Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Samuel Johnson, Travel and HuffPo

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.''

These pointed words - by the celebrated British author and wit Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) - have been words to live by for professional writers for generations. The key word is professional; there have always been many more people who want to become paid, published - i.e., professional - writers than those who have the talent, persistence, connections, education, good luck and good timing to pull it off.

Today, there are what Johnson, in his skepticism, would have considered blockheads by the millions, posting and tweeting their hearts out - and ranting and venting and sharing home videos, expressing themselves without pay. Some are interesting and have something to say; alas, some demonstrate vividly why no one is willing to pay them.

Johnson, a worldly, erudite Londoner, was among other things, a travel writer before the term was widely known or the trade widely practiced. I've been thinking about Johnson lately, especially in regard to the sale of the Huffington Post ( to America Online for $315 million USD in cash and stock. The Huffington Post - aka HuffPo - pays its 200 employees, commissions paid articles from well-known bylines and buys copy from professional news sources such as the Associated Press. But the company doesn't pay the hundreds of bloggers - including travel bloggers - who lust to have their stuff appear on a site that claims 15.6 million page-views per weekday, as HuffPo does. At least some - not most - of the site's amazing popularity and prosperity has been built with unpaid labor.

(For the record, this travel journalist and travel blogger has never written for HuffPo, or tried to. I'm not paid to write this blog, but I make my living by being paid to write articles and books.)

The Huffington Post - named for its once-conservative, now-liberal founder, Arianna Huffington - was started in 2005 with a relatively modest $1 million stake. When it sold for 315 times that amount to AOL only six years later, Bloomberg Business Week topped its story with this withering headline (or "hed' as we say in the rapidly diminishing world of print newspapers): "$315M for Us. You? A Sense of Job Well Done.''

HuffPo hasn't said it's going to start paying bloggers now - and in this it is far from alone.

There is a Web site affiliated with an ink-on-paper newspaper in my area in California; it, too, pays staff but not blogger contributors. Nor does the site edit the outside blogs it posts or even read them before posting. In other words, this site created by media professionals doesn't subject a significant portion of its content to the same rigors of analysis, accuracy and fairness that it uses to develop its own content. This has the inevitable effect of diluting the quality and credibility of its content. This is explained as creating 'community.'

That's part of the story; media proprietors do indeed want to engage a community of readers, viewers, listeners and consumers. The other part of the story is that media companies don't want to pay anything to do this. If they can get a significant amount of content - on travel or any other topic - without paying a thing for it, why shell-out to have professional writers who have spent years learning their craft, cover it? They'll take it off anyone. Isn't that a good thing? Well, it's certainly more small-d democratic than the old structures in a society that doesn't trust elites. It can be good. But not always.

Speaking personally, this situation makes it much harder for we writers to make a living just by writing. So, consider this special pleading if you must. More broadly, and more importantly, we are creating a society in which many people are knowing without necessarily being knowledgeable. We are cynical, wised-up, wired, seen-it-all. We know all about what a starlet wore last night on the red carpet - saw it on YouTube - but a third of us can't find Russia on a map.

Samuel Johnson lived a long time ago; he wouldn't be able to tell a PDA from a laptop, and the writer, who bounced around Scotland in a horse-drawn coach, wouldn't know what to make of an Airbus A380. But he understood a good deal about media and how they work.

He understood a lot about travel, too. Here are some parting words from the old boy - gone these two centuries and more - about travel and travel writing:

"The greater part of travelers tell nothing, because their method of traveling supplies them with nothing to be told. He that enters a town at night and surveys it in the morning, and then hastens away to another place, and guesses at the manners of the inhabitants by the entertainment which his inn afforded him, may please himself for a time with a hasty change of scenes, and a confused remembrance of palaces and churches; he may gratify his eye with a variety of landscapes, and regale his palate with a succession of vintages ...''

Then the kicker:

"...but let him be contented to please himself without endeavoring to disturb others. Why should he record his excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge, which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he could never attain?''

No comments:

Post a Comment