intercourse with biscuits
This site is a modern miscellany written by me, Mic Wright. I'm a journalist and writer and have contributed to Stuff, Q Magazine, The Times and Sunday Times, The Guardian and Wired. You can see some of my writing portfolio here, follow me on Twitter, find me on Facebook and email me.

The Internet is an amplifier for arseholes but to survive, magazines must learn to be open

The social media experts that cluster around Twitter like birds on a wire yelp away, singing the same tune most of the time: the new model is about the conversation. And for all the utter balderdash they spout about other aspects of the the online world, they’re right. But while newspaper sites and blogs have learned the value of comments and letting their reader into the editorial process to some extent, magazines largely haven’t.

Magazines, even if they have a presence online, tend to be closed worlds – there’s a clear distinction between the writers and editorial staff and the readers. Compiling the letters page in a traditional magazine is the job that gets passed around like its a rod of uranium smeared with excrement.

Nobody wants to wade through a collection of emails and badly scrawled notes in the hope of finding the three or four rational ones. A lot of the time, the majority of letters end up being written by someone on staff – a collective fantasy of a letters page created out of necessity. But no one seems to ask: why is the correspondence we receive so terrible?

Readers’ correspondence are often little more than a collection of complaints and the rants of the most unbalanced selection of the readership. But that’s a failing of the publication. Because if you’re creating an interesting, worthwhile product, you probably do have intelligent, interesting readers. You’re just not encouraging them to interact with you. Most of the time magazines have made very little effort to bring readers into the process of magazine making. There’s an assumption that they don’t really know all that much.

Every few years, magazine publishers and editors pull together a focus group (conducted with the undeclared aim of justifying whatever new redesign of the site or the magazine they’ve cooked up). Occasionally they sprinkle some “email us” tags at the end of articles or offer some kind of desultory prize for letter of the month. But they’re not actually asking readers to get involved – it’s a low-level, half-arse attempt to connect with them.

In most magazine offices, the reader becomes like an abstract figure. Yes there’s meetings where someone sticks up a picture of the hypothetical reader, yes there are discussions amongst sub-editors about whether that hypothetical reader will “get” a particular reference but by-and-large the reader is just this peripheral concept that’s there to keep you in a job. There’s a contempt for readers that jumps off the page of most magazines being made now. The paper is getting cheaper and thinner and the editorial is chasing after it.

The best publications (in any medium) speak with the voice that readers wish they were confident enough to have. The voice of the magazine is the idealised voice they wish they could speak with. It’s the cool best friend who tells them they are good enough and shows them the next thing as well as showing them the things they already know they love. The best magazines give their readers respect. In fact, creating a brilliant magazine can be boiled down to three words: “surprise and delight”.

So where does letting the reader into the process come in to all of this? Well, it’s not about simply sticking comments below your content or throwing all your articles up online. That can be part of it but not every piece of content can survive that. There’s talk that the Guardian is about to open up all its reviews to comments. That seems like a terrible idea. A review is a piece of subjective comment from someone taking a view on a piece of art. People will disagree with it but the debate that you’ll get beneath a review will always rapidly trend towards a denunciations of the writer for being wrong and denunciations of those who say the writer is wrong. It’s cultural criticism as a blood sport.

The model I’m talking about is a world where the structures behind the creation of a magazine are as exposed as the pipes of the Pompidou Centre. I’m saying let’s dismantle the Magic Circle and, for the most part, reveal how the tricks are done. Wired in the US has been at the forefront of this kind of approach with its Wired Storyboard podcast (which takes you behind the writing of several key features in each month’s issue) and experiments like its Charlie Kaufman article which documented its creation on a blog that then became part of the final piece.

There are obviously some types of journalism that cannot reveal their underbelly – war reporting and investigative pieces require a certain level of secrecy and obfuscation around methods. But almost every other element of magazine creation can be documented and made available, DVD extras to the main feature.

