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.