There’s a frustrating, and funny post, in a gallow’s humor sort of way, on The Awl today from writer Abe Sauer, called How Writers Can Get Paid Now: Adventures In Invoicing Your Copyright Violators. I’ve seen it shared around a lot by some of my media colleagues and friends, and for good reason. It’s about something that all of us here in the content sweatshop deal with all the time: having your work repackaged and posted on another site, who thereby benefit from it financially through selling ads on something they had no part in making. In other words, new media.
Sauer created a piece of content back in March called March Madne$$: The School Tuitions Of The NCAA Bracket. To no one’s surprise, the piece was subsequently shared on other sites, many of whom copied it wholesale and presented it as their own work. As he wrote, which I apologize for quoting at length, but, you know internet:
Writers of original reporting or editorial work—journalists and others—are accustomed to the brave new race to the bottom of content aggregation, or, in more friendly terms, a system by which an original story’s “atomic units” are used ” to reinvent the news-consumption experience.”
Do legwork (or phone-work), get interviews, break a story, create art or charts, uncover information that was theretofore uncovered—and then sit back and watch as the guts of those pieces are aggregated with some “value-add” garbage (“curatorial”), making visiting the original piece unnecessary and unprofitable which, ironically, makes the publication that paid for the piece less inclined to pay a writer for future original content that can just be aggregated.
After The Awl posted the March Madness piece, I watched as blogs and other sites republished it. This case was especially aggravating since the brackets had been made as flat images with “The Awl” watermarks specifically to discourage such reposting.
Sauer then did something pretty ingenious: he invoiced the sites that had re-used his work. Surprisingly, one of them actually paid. I encourage you to go read the piece in its entirety, on The Awl, a site I quite like and respect.
This issue of content being aggregated and curated, and particularly of people not being paid for their work, is one that I can certainly work up a good head of steam over. But, on the other hand, I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to living up to ideals of content purity myself, and to be honest, I don’t know many bloggers who are. I’ll often refer largely to someone else’s reporting, add in a few zingers, typically of the “everything is stupid I hate this thing and therefore myself and I want to die” variety, because, well, that’s just how business is done now.
It’s a far cry from plagiarism, which is an order of magnitude different than the type of read-and-react news bloggery that makes up the majority of your feed now, of course, but it’s still not ideal. The important thing, one supposes, is to practice good web etiquette as best as one can. Or maybe it’s not important because nothing really matters?
I’m not too familiar with Sauer’s work. He seems to be a fine enough writer and reporter as far as I can tell, although he does seem a little quick to point out instances of plagiarism, as Deadspin wrote in this post last year, Abe Sauer is a Dishonest Cretin. But after reading his self-righteous, and, again, eminently relatable post, the first thing I wondered was: is there anyone who doesn’t do this sort of thing any more, no matter how distasteful we all might find it in theory? This post by Sauer, for example, Herman Cain’s Most Magical Year Ever: A Photo Scrapbook, features about a dozen images of Herman Cain doing stuff. Who took those photos? Hard to say, because the post doesn’t. It does, however, link back to Herman Cain’s Facebook page, so close enough?
The rest of his work for the site , and other fine sites, seems to be a mix of original reporting, and reacting to the news blogging, some good, some whatever. None of which is meant to be a sort of gotcha attack on Sauer, because there’s really nothing to be got, and that’s nothing you couldn’t do with any journalist, never mind Journalist, and definitely never mind internet media creator, including, of course, myself. It’s effectively impossible for a working internet writer not to dirty one’s hands in the shame pool of aggregation from time to time. This is the system we’ve got now, and short of burning the entire thing down and starting over, or acquiescing to the inevitable Buzzfeed/Huffington Post takeover apocalypse, I really don’t have any answers for how we can turn it around. If you do, feel free to leave a comment and let us know. Your name, likeness, or other personal information associated with your Facebook, Twitter, or other commenting platform account may be used by any of Bullett Media’s concerns in the known universe, in existence, or yet to be invented, from here into perpetuity.