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Jun 20 / King Kaufman

Why we write: Two sides, from an “AOL content slave” and Maury Brown

Oliver Miller

Oliver Miller

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.

Maury Brown

Maury Brown

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?

  • Rojo Grande

    It would be nice to get paid for my writing but there is at least some gratification in the challenge of putting my perspectives into words in a creative and unique fashion.

    Also I have made some good friendships with writers who do get paid for their work and have a certain camaraderie there.

    …and judging from the number of my articles which do get linked by sources which I respect, I also am gaining a certain respect in the areas of my interest.

    Thankful to have a day job though…

  • Eitan

    I write because I’m passionate about sports, and because I want to illustrate that passion in writing. I love sports. I love being passionate about sports. I want others to want my passion and to enjoy the things I write as a result of that passion.

  • Idio

    I follow Maury on twitter and love his stuff so interesting you wove him into your article.

    I think he is an excellent example of another option besides working or a content farm or just quitting: find something and become and expert in it and write amazing articles, in depth articles, about it. Learn something nobody else has taken the time to lean and MAKE yourself valuable.

    I got turned on to Maury during the NFL lockout. It turns out he was putting put better articles with more information than venues like the NYTimes. I love his work so much I read his site all the time and follow him on twitter.

    I consider him a great resource and recommend him to people. He sold me, his work sold me, and I’m sure that’s how he makes his money.

  • karlo sevilla

    I love writing, especially about sports.

    That being said, let me share that I derive income “indirectly” through my articles on Bleacher Report.

    How? I own a martial arts gym, and lately I’ve had new clients who first heard about me through the website wherein I re-post my B/R MMA pieces.

    Modesty aside, I think judging by my articles, they find me “knowledgeable enough” about MMA. And they think it’s worth their money to enroll in my gym and train. :-)

  • Mike

    This blog entry is chomping at many bits.

    To answer the question, though, for me writing is first and foremost a creative outlet. Expression of thoughts is another way to put it. It’s liberating, personally rewarding and therapeutic. It also stems from having something to say, a thought that warrants recognition but isn’t getting it, that kind of thing. And, being relatively young, it’s somewhat of a stepping stone, for lack of a better phrase. If I were 55 and retired, or close to retiring, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. And if nobody was reading what I was writing, then that would certainly get me to stop. And I certainly couldn’t do this all my life for no pay.

    First, the over-arching reality conveyed here is that in the new media world, there is unlimited space, therefore quality of content is no longer as important—only to the extent that content is what will generate traffic, and in turn, advertising revenue. With newspapers, your writing had to be damn good because there was limited space. This became a natural sifter of bad content. Not the case with new media. There is a niche for everything, and they don’t have to be substantive, since people aren’t always (or usually) into substantive content. This dilutes information, allows too many sub-par writers into the mix, and leaves quality further and further down the totem pole. So, naturally, the writing circuit becomes diluted and it becomes harder to sift through all the garbage to get to the good writers

    “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.”

    I don’t necessarily find the first statement to be true. B/R claims to be a content driven site, but if regular old words were truly that important, the chain of command wouldn’t shove so many sensationalistic, speculative-type lists and non-substantiated “rumors” down writer’s throats. I’m not a genius, but if it were content driven, there would be editors actually editing for content, and many more articles would be pulled for being void of just that: informative, substantive content. If regular old words mattered, featured pages wouldn’t be filled with the types of “content” I already mentioned is pushed onto writers.

    “Reads,” meaning “traffic,” meaning “revenue” is most important to B/R. How to get that in this day and age? Sensationalism. Provocativeness. The top reads tend tend to be the least interesting.

    I’ve had an editor turn down topics because it wouldn’t attract “reads.” I would rather write a great piece for 50 sophisticated A’s fans (or whatever team) rather than write a hogwash speculative list for 2,000 casual observers.

    If anyone finds this way off base, I’d love to hear why.

  • Carlos

    I write for the dolla’ dolla’ bills, y’all.

  • Mark Hidden

    And years go by, and a keyword search turns up an old blog, a conversation has moved on, but it’s still there waiting for a new writer to fall upon the words, life a fish in an abandoned drift net, and writes upon a discussion that has yet to be closed and perhaps never will, and then moves on. But before they do, the deposit a little bit of wisdom. “Give a shit about everything you write.” Even if it sucks, perhaps if you care next time it will suck a little less.