Ben Hammersley has written recently about creating systems where journalism is written with meta-data as a consideration from the start. I agree and see the whole process working like a good butcher’s shop – no part of the animal should go to waste. Interviews should be taped and available to be edited into accompanying audio elements, photo-shoots should be videoed. All the products of a magazine’s creative process should be available for readers to mash-together and remix.

The relevance and importance of the professional writer remains – as a guide to the subjects that matter and a skilled interpreter of information coming in from readers. Readers should be encourage to send in ideas, tip writers off about trends or experiences they have had. Look at the effectiveness of the two giants of American gadget blogging, Engadget and Gizmodo. Much of their success derives from bringing together a community of like minded individuals and encouraging them to contribute. Many of their stories and scoops come from ordinary readers.

It’s true that online comments can become dominated by the ignorant and extreme fringes but that is the same of any conversation. The Internet is an amplifier for arseholes. But as Jeff Jarvis has so eloquently explained in the past, publications should curate the valuable commenters and encourage the community to marginalise the negative and disruptive influences. That is no to say those people who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy but rather those who attack for the sake of attacking.

The magazines of the future will need more than translated to the enhanced user interfaces of tablet devices like the now almost mythical Apple Tablet. A change in philosophy among journalists and editors is required. It’s getting there but there’s still a long distance to travel.

Journalism will survive as a profession by championing the value of a great story and realising that great storytellers are willing to seek material from anywhere and to learn to adapt and interpret the stories of others.

Why I’m not editor of GQ and other revelations from my failure list

If you’d started as a journalist five years earlier, you’d probably be editor of GQ or something.

That was the standout phrase in a killer dissection of the catalogue of mistakes I made in my first six years of trying to become A BIG SUCCESSFUL WRITER ™. On the phone to a journalist who’s still in the middle of London’s canape-strewn maze, I listened to a long list of reasons why plenty of people like me and lots of people think I’m the kind of tosser who looks best flat on their face in the rain.

My friend essentially described me barreling around London making enemies like a more hirsute, less-driven version of Toby Young. The way he delicately put it was that “having such strong opinions might not have been the best idea.”

For a good few years I had an ego so sizable that it could have emerged from my ears and formed a solid moon orbiting my head. But that’s been replaced by a pitiful little grey cloud of the sort sported by Eeyore in the less charming Disney version of Winnie The Pooh. I’ve gone from perpetually driving forward in the style of one of those disturbingly gimlet-eyed swimmers at the local pool to treading water in the shallow end wearing comically undersized water wings.

I spent my teens pouring over the NME, Melody Maker, Select and the rest, dreaming of being a lighter Lester Bang or Nick Kent without the penchant for leather trousers and smack. But when I got the chance to work for a music magazine, I screwed it up in spectacular fashion. After talking my way in like a confidence trickster with an unusually good knowledge of Nirvana, Bowie’s back catalogue and mid-80s American hardcore punk, I managed to end up banging my head on the desk and sending proofs so error-laden they may as well have been edited by Lenny from Of Mice And Men.

A hero needs a nemesis but for someone hoping that they might one day be the kind of writer who doesn’t have to consider whether buying name brand butter and not Tesco Value spread is a good idea, accumulating enmity faster than the Pope gatecrashing Peter Tatchell’s birthday bash isn’t smart.

I spotted on Facebook today that one of my university friends has reinvented herself as a writer and is winning short story competitions at a rate of knots. Meanwhile, Joe Dunthorne, who was in the same edition of the May Anthologies as I was (I was the only first year with something in there that year), is a successful novelist and screen writer with a film on the way – directed by Richard Ayoade and soundtracked by Alex Turner.

At the party after the publication of that May Anthologies, where I could have spoken to a major London agent, I got drunk and stood in the corner silently loathing people wearing better shoes than me. I bounced around writing reviews for the university newspapers and doing dreadful stand up on bills with comics who are now storming Edinburgh and popping up on TV with a regularity that makes me want to kick in the screen like a lorry driver incensed by The Sex Pistols.

