Why we write: Two sides, from an “AOL content slave” and Maury Brown
Oliver Miller’s “AOL Hell: An AOL Content Slave Speaks Out” on The Faster Times made the Internet rounds over the weekend. It’s Miller’s account of writing for AOL TV, which meant writing “without freedom.”
Miller details “the AOL Way,” the document leaked just before AOL bought the Huffington Post and put Arianna Huffington in charge of its editorial operations. Miller writes, “Specifically, ‘The AOL Way,’ is to massively increase writing production, while at the same time cutting costs.”
He writes about the crushing demands for reams of copy at basement pay rates, bosses who not only didn’t care if his copy contained errors, but actively introduced errors into his writing, and learning that AOL’s goal was to trick readers into clicking on a link that would launch a video that contained other people’s content and AOL’s ads.
Miller is eventually fired, and he writes that he’s been out of work for five months and is facing a sort of existential crisis as a writer:
AOL is among the most egregious offenders — but then, this isn’t just an article about AOL. This is an article about a way of life. “The AOL Way” doesn’t simply stand as a pattern for a major corporation; it’s the pattern of the Internet as a whole. The Internet has created more readers than ever before in the history of the world. And yet, perversely, the actual writer is more undervalued than ever before. Every news site that hopes to survive, The Faster Times included, thinks about whether their titles will show up in search engines. In the age of Internet news, Google “keywords” matter. …Regular old words, not so much.
But this article isn’t about the Internet as a whole. Just to, you know, pull an example out of a hat: As much as some people might think of Bleacher Report as a company that operates in the “AOL way,” nothing in Miller’s piece describes what happens at B/R.
We care very much about keywords, but we care about regular old words a lot too. We value our writers and want them to enjoy writing for Bleacher Report. We have to, because if they don’t want to, they’re not going to.
Miller’s point about the Internet creating more readers than ever is debatable — are there people reading online who never read before? — but it’s not debatable that it’s created more writers, more publishers, than ever before. That lowers pay rates. Lemonade-stand economics.
As a writer myself, I’m not crazy about that idea, but it’s the world we live in. So we have to make the best of it.
Writers have not been devalued and neither have “regular old words.” What’s been devalued is writing you can get any old place, because, unlike in the old days, readers can look in a lot of places.
So how do we make the best of this new world we live in? By going to work for brutal “content farms” or leaving the business, as Miller seems to lay out as his only choices? Well, read Miller’s story for a review of that method.
For another view, read “Confessions of an Independent Sports Writer” by my virtual friend — we’ve never met in person — Maury Brown, the founder and president of the Sports Business Network, which covers the economic side of sports.
Brown began his writing career about a decade ago as part of an ultimately unsuccessful civic effort to attract the Montreal Expos to his hometown of Portland, Ore. But I think his description of his early years in the typing game will resonate with many Bleacher Report writers:
I have pushed and prodded. Wrote for nothing. Wrote for something. Wrote to report. I wrote for the truth. Wrote to entertain. Wrote to make my head spin.
I did not begin writing to make money. I began writing as an outlet. A deep, and in some ways, sick need to get information, thoughts and feelings out of my head …
It was eye-opening. I had a mentor in David Kahn, who is currently the President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Learn to be dispassionate,” was the message. Getting an MLB [team for Portland] was more than a long shot. “The process is the reward,” said Kahn.
The process is the reward … I took that to heart.
Every writer is different. The process is the reward for some. For others, the reward might be any number of goals: Paid work, publication in certain outlets, access to certain places, fame, fortune, getting to meet Winona Ryder.
One writer’s despairing tale of one crappy job at one heartless — and flamboyantly unsuccessful and now largely dismantled — editorial operation is not a complete and accurate portrayal of the state of the art in writing today.
So let me ask you all: Why do you write? Whether you write for Bleacher Report or not, what is “the reward” for you? What would make you stop writing? What would make you write more, or differently? If you don’t write but want to, what’s stopping you?