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Is Your Reading Material Ethically Sourced?

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May 29, 2014

Excerpt:

If you wouldn’t buy chocolate because it was made by underpaid labour or if you prefer to buy clothes made in factories where workers are paid more than a bare, minimum wage, why wouldn’t you ask the same questions of the websites where you click on articles?

If people made the same choices about their reading material that they make about their shoes, clothes, and quinoa, they would have to stop clicking on and linking to places like The Rumpus, HuffPo, Open Democracy.net, Guernica, and so many more.  

 

 

I've been busy with a number of projects, all part of my subscription plan.  I find that as I intentionally direct my work towards a focused group of people who are genuinely engaged with it, I'm less and less inclined to produce anything that takes time and research for a general audience.

 

So, I've been working on several different articles for subscribers alone, happily spending hours in my beloved Chicago Public Library (support, love, and use your local branch and check out their new website).

 

One of the natural results of writing long and researched pieces is that you end up with a lot of material you can’t use in the current work, so you create several little folders marked, “FOR LATER,” the idea being that you’ll return to them, hopefully, to elaborate upon points or reinsert them somewhere else.  Sometimes it’s just a thought that occurs to you, something that doesn’t fit into the current piece but which you think is worth sharing in a different venue.

 

The advantage of having a website and a blog is that you can give yourself permission to turn your thoughts into mini-blogs, bloglets, if you will.  So, in the next many months and years, I expect to produce a fair number of these bloglets (or, whatever less awkward term I find to describe them).

 

In that vein, I’ve been thinking about the responsibilities of readers when it comes to supporting various kinds of writing.  I want to return to a few of the issues I raised in  "Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free" and the follow-up to that, “Scabs and the Seductions of Neoliberalism” (I’m currently working on a longer piece about the gender of free writing).

A lot of the angry responses to my use of the word “scab” came from people who are otherwise concerned that their consumer practices should be “ethical.”  In the worlds in which I travel, nearly everyone I know is obsessed with making sure that they only buy the right kind of hummus, that their clothes and electronics are not made by outsourced labour, and that their chocolate doesn’t put orangutans at risk.

 

Why not think about writing the same way?  If you wouldn’t buy chocolate because it was made by underpaid labour or if you prefer to buy clothes made in factories where workers are paid more than a bare, minimum wage, why wouldn’t you ask the same questions of the websites where you click on articles?

If people made the same choices about their reading material that they make about their shoes, clothes, and quinoa, they would have to stop clicking on and linking to places like The Rumpus, HuffPo, Open Democracy.net, Guernica, and so many more.  Except for extremely rare exceptions, I don’t even link to articles from these sources, and I’ve deliberately kept my Facebook page settings such that no one can post links without my approval.  

 

When you share articles from sources that don’t pay their writers even when they can afford to or when you support the work of an editor who takes pay but doesn’t bother to pay writers, you’re contributing to the increase in scab labour in publishing.  

 

When you redistribute the work of a writer who has deliberately undercut the wages of writers who write for a living by offering to write for nothing or practically nothing, you’re making it possible for editors and publishers to refuse to pay writers well.  You are making it impossible for people to sustain themselves as writers and you are, in effect, contributing to the perception that writing is not labour.

 

Since the publication of my pieces, I’ve had several people ask me about the most ethical practices to adopt, and which sites to support.  I think those decisions have to be made on a case by case basis.  There are sites like The Electronic Intifida [see below for correction] and Maximum RockNRoll which publish work and perspectives that simply would not appear in places  like The New York Times or Rolling Stone, and they deserve our support.

 

But it’s time to stop redistributing work from sites like the Huffington Post, whose owners can easily not just pay but pay really, really well, yet choose not to out of sheer greed.  It’s also time to stop patronising places like Opendemocracy.net and Guernica, which actually get funding from places like The Open Society.  Stop linking to The Rumpus which makes the outrageous statement that if “a writer isn’t driven by the story so much that you have to write it then it’s probably not a good fit for The Rumpus.”  Check out out the “About” page of the websites you frequent.  Do they ask for donations?  Are they in fact non-profits which get grants and others forms of funding?  If so, do they pay their writers, and well?  If not, and especially if, in all likelihood, the publication is online only, like Guernica and OpenDemocracy, where is the money going?  

 

If you can take the time to read the back of your packet of granola, you can also take the time to ask a publisher if they pay, what they pay, and what accounts for their lack of payment or low pay.  

 

Perhaps you think that this is too much of a lecture, and that you shouldn’t have to face this kind of admonition about your reading habits.  But if you’re willing to listen to and endure and absorb the kind of finger-wagging which tells you how and where to eat and buy your clothes, in cases where you’ll never have any contact with the people concerned, why not listen to an actual writer about not supporting the exploitation so rampant in the publishing world?

The same rules apply to writers: If you’re someone with a day job, like an academic who can count on a steady paycheck, even as an adjunct, it’s deeply unethical of you to offer to write for free or for much less than a full-time writer would need to ask for in order to make a living off writing as a profession.  Do the math: If a publisher only pays, say $25-$50, how many of those would a writer have to produce in order to make a living every month?  

 

Don’t allow someone to rationalise away this system by telling you that “everyone” does it or that the system simply does not sustain an alternative, or that this has always been the case.  Start writing to places like The Open Society, which funds the non-paying Opendemocracy.net, and ask them what their money is going to if it isn’t being used to pay writers.  Stop allowing people to pretend that it’s somehow necessary for writers to produce work for free in order to prove that they are truly dedicated writers, as the Rumpus does.

 

That bar of chocolate you eat at lunch today might well be ethically sourced.  

Can you say the same about your reading material?

 

 

*CORRECTION:  The Electronic Intifada does in fact pay, and here is Ali Abunimah's note about that: "The Electronic Intifada is a nonprofit, reader-support publication. Nonetheless we are committed to supporting independent journalists by paying them for their work, and we recognize that without sustainable independent journalism many very important issues would not receive the kind of coverage they deserve. We do pay our contributors for commissioned reports, reviews, features and investigative journalism and we welcome pitches from new writers for this kind of work."  

I apologise profusely for a mistake that was entirely mine.  Many thanks to Ali for the gracious correction and correspondence and, of course, kudos to EI for its committment to supporting writers!

 

As always, thanks to Matt Simonette and Richard Hoffman Reinhardt for their feedback. My thanks also to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for several conversations about these issues.

If you'd like to support my work, please donate to my fundraiser for a new computer!

You can read more of my work on the issue of writers, pay, and neoliberalism in these other pieces. 

"Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free."

"Scabs and the Seductions of Neoliberalism."

"On Writers as Scabs, Whores, and Interns, And the Jacobin Problem." 

Jacobinned: The Story behind the Story Jacobin Refused to Publish.

"Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice, Part I."

I'm a Freelance Writer.  I Refuse to Work for Free.

Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice, Part I.



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