When I abruptly left my second stint at Stuff after writing for Wired and being suspended for doing so, I thought that would be a new direction. But after contributing two well-received features on The Impossible Project and Kodak, I got mired in a piece on UAVs and BAE Systems that ended up grounded after an identically-themed whizzbang extravaganza popped up in The Sunday Times.

In a five years, I went from Pensions World to Stuff to Q to Stuff to freelancing for Wired, Electricpig (which I still write for practically every day) and a lots of other exciting places. Then it just seemed to unravel.

After being nothing but condensed confidence and drive, I just fizzled out and am now off in the Siberian salt mines of journalism, writing about technology I can’t afford and mumbling bitterly about creating a brilliant column or amazing feature without doing it.

As I wrote in my last bit of confessional wailing (Cheryl Cole is 27), you can’t become a success by just sitting around and waiting for opportunities to be posted to you like invites to Hogwarts.

The trouble is I’ve got the fear. I’m a wire walker who’s stopped just looking at the next step in front of him and started staring right at the gaping abyss. And there’s a fairly substantial legion of folk with peashooters in hand ready to knock me off my balance.

In the spirit of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, what would you do next ever-reasonable-never-insane-Internet folk? Your options are a) commission Mic to write something b) retweet this column c) leave an inspiring/irritated comment.

Great talk by @irowan on the risks journalists take to right wrongs. I also note his school uniform was pretty much exactly as mine. Shouldn’t have been distracted by that should I?

You really should watch the talk though. It’s excellent. You can read David’s thoughts on the talk at Wired UK.

Dear Stephen Fry: a letter from the sewage works

Stephen Fry has opinions. In interviews they gush forth from him without much recourse to first travelling through his enormous brain. Like a newly completed bypass, his bon mots trundle straight from some hidden quip gland to his tongue. The latest one to cause ructions is that he is curiously mystified that women aren’t all about cottaging. We straight men do suffer so.

But the quote that really rankles for me is yet another of his slams on journalists. Turning his oracle like gaze towards my nasty, nasty profession Stephen Fry opines: “Many people would no more think of entering journalism than the sewage business – which at least does us all some good.” Frankly, he insults both journos and the good people of the sanitation business.

The big problem with Stephen Fry’s irritation and disgust with journalists is that he brands himself one whenever he fancies it. He’s never been shy of taking a hefty chunk of change to give his opinions in print or on the web. Obviously national newspapers are not sewage factories when he deigns to put his byline in their hands.

I like Stephen Fry. I think he’s talented and interesting and funny. But in recent years he has become as overexposed as Jordan’s boobs. Like them, he bounces up to the opening of anything and, sadly, unlike them will witter on about just about anything. Look! There he is compering at the T3 Awards, taking a shilling from the press to prance around just after prostrating himself for Microsoft at the Windows Phone 7 launch.

Stephen Fry sees the world through the prism of his own ego. That’s fine, so do most of us. But before thinking his comments through he wants to dance around for the interviewer, to give them some juicy and play to the gallery. For the Attitude interview he condescends about straight women, for the public who HATE journalists he spits out a nice little bit of bile.

If the sewage works stink too much for you Stephen, don’t keep turning up here to work. There are plenty of us who need the money a damn sight more than you do. I fear you’ve been struck down with a case of the Morrisseys – a mouth that’s permanently stuck in overdrive.

Hunter S Thompson on Wikileaks (well, kinda…)

“If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”

Hunter S. Thompson

Tech journalists, delusions and the hedonic treadmill

For a few years I was a tech journalist and nothing else. These days I have the luxury of writing about technology and music and pop culture and more complex stuff like state-sponsored cyber-terror.

My work is pretty eclectic now and I love that but I can’t say I wasn’t enthralled with being a pure gadget journalist when that was my job. But now I write tech news for Electricpig for two hours in the morning and then turn to other things, the problematic parts of being a gadget journalist are in sharper relief. 

To be a tech journalist is to comprehensively commit yourself to a life on what economists call the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the human desire to quickly return to a stable level of happiness regardless of major positive or negative events to the contrary. 

On the hedonic treadmill the latest mobile phone can be the pinnacle of technological achievement one day and a total piece of crap the next. It’s the treadmill that keeps the children of technology execs in expensive shoes and their dad’s in frameless specs. 

The life of a gadget journalist is about speeding up the hedonic treadmill. On a magazine like Stuff which is dedicated to fuelling gadget lust, your task is to press the fast forward button on the hedonic treadmill making your readers disgusted by their current kit and getting them craving the latest shiny slab of tech fluff.

And, of course, chief among the engineers tweaking the hedonic treadmill is Mr Steve Jobs, the king of stoking gadget desire. One year he will tell you the iPhone you are about to buy is the most wonderful piece of aluminium and plastic to ever bounce out of Cupertino, the next he’ll have you staring at your palm and openly laughing at how antiquated last year’s model is. 

I held on to the iPhone 3G for two years before finally upgrading to the iPhone 4 six months after it launched. It worked fine. Though the hardware was behind the models that followed it, it used the same OS and was a good phone for my purposes.

But when I used my iPhone 3G, other gadget writers looked at me as if I had just pulled a little bag of fresh faeces from my pocket: “You’re still using THAT?!” Living on the hedonic treadmill, you’re expected to keep running ahead of your readers. You need the newest phone, TV, laptop…whatever shiny slab of metal the corporations have just told the world it needs. 

I jumped off the hedonic treadmill for a while but it always ends up sucking me back in. My 13in Macbook Pro 2009 model is still a beautiful computer. I used it for about 6 hours a day and yet the 11in Macbook Air exists now and in the back of my mind I keep thinking: I should get one of those! I don’t need one. I want one.

The hedonic treadmill still has me running. And as you open your new iPad on Christmas morning, beware – the hedonic treadmill is getting ready to trip you up. The iPad 2 is coming in the new year and that sliver of the future you’ve just got will suddenly be written off as prehistoric.  

The Huffington Post is the Judas goat of journalism

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The job market is tough these days but I still wouldn’t apply to slip on the fleecy suit of the Judas goat. The smartest of the dumb herd, the Judas goat is trained to hang out with the rest of the beasts at the slaughterhouse and get them comfortable. When the time comes it leads them onto the killing floor. They stay there and it walks out to dupe another set of startled sheep. 

Judas goats aren’t so popular with slaughter house owners any more. In fact, in the EU using the duplicitous bleating bastards is now illegal. But the principle of the Judas goat has migrated to other industries, to professions where endless internships and paid staff encouraging others to contribute to money-making enterprises for no cash and the promise of that often worthless currency ‘exposure’ is painfully common. 

I consider the Huffington Post to be a massive $300m pen of Judas goats. Another working journalist compared staffers there to how Bill Hicks saw rockstars doing Pepsi cola commercials and his excoriating rant against Jay Leno who turned from sharp-eyed comic observer to a parcel shelf ornament listlessly chatting to Joey Lawrence (“A company man to the bitter end.”). 

To me, the Huffington Post is one giant Judas goat. As the number of available jobs diminishes, it’s a pen provided by Arianna Huffington, a pen burnished by AOL’s money and a growing army of celebrity bloggers who can jot some words down to promote their latest product and demonstrate their political savvy.

The Huffington Post does have some staff journalists producing decent journalism but their work sits surrounded by the products of an endlessly churning ‘content repurposing’ operation. The machine gobbles up stories from other sites, fillets the copy and slaps a new headline on top with a link below. In hell, one of the rooms is dedicated to forcing you to click through Huffington Post gallery stories on celebrity looks. 

"Why are you writing this now?", you might ask, you endlessly inquisitive little scamp. Because on Wednesday, as I was watching a Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief, Carla Buzasi, being questioned at the Leveson Inquiry and tweeting my responses, a Huffington Post staff member fired a shot back at me.

