It’s been about five years now since someone first asked me if I’d be interested in producing “content.” At the time, it didn’t seem all that different from what I was already doing—interviewing sources, distilling information down into interesting stories or helpful tips. Sure, it was for a microsite sponsored by a big company (Nissan), but it was on a topic I knew well (sustainable transportation) and the corporate sponsor didn’t even want their name used. Or mine, for that matter. It wasn’t advertising or marketing as we’ve thought of it in the past. In some ways, it was better. CEOs had realized the value of being associated with interesting, useful information as opposed to traditional promotional material, and their marketing directors and publicists understood that journalists were probably better at producing this stuff than copywriters.
At first, it seemed like an okay way for a journalist to make an extra buck, too. Content paid well and steadily, after all. Journalism, not so much. And it was pretty easy work, done for companies that aren’t so terrible. Plus I could keep my byline out of it so no one needed to know.
But within a few years, it had turned into my best/saddest story of how fucked up media is today:
From June 2011 to April 2013, I was a contributor to Forbes.com. When I started, most of the other contributors were journalists, too. But by the time I stopped, we were in the minority. Most of us had been driven out by a combination of the abysmally low pay—$50 a post, which doesn’t really allow for the sort of reporting time required to write a decent story—the click-bait incentives (a $500 bonus if you hit 30,000 uniques, plus a penny more for each unique after that), and the fact that the site had been all but taken over by CEO “thought leaders” and industry shills. But wait, that’s not the punchline. It’s this: Over the past year, I’ve contributed a half dozen more stories to Forbes.com. Not under my own name, but as a ghost writer for a couple different CEOs. For that work I was paid—no exaggeration— TEN times what Forbes ever paid me to write for its site, but Forbes paid nothing for those pieces. That’s the new media system, with “content” at its core. And by the way, it’s not just Forbes. My ghostwritten posts have appeared on VentureBeat, Pando Daily*, Entrepreneur.com, and I’m sure a few more that I’m forgetting. [*Note: Pando Daily has since released an official tweet regarding its strict no-ghostwriting policy and has removed the post referenced above.]
Content production has become big business. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone interested in whether I ever “do content.” The old adage “content is king” has been widely embraced by companies of various sizes and industries. Corporations realize the value of good writing and they’re willing to pay for it. Increasingly, they’re more willing to pay for it than advertising, which is more obviously promotional. Meanwhile, publishers are looking for ways to have more and more content (feeding the goat) for less money, because more content means more page views, which enables them to squeeze a few more drops of blood from the stone of online ad sales. So journalists are getting paid more, publishers have stories, and companies get credibility-boosting content. What’s the problem? There are a few. I made a list:
- It’s not real reporting. Companies willing to pay me for my work require that it has a specific, promotional viewpoint. Which makes me feel shady and unethical, and ultimately makes me hate myself and the work I’m doing.
- It’s not marked as advertorial, but it is. You are being sold to and lied to even more often than you realize, and by even the most established and credible of publications. The media outlets you trust are under such (self-imposed) pressure to serve up more and more content that they’ve turned their sites into promotional platforms.
- I’m selling my best ideas for bargain prices. Yes, companies mostly pay more than media outlets, but you know what? I only come up with about ten really great story ideas a year and if I attribute six of them to someone else—even at, say, $1,000 each—I’m not left with much.
- I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it. Something about this whole game smacks of sexism, on top of the usual “let them eat cake” attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general (“I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.”) Most of the ghost writers and content producers I know are women, ditto the journalists-turned-internal editors and “content strategists” for companies, and 90 percent of their work is for male CEOs. There are various factors at work here, of course. Founding and leading a successful company entitles one to a certain amount of cachet and that’s just giving credit where it’s due. Plus there are legitimate thought leaders in every industry, including media and journalism (although they’re all also mostly white dudes). But in addition to all that, underpinning this new content world is an unsettling image of a bunch of women scurrying around behind the scenes to make the boss-man look good, and an even more unsettling message: Your ideas will only be taken seriously if they are articulated by a white, male CEO.
- I just can’t continue to contribute to the demise of my own profession. Every bit of content I agree to produce feels like a tacit agreement that the only value journalism has any more is to make CEOs and companies look good. I don’t believe that and I can’t keep behaving as though I do.
It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. I’d also like to see less space being given to these stories than to unbiased, reported work. These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.
As for me, I’ve decided I’m done being part of the problem. I will never again pen a “thought leadership” piece with no input from the supposed thought leader. I refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their “contributed content” to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore. I would rather devote my time to projects (like the one I co-founded here, see now I’m promoting my own shit) that are trying to figure out a way to make real journalism pay real journalists a real living wage. And hey, we’re also realists, so we’re forging partnerships and making great stories available with a Creative Commons license to address publishers’ need for more free content.
If I take a pay cut in the meantime, I’d rather supplement my income with part-time work outside the writing profession. I’ve worked as a waitress, babysitter, tutor, barista, grocery bagger, pharmacy clerk, and dog walker. I’ve got more than enough money-making skills and experience to pick up jobs that don’t make me feel like I’m selling myself and other journalists out. [For the record, I’ve also got rent and bills and childcare to pay, and no trust fund, so don’t go there.]
I know that sounds a little self-righteous and I don’t intend it to be. I realize everyone has bills to pay and I am not trying to crap on how anyone chooses to do that. Life is hard enough without the ethics police raining on your content parade. But I would encourage journalists to think twice before taking certain types of content-production gigs. From here on out, I’m asking myself the following questions when a request comes my way: Does it require that I generate ideas that someone else will then lay claim to? Does it replace a story that would otherwise have been assigned to a journalist and paid for by the media outlet? Is it work that will appear in an outlet I’d quite like to write for under my own byline? If the answer is yes to any or all of these, I turn the work down, and I’d encourage other journalists to, too, if they can afford to.
Maybe if we all jump off the “content” bandwagon, publications will stop giving space away to companies. Maybe they’ll start thinking along the lines of, “Hey! Do we really need 30 or more new stories a day on our site? Are those SEO results amounting to any real bottom-line benefit? Is anyone even reading all this stuff?” And maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year. Maybe we can even get back to a place where media outlets run fewer, better stories, written by journalists who are paid fairly, edited by staff who aren’t being asked to edit an insane amount of copy every day, and read by people who appreciate quality over quantity and are pretty tired of the endless content cycle themselves. Sounds nice, right?
Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking