Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloggers: The Adjunct Professors of the Media?

The founder of Shakesville, Melissa McEwan, reappeared earlier this week after contemplating an end to her blogging career. I can't say I blame her. She does a daunting amount of work for no pay whatsoever. Melissa's long post explaining her absence and return is touching and illuminating. It sounds like she's experiencing the post-election fatigue that has struck many of us, combined with burnout from long hours for only intermittent recognition. And she's been working for free. Now, many of her loyal readers are pledging to support Shakesville with a regular stream of donations.

I'm glad Melissa has a supportive community. I think it's lovely that she's getting lots of donation offers. But she'll need an awful lot of small donors - or a few exceedingly generous ones - to even make minimum wage for her efforts. This still doesn't add up to an income!

Melissa's quandary makes me wonder how sustainable independent, progressive blogging will prove to be. It's precisely these truly independent progressive blogs that are creating a meaningful public sphere - a cradle of civil society - in a country that desperately needs reasonable, critical discourse. Yes, progressive bloggers do say "fuck" a lot, but they're civil on a far deeper level. They've placed relentless pressure on Democratic candidates to respond to our concerns. They've given voice to those who've been silenced. They've pushed a host of issues onto the agenda of the corporate media. In short, they're playing a leading role in transforming American politics. I seriously wonder if Obama could have won without them.

And most independent lefty bloggers do this work without any compensation. With loads of luck, their blogging might catapult them into the limelight long enough to snag a book contract or some freelance writing for established media. Needless to say, even those folks aren't getting rich from their writing.

What to do? Donations can only be a temporary, patchwork solution. In fact, the whole language of "donations" and "tip jars" has been troubling me all day. Other people who work their asses off to do a job don't expect to live from donations! They're paid wages or salaries. The language reminds us that they've earned their pay. Don't bloggers do the same? Or will people persist in seeing major projects like Shakesville as basically a hobby?

Here's where I have some hard-earned empathy for Melissa and others in her boat - less from my experience as a small-potatoes blogger than as a long-term adjunct professor.

Both bloggers and adjuncts repeatedly get the message that they should feel lucky to have a creative outlet for their talents. Both are too often looked down upon by colleagues who ought to be their allies: tenured professors and conventional journalists. Both earn a pittance or nothing at all. (In America, adjuncts usually get paid something, but in Germany unpaid gigs are quite common.)

And yet both bloggers and adjuncts serve an essential function in society. We educate. We inspire. We provoke. We contribute an outsider's perspective. We fill needs neglected by those in more comfy positions.

Universities, at least, have resources that can potentially be used to improve the lot of adjuncts. This just requires the will to recommit to teaching, as opposed to administration and capital projects. (My chair and dean have done that for me, and I'm now on an annual contract - bless them!)

The solution is less obvious for blogs, where many of the readers are themselves unpaid bloggers. As I've already suggested, the donations model is not sustainable on a large scale or in the long run. Melissa rightly argues that ads are no solution, either, especially for feminist blogs where key terms generate bizarrely counterproductive ads. Just one example: Last spring, Feministing was plagued by a Playboy ad, as my friend Sugarmag pointed out (I'd link to this if her blog were still up).

I don't have any realistic solutions. I do have a few fantasy ones. Maybe George Soros would establish a foundation for lefty bloggers? Better yet, how about a foundation supported by a surtax on Rupert Murdoch and other major media conglomerates? I think that'd be perfectly just, considering the yawning gap that they've created in media coverage - and that bloggers are bridging.

I just know one thing for sure: we'll be totally blinkered in seeking solutions until we reframe politically engaged blogging as something far more important and serious than a hobby. We need to ditch the talk of donations and tip jars. Especially on the scale of Shakesville, blogging is a public service and a crucial, vibrant part of civil society. Those who provide this service should be able to earn a decent living from it.

And before I get way too sanctimonious, one final thought: I hope that Melissa really will use some of her earnings to buy some first-rate catnip and paint her house sparkly purple, as some of her commenters suggested. That is what we do with real income. We spend it on both projects both noble and silly without having to be accountable to "donors." If Grey Kitty, patron cat of Kittywampus, were still here today, she'd remind us that there's nothing nobler than good 'nip, even if it did make her drool.


Carla said...

I read this a while back and meant to comment on it then. It did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. It was a thoughtful post, a great topic, and I've been ruminating on it for some time.

I don't disagree that dedicated, astute and well-informed bloggers deserve some measure of compensation, if they so desire. No matter that, I think what sociopolitical bloggers possess, compared to many paid employees, is passion. True, it can be a hobby for some. But I think for many it is a form of public service. And much public service comes in the form of volunteerism. One can volunteer at a food bank; alternatively, one could, through blogging, try to open more eyes to the scourge and ubiquity of poverty.

As I've said before, I often wonder how you have time to put forth, on a regular basis, such thoughtful commentary, knowing all the other demands on your time. Passion and public service are clearly integral to what you're doing.

I write for a living, and I am fortunate enough to be passionate about what I do. My little blog is an extension of that, though I'm not as committed as you. One of the magazines I write for recently dedicated a few of its pages to blathering on about the great potential of clean coal, a term that nearly makes my head explode (picture a mountaintop in West Virginia). So I do what I can to keep the absurdness of this imaginary "solution" front and center. I am not able to put forth my opinion on that in many other ways.

Like you, I don't have a good answer. For those serious about making a living at it … maybe some sort of subscription-based solution? A nightmare in the making, I'm sure. I prattle on …

Carla said...

Just thought of this ... You know the saying "You get what you pay for?" It clearly doesn't apply to many blogs/bloggers.

Henry said...

Oh, bull pucky. The Madame's a lazy ass who wants me to become famous so she can get on my meal ticket. If she says to me one more time "Well, Disapproving Rabbits has made a profit ... maybe you ???" And then she adds, "You're not getting any younger."

Well, I have some demands first. I want my own computer and a T1 line, and I want her to build a guest house for Max. For starters.

Sungold said...

You're so right - we really don't get what we pay for. We get so, so much more.

I do see my blogging as a way to give back, in some small way, after receiving really generous support for my education. I had fellowship support for about seven years of graduate work (historians are slow anyway, and I was among the slowest). For the second half of my undergrad (after my parents split up) I also got a full financial aid package. Also, I just like to teach and write, and blogging combines a little of both, I think.

I *don't* really have the time. I often write in the evenings after the kids go to bed - sometimes after school when they're playing well - and occasionally during the day if I'm more or less caught up with my teaching responsibilities. This is why sometimes I write a substantial essay - while other days, you get some smart-ass commentary and I'm done. :-)

But thanks so much for your kind words.

I think you and my husband probably need to meet sometime. One subject he teaches is science/environmental journalism, and he has become *very* interested in coal mining, which is a huge part of the local history here. We're just a few miles away from Millfield, site of the famous mine disaster. He has also made a pilgrimage (well, sort of the opposite of that!) to Kayford Mountain in WV.

Henry - pssst! I think you have to post more naked pictures on your blog. Oh, and include the word "pussy" wherever possible. That'll up your hits and then maybe you can get Carla to spring for that T1 line - plus some extra tuna for you. Unless, of course, you're more of a beef guy.

Carla said...

I should have written "make time" instead of "have time," which is what I meant.

Your husband could probably teach me a thing or two about coal mining. My interest is new. Or rather my "scholarly" interest is new (and poorly executed). I failed to read a book I got through Interlibrary Loan about the history of mountaintop mining in WV before the due date. Plan to borrow it again when I have more time (or rather I should "make time").

I don't know about Millfield. I'll have to study up.

We have some friends and family in OH. Friends in Columbus and Dayton, and family (inlaws to me) in Mansfield. Try to get there every other year. We last visited in June of this year.

Sungold said...

Or you could've said "carving out time to procrastinate," because honestly, I sometimes use blogging to put off other tasks. Grading? Sorting through the junk in my basement? Gee, why not write another blog post instead? :-)

Actually, my husband started studying this stuff about a year ago, though his interest in science journalism is longer standing. I totally know about unread library books, myself. I have a whole shelf of them. (See the first paragraph, above ...)

If you every find yourself driving our way, Athens is on state highway 33 so give a holler, okay? My email address is on the blog. It'd be fun to meet up. I assume Henry prefers not to make the trip ...