I’ve only met him once, when I was still writing for the old AOL TV UK site, before it was evaporated like Alderaan by the HuffPo death ray with  several other sites. The few survivors were ferried to the mines where the memory of the fees they once received were like myths passed along in samizdat copies of cancelled freelance contracts.  

The occasion of my meeting with the HuffPo loyalist (as well he might be given that they pay his wages) was at a conference where Arianna Huffington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had appeared onstage to discuss the imminent launch of Huffington Post UK. I had asked a question from the floor about the ethics of running a profit making entity and expecting professional journalists to write for free.

Afterwards, a small group of AOL editors, including Our Man In Huff Town, were genuinely shocked that I had questioned Arianna. I did it politely. I genuinely wanted to know her answer. It all boiled down to “exposure”. 

I’m not going to name the editor I had my discussion with yesterday because he’s a nice guy and I’d defend where I worked if I was him. When I worked at Stuff, I swore that I could never work at T3 (the rival tech mag) despite the fact that people had hopped back and forth more times than Peter Andre has been photographed with a ‘mysterious blonde’. But while I’m going with the no names, no pack drill policy, the conversation we had bothered me a lot. 

It all kicked off from a tweet I sent which read: “‘AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315m dollars…this is big business isn’t it?’ It’s a feudal empire, that’s what it is #leveson” Hardly Pulitzer-worthy media analysis but enough to spark a response from the HuffPo editor. He said: “How’s things going since you stopped working for AOL?”

Since he follows me on Twitter, he well knows how things have been going since around that time. To overstretch the Star Wars analogy from earlier, for about six months I have been sat in the Millennium Falcon, hiding on an asteroid, waiting for the Empire to piss off. Only my asteroid is, in fact, Dublin. 

A back-and-forth between the Unnamed HuffPo Editor (this is getting a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?) and I went on, in which he noted that the sites he’d worked for prior to HuffPo UK launching were shutdown upon its arrival. He applied for a job at HuffPo and got it. His point was that I didn’t try to do that. He’s right, I didn’t. For a number of reasons including my disquiet about the Huffington Post’s business model and its approach to crediting the rest of the web, which is at best flakey. 

I’m not going to paint this guy as someone “just following orders” as I’ve got no desire to Godwin myself into a gibbering wreck on my own blog. But while I well understand his irritation at what he deemed my dismissal of all his website’s content as “bland”, I do think a lot of it is.

While the Huffington Post did create a number of new journalism jobs it also took a lot of freelance away from other writers and is continuing to foster a culture where the notion of ‘exposure’ from a big site like HuffPo is meant to be enough to make up for the lack of real life tokens that can buy things like baked beans and brown sauce. 

A few months before my column was compacted into virtual landfill with the rest of the AOL TV website, HuffPo did ask me to keep writing it on their site. Initially that meant a tricksy arrangement where it was published in both places and I still got paid.

Eventually that came to an end and the fee stopped. With it, went the title Mic Wright’s Remotely Furious, replaced with the more boring Mic Wright’s TV week. Eventually I stopped submitting copy, disillusioned that a relatively popular column, which had previously been a paid gig, had now become a free blog post stuck in the far corner of a cluttered explosion of content. 

The point in my slightly heated discussion with the Man From Del HuffPost (“He say: no fee!”) that got to me and left me boiling over with frustration at my desk was when he said: “If [your column] was well-received enough, you’d have been continued to be paid for it. No need to shit over everyone else’s hard work.”

The kicker there is that in admonishing me for ‘shitting on everyone else’s hard work’, he was shitting on mine. It’s also a comment that deliberately ignores the HuffPo business model. I wasn’t on staff, so I wouldn’t get paid. The merits of the column were beside the point. 

You could argue that for someone continuing to seek new ways to make money from their writing to put this kind of sentiment out there is foolish. In some ways, posting this is like Randy Quaid’s suicide mission at the end of Independence Day. I’m flying my battered F15 into the centre of Arianna’s death-ray (what’s not to like about hyperbolic analogies using awful films, in which I’m presented as some self-sacrificing hero rather than a man complaining needlessly on a blog?).

