

        I guess it is kind of a cheap haiku kind of thing. And I can see the allure. I thought about trying it, as my writing only deserves 140 characters most of the time. But I think the “content” isn’t what is valuable. It is the traffic, number of hits, and the data mining and advertising it creates. Seems like a shorthand version of Facebook.

  2. khal spencer Says:

    Not only does “you get what you pay for” apply to writing, but to “content”, whatever that is. I suspect “content” can probably be looked up in the Dictionary of Newspeak, and it defines whatever meaningless drivel the corporate bosses can vomit forth onto their media and sell to gullible souls like…well…not like present company. “Content”, therefore, need not be writing, photography, or illustration. It could, conceivably, be what our two dogs let out in the morning, if the Illiterati were willing to pay good greenbacks to see it on someone’s pay media.

    I guess Patrick hit one of my hot buttons. Here in the House the Bomb Built, we still shell out that card number and its expiration date to pay for media that makes some lame attempt to provide quality stuff–the Albuquerque Journal, NY Times, New Yawrker, and I think the Atlantic. I was thinking of adding Foreign Affairs to the list, but then I found out it wasn’t about hot sex with women from other parts of the world….just kidding. Its still a pretty good rag. Been reading it on and off since high school, when it was purchased by our Social Studies Dept. for the Soc Studies Reading Room.

    Good luck getting those checks signed, Patrick, and meanwhile, Your Loyal Following will still be here hanging on every free word.

    Fellow Blogger, from Bombtown,

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Hot button here, too, K. I pay for the NYT because even with its faults, it remains The Paper of Record. Plus I have a pal who works there. The New Yorker and The Atlantic are worth keeping, and we kick in some bucks to Mother Jones, The Nation and a few other pubs whose names elude me at the moment.

      I remember reading some “Foreign”-titled mag in college; I found it fascinating and subscribed for quite a while before getting distracted. “Foreign Affairs” is also a fine Tom Waits tune, one I managed to keep my hands on.

  3. Stan Thomas Says:

    ‘Tis a problem I too have struggled with over the years – how do you make a living out of something when someone else is prepared to do it for free? For me it’s open-source software. Don’t get me wrong, I use it, write it and fix it. It’s great, it makes the World go round (Firefox, WordPress, you name it). But food, shelter and Internet connections still have to be paid for.
    Now, if you work for the Man, and the Man can sell advertising space to cover our daily pittance, we can get by. But I don’t see anyone queueing up to pay me to wear a Philip Morris t-shirt.

    The World is, of course, completely mad. Twitter doesn’t make any money but is worth billions; the InterWeb is full of news about what folk had for breakfast (food or sex). If you do hit on the answer, please let me know.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      It’s a struggle for sure, Stan. I remember watching the poor Linotypers and engravers getting kicked to the curb by the advent of cold type and thinking, “Poor bastards. Glad I picked me a skill that will stay in style.” Ho, ho. We live, we learn. Or so it is to be hoped. …

    • Patrick O'Brien Says:

      I used to be an electronic technician way back in the early and late 70s. I could fix damn near anything electronic, giving the right documentation. Now most electronic devices are essentially disposable, or as the manufacutrers like to say, “not economically repairable.” But, good writing is more than a skill, it’s an art. You know, art for art’s sake. Damn shame you don’t get paid what is is worth.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        Patrick, I think of the stuff I do — writing, cartooning, editing — as a craft rather than an art. But the first two can be art in the right hands.

        And I like that computers, digital cameras and the Innertubez have given people the opportunity to be creative with words and pictures in a way that may have seemed out of reach just a couple-three presidents ago.

        But word-processing software doesn’t make a writer, nor a point-and-shoot an Ansel Adams. There’s something about rejection that weeds out the slackers — in an era when anyone can be “published” in some fashion, for free, there’s not much culling of the herd. And thus we find ourselves buried in a shit-slide of bad information, poorly presented.

        And I hear you on the electronics. I used to be able to lift the hood of my Macs and tackle some simple chore. No longer. They’re “not economically repairable” by the end user. Good for the Apple Genius Bar or Voelker Research, not so much for me. I need to do some work on the old iBox here next week and I am so not looking forward to it.

        This is why I got into professional bullshitting instead of electronics. When you’re fixing something people actually use, there’s a right way and a wrong way. As a professional bullshitter, I get to do it my way.

      • Khal Spencer Says:

        I can still fix the bicycles and the K1100 RS. Some stuff on the Subaru is still fun to work on. The Cannon camera and computer leave me cold, but I can still hold my own with most people when it comes to mental sparring. That’s not to say I’m some Einstein. Just that the public has been dropped by the lead dogs even more than I have.

        I’ll buy Patrick a six pack and a fifth of his favorite Irish whiskey on that comment about rejection. Back in the nineties, when I was living in Honolulu, you had to write letters to the editor and the editor got to wipe his ass with the ones that really sucked. I was quite proud of the fact that a lot of mine made it past the cardboard roll in the WC. Nowdays, anyone with a computer, such as this one, can get stuff posted on the Internet and there just ain’t no quality control. I think i prefer the days when a professional journalist could separate the wheat from the chaff.

  4. Larry T. Says:

    “Content” seems to describe, well…..something you push that lever in your bathroom to get rid of. The bike biz is so full of this stuff, most of it given away for free, that real WRITERS (as opposed to riders) have a tough time paying the bills. We pay real money for the International NYT and The Nation via Kindle so I can keep up from the US or Italia and Rouleur, printed nicely on paper. Most of the crap out there is worth what you (or the magazine folks) pay for it – zilch. Luckily, yours truly doesn’t have to depend on this for a living, neither does the wife, though she’s got plenty of books in print these days. We have a good laugh when those royalty checks come in – usually barely enough for a meal at our local taqueira!

  5. Gilberte Says:

    Have you tried building Amazon affilate site? Some folks make big money with a WordPress blog. That’s my opinion. See this.

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