Must journalists and writers wait for salvation in heaven, or Godot? Facebook cares more about helping publishing businesses than creators

 

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is proof that the destruction of the livelihood of print journalists began long before the digital revolution in publishing. - Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is a marker in the destruction of print journalists’ traditional means of economic survival — which began before the digital revolution in publishing.
– Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

 

‘Genius has patience,’ Michelangelo reportedly said, but how much patience can reasonably be expected of ordinary mortals? This week’s announcement by Facebook of a clever ploy for co-opting some of the most famous print newspapers into serving its own ambitions led post-Gutenberg to re-read a passage about waiting for salvation in heaven in Wuthering Heights. What saves the chapter from soppiness is that Cathy, like any actual, lively little girl, frequently has to be scolded for cheekiness by her father, the beneficent Mr. Earnshaw, and this happens just before he dies, when she and her darling Heathcliff — who has yet to turn into the über-monster of romantic fiction — are close by. A few hours later the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, checks on them.

I ran to the children’s room: their door was ajar, I saw they had never lain down, though it was past midnight; but they were calmer, and did not need me to console them. The little souls were comforting each other … no person in the world ever pictured heaven so beautifully as they did, in their innocent talk; and while I sobbed and listened, I could not help wishing we were all there safe together.

Why will drawing such a parallel make strange, bordering on bizarre, reading for anyone not closely acquainted with journalism and the writing life? Because no one has been broadcasting the harrowing stories of bottomless insecurity, agony, havoc, misery and ghastly compromises in the private lives of journeymen scribblers who have been mown down by the juggernaut of online publishing.

Why not? Pride. Denial. Never-say-die bravado that makes affecting Beckettian irony and superficial detachment, when discussing the topic at all, preferable to bleeding onto the carpet. If there has been a richly documented multi-part series on this subject in a well-known newspaper — some counterpart of award-warning coverage of, say, the suffering of iron and steel factory workers in the West put out of work by foreign competition, or about shamefully exploited and underpaid electronics and garment industry workers in the East – post-Gutenberg has somehow missed it.

Numbers — related not to journalists but their comrades in the making of books — are the chief evidence of the despair on which no one is reporting noticeably.  A headline in the Guardian last month inspired by a University of London study of writers’ earnings read, ‘Median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wage’. [p-G’s emphasis] Most shocking was that ‘17% of all writers did not earn anything at all during 2013,’ even though ‘98% of those authors had published a work every year from 2010 to 2013.’

A report earlier this month on a panel discussion of the same subject organised by the American Authors Guild stated that preliminary results of a similar survey of U.S. authors revealed that …

… 49% of U.S. authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time frame, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work.

Now, here comes Facebook, bearing gifts – none of them directly designed to help reporters, writers and editors, working in-house or as freelances, or any other actual creators of the stuff of news, as opposed to media owners and their financial managers and overseers:

This week, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a feature that allows publishers to host their news stories and content directly on Facebook. For consumers, this is a much faster, richer, and easier experience for reading articles directly on their News Feeds and primarily on mobile. For Facebook, this is a big improvement to the user experience and to its app “stickiness.”

That is an extract from a report in Forbes the old ‘capitalist’s tool’, and the business-and-technology section of the NY Times said:

The news publishers can either sell and embed advertisements in the articles, keeping all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, with the social network getting 30 percent of the proceeds. Facebook is also permitting the news companies to collect data about the people reading the articles with the same tools they use to track visitors to their own sites.

For publishers, the Facebook initiative represents the latest in a series of existential balancing acts. The social network, which has more than 1.4 billion active users worldwide, captures more attention of mobile users — and prompts more visits to news sites — than virtually any other service.

While we seem to be watching Mark Zuckerberg lead newspaper bean-counters to the Promised Land, a piece of news about him at the week’s end was hardly what those of us worrying about media concentration and mogul megalomania wished to see. Maybe his intentions were all-virtuous; maybe not:

 …Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has responded to Ukrainians’ complaints about “unfair” deleting and blocking of their Facebook posts and accounts. The tech boss says they were too hateful.

In a Thursday Q&A session, Zuckerberg dismissed claims of Russian influence being behind the blockings. He was responding to a complaint that had garnered almost 50,000 likes. …

Post-Gutenberg would be infinitely more comfortable with decisions about censorship made by a moderation panel made up of democratically elected Facebook users than unilaterally, by the big chief himself. Once Zuckerberg has enough newspapers beholden to him, will he prove capable of resisting corruption by excessive power?

We prefer Google’s openness to new conceptions of media organisations and digital publishing: 

Google is spearheading the creation of a new fund that will give grants to European news organisations that are creating “high-quality journalism.”

The new Digital News Initiative (“DNI”) is being launched as a partnership with eight European newspapers: Les Echos, FAZ, The Financial Times, The Guardian, NRC Media, El Pais, La Stampa and Die Zeit.

The money will not be spent at those titles. Rather, they will advise on the spending of a €150 million fund to help news organisations “demonstrate new thinking” in digital journalism.

Google is also going to invest in training and research for journalists, including staff in London, Paris, and Hamburg who will train newsrooms in digital skills. It will invest in training partnerships, as well as funding research into digital journalism. …

About time, too. A 1997 article that turned up in forgotten clippings files about a year ago reminded us that digital disruption has merely accelerated the destruction of traditional publishing that began decades ago. In ‘The Writer Is Dead. But His Ghost Is Thriving,’ Jack Hitt anatomised the train of events through which scribblers ghosting books for celebrities earned the living wages they no longer could, writing under their own names.

With any luck, the spheres of exploration in Google’s Digital News Initiative will include co-owned media — the subject about which this blog drones on tirelessly. Leaving out the cooperative idea, which has the support of the wildly popular Pope Francis, some Charlie Hebdo staffers and the rapper Jay Z  — a group diverse enough to have been imagined by a lunatic — would make not the smallest particle of sense.

Also for paying attention to the needs of creators of all stripes, we would like to see Facebook and Google do more in copyright protection, so that tragedies of throttled creativity, such as the one described in this outstanding contribution to the bulletin of the venerable Authors Guild, can be averted:

… In the nineteenth century, American magazines printed pirated British prose rather than pay American writers; the practice stunted the emergence of a national literary culture. We could read Dickens without paying him; was that worth sending Melville to work in the Customs House? Who knows what he might have produced with greater financial security? In my case, I planned a really expansive digital edition of my next book, with dynamic interactive maps, embedded with videos, and ways for readers to explore the intertextuality of this book with my previous two. But why send readers to an edition that will earn me less than the hardcover, that will be pirated immediately, and that Google might appropriate? I’m not running a charity. That is a digital work that will not come to be, because of piracy and the attacks on the value of digital creations.

T. J. Stiles, ‘Among the Digital Luddites,’ Authors Guild Winter 2015 Bulletin 

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