The thing is, I strongly believe the Huffington Post is the Judas Goat of journalism. It’s a major actor in a drift towards a general belief that the vast majority of writers don’t deserve to be paid for what they do and that it’s fine for a company that makes money not to share its wins with people who contribute to them.

While Arianna Huffington was in Davos bibbling on about the merits of openness and community and helping those in need, she’s heading up a enterprise that doesn’t believe in offering rewards for hard work. Arianna’s world is a world of infinite interns.

When Buzasi delivered a touching homily on how Arianna struggled to make the original Huffington Post site work in the beginning I spat water all over my laptop screen. She was already a multimillionaire from an elite background by the time she harnessed her celebrity contacts to found the Huffington Post.  

I’m sorry if my comparison of the Huffington Post to the Judas goat offends people employed there but that’s how I sincerely see their business model. And to me, the idea of defending an outlet that voraciously repackages other people’s content and is happy to build itself on free labour is a lot more offensive than anything I’ve written in this post. 

Part 2: The Revenge of the #judasgoat - move on and monetize! 
Part 3: The future of the #judasgoat and the terror of pulling shapes

The revenge of the #judasgoat: move on and monetize a new revenue stream!

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I read this article with extreme interest as I work on the business at AOL. I found it rather amusing. It may not be fair that Huffington Post is having an impact on the availability of paid journalism work but then again life isn’t fair. Shit happens: workers in the UK construction trade are undercut by Polish migrants, middle men in the music industry are no longer supported in the digital age. 

My point is that the commercial landscape and people’s tastes are constantly evolving, you have to adapt, move with it and think of alternative revenue stream. Non-user generated content businesses are very costly to run. I commend Arianna Huffington for coming up with such a great idea. I wish I had come up with it (and had her contact book) as I would be many millions richer. After all, no one is holding a shotgun to your head and forcing you to write for the Huffington Post for free!” 

It was almost inevitable that my post about The Huffington Post and its sweatshop, #judasgoat ethics would draw some loyalists from the cult of Arianna into the comments. It was a sticky honey trap for converts who have bought into The Huff’s ‘revenue generating’ genius. The comment above is from someone within AOL who didn’t feel the need put their real name. A few people told me the last post was a rant. Well, as Bachman Turner Overdrive so memorably put it: you ain’t seen nothing yet. 

Let’s take Ms A.N.Otheraolemployee’s comment piece by piece. First – “I work on the business side at AOL.” So here we have someone who receives a wage from a company which pays her for her labour explaining that while she believes she should be ‘remunerated’ for her work, writers should learn that “life isn’t fair” and that our efforts are worth only the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket Of Shimmering Bullshit that is exposure from the Huffington Post’s beneficent rulers. 

Next we’re onto that “UK construction workers vs Polish migrants” analogy. Ignoring the fact that it’s the kind of black and white example Daily Mail erections are made of, it doesn’t work. Otheraolemployee’s point is that Polish workers were willing to offer their labour for less than UK employees and that journalism is much the same. The key difference is that the Polish workers were still paid for their labour rather than totally distorting the market by just rocking up and doing the plastering in the hope of some exposure. 

The second comparison is to the music industry which is apparently entirely free from time-wasting, money-sucking, flabby middlemen clinging to its mid-rift like excess skin highlighted in a Heat magazine circle of shame. The music industry has gone through a Revenge Of The Sith-style massacre but in my short time working on Q I sure as hell saw a legion of spare parts still rattling their way around that industry. 

Ultimately the ‘middlemen’ analogy doesn’t work either because writers aren’t middlemen in publishing. Without words there’s no chewy nougat centre to wrap all that tasty advertising around. Without words, business bods would have nothing to sell beyond their sparkling personalities and inane chatter about the upholstery in their new car and what’s been happening with mortgage rates recently.

The reason “non-user generated content businesses” (shudder) cost more to run is because truly good words, pictures, videos and sounds (fuck  ‘content’) required passion, knowledge and experience. 

As for the notion that people’s tastes have changed, well, that’s also wrong. The change in tastes is not that readers suddenly don’t want great writing, it’s that they don’t want to pay. Check Twitter or Facebook to see how often articles from the Huffington Post get shared compared to interesting stuff from Boing Boing, Wired, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and many other places. All those outlets pay their writers. 

The problem journalism has is not that people no longer want to read excellent writing but that they have been conditioned to believe that writing is free, that it doesn’t require time, effort and dedication to make it great. Things needn’t stay that way. iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad show people will pay for things they like if it’s made easy for them to get. There are solutions other than accepting that everything is worthless.

Creating a vast Vichy State like the Huffington Post full of quisling editors asking writers to collaborate in working for free to appease the demands of an audience that wants pap is no answer. Sure it’ll make more money for AOL and the sainted Arianna Huffington but it’ll also mean we have less great writers telling amazing stories.

Brilliant sites like Letters of Note regularly flag up amazing artifacts from writers we revere from days past. In a Huffington Future, we’ll just be picking over galleries of a Kardasian’s arse in different jeans. 

No one is putting a shotgun to my head and making me write for the Huffington Post as the mysterious lady says but I’m also quite within my rights to say how fundamentally damaging its business model is.

And yes I can promote myself in other ways and yes I should pitch my writing to people who pay, write a screenplay and find other ‘revenue streams’. I am doing all those things but I’m also going to stand up and say what I think about the sad and shoddy direction the Huffington Post is taking journalism in. 

Read the other comments beneath the last post, especially the one from another former AOL employee who says “Arianna and her arguments against paying writers made me feel queasy”, and you’ll see I’m not alone in my distaste for the HuffPo brand and it’s philosophy. Words have value. If you sell ads around them and use them to get eyeballs to look at your ads, you are explicitly admitting that. 

If your business makes money, as AOL’s does, then some of that ‘revenue’ you generate should be shared with those whose work helps create it. Your paying the people who are on ‘the business side’ to make their Powerpoint presentations and rightly so but leaving writers out in the cold is exploitation, however much you make them believe exposure will keep them warm. 

Arianna Huffington is a woman guilty of hypocrisy so towering that it could stomp through a model Toyko to do battle with Godzilla. While she pops up at lavishly catered conferences to talk about issues of poverty and inequality, the brand that bares her name is powered by getting people who are earning a wage to persuade others to produce work for nothing. 

Whenever someone wants to evoke the moral ambivalence of marketing or the classic celebrity tumbling, stumbling rush towards adverts when money is dangled before them, Bill Hicks is the go-to guy to quote. It’s a crushing cliche I’ve run headlong towards at least three times recently on this very blog.

When it comes to the question of people being asked to give away work for free, they invoke this video of Harlan Ellison. It too is becoming a cliche but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. “Everyone else might be an asshole, but I’m not…” 

The future of the #judasgoat and journalism: the terror of pulling shapes

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I have no taste for either poverty or honest labour, so writing is the only recourse left for me.

- Hunter S Thompson, quoted in the foreword to Fear And Loathing
At Rolling Stone

I hear you Brother Thompson, you speak to me from the beyond the grave. I know I’m no Hunter S Thompson. I don’t have the bravery or capacity for ingesting industrial amounts of psychotropic drugs to take on that mantel but writing is the only job I’ve ever been half-decent at.

I don’t believe that England or any other country owes me a living but putting words together is the best chance I’ve got of making one. The #judasgoat posts are fundamentally about the way in which a lot of major organisations are working hard to ‘disrupt the business model’ by making writing at best a commodity business.

There’s a new series of videos being posted online that feature John Roderick of The Long Winters talking about the inspiration behind some of his songs. The story behind the tune Shapes is quite pertinent:

The song is about being cheated on…I started reading all the British pop magazines – Q and Mojo and NME – and they had a way of writing captions under photographs of rockstars where the caption really took the piss out of the person.

I
t’d be the coolest rockstar picture in the world but one of the things they’d do is talk about those rockstars throwing rockstar shapes…it was such an elegant two-word description of something most of us do…as I was writing this song, I was hoping this person would stand up and be someone who did more than just throw the shapes…

What worries me is, that in a few years time, we’ll be left with a press filled with people doing little more than throwing shapes, journalists who can do the job because they have others to support them and celebrities who can play at writing as a high profile hobby. The perfusion of actors and personalities who already have columns that they pick up and put down like a distracted toddler with Duplo is depressing. 

The reality at the other end of the industry is even more dispiriting. Young writers are expecting to ‘work’ for long periods with nothing to survive on. I went to Pensions World Magazine as my first job while some of my contemporaries did stints at The Guardian, The Observer and GQ. The difference between us? Largely that I didn’t have anyone who could bankroll my internship salad days sleeping on a floor in Hackney and hauling myself into an office to make tea and genuflect before editors. I needed to make a wage.

One of the most common counter-arguments I’ve heard since I started banging on about the #judasgoat problem is that journalism is a “competitive industry” as if it’s some magic excuse for expecting people to work for no pay until they’ve earned their chops.

I’d like to see those hard-hearted rationalists argue that when their kids are asked to work for six months/a year/ two years for nothing more than exposure, a lunch voucher and the vague promise of a staff job in the far future. For an example look at the recent Sunday Time Style internship ad which asked for a candidate with two years experience of similar unpaid fashion jobs. 

It is the mark of a dysfunctional industry that the senior executives of major newspaper groups retain salaries touching of £500,000 and above while they tear down freelance rates and slash jobs in the newsrooms.

It’s the same idiot logic that finds magazines cutting pagination and paper stock quality while wondering why so many readers prefer to get their information for free online. If they won’t give us glorious photography, quality articles and glossy pages, why should we keep buying them? Luxury and depth are meant to be the selling points. 

In a previous post I reared up on my hind legs in rage at an AOL staff member’s snotty observation that “non-user generated content businesses are expensive”. That phrase is still ringing nastily in my ears. There is something utterly disgusting about companies which build their value on words and pictures but deny that the creators of that ‘content’ are doing something valuable. 

Writing can be as cheap as you like but great writing is expensive and in the end the “Metroification” of journalism (h/t @eamonn_forde) can only lose you readers and, in time, the advertisers they attract. Organisations like The Huffington Post are pulling shapes that look like journalism but they are, in fact, the #judasgoat writ large, they are hives of bandits in business suits who will trade on the dreams of kids who want to write as a way of pushing down the wages available to every journalist and photographer.

Sort of exclusive! The #judasgoat rises: Yahoo is joining the Huff Po herd and it’s bad news for your brain

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“Feel free to forward this entire email to family and close friends. But please do not promote on social networks at this time.” 

Oh dear and it was highlighted in yellow and everything. I’m not a close friend of anyone within the Yahoo! New Media Deathstar (in reality, I have about five close friends and that number is subject to change at any time) nor am I related to a Yahoo! I am related to several yahoos but we don’t speak about them, their many children or vestigial tails.

Still, thanks to the previous #judasgoat posts which covered exploitation by the Huffington Post then expanding out to look at Tesco and the phalanx of braying corporate mooks using Workfare), a source within Yahoo! punted the email pictured above in my direction. I’m going to call them Deep Search as we all know that no controversy is quite real until it gets an unnecessary Watergate reference. 

The email above, which is much longer than I can conveniently screenshot, announces the arrival of the Yahoo! Contributor Network in the UK. Unlike HuffPo and its “exposure will buy your baked beans” strategy, the Yahoo! Contributor Network (isn’t that ! just so cheeky and fun and ‘we bought bean bags during the first internet bubble’) will actually pay its contributors. 

“Hooray!” I hear you cry because you respond to things like a boarding school boy presented with a tuck hamper in an archaic children’s novel. But wait, Billy Bunter, you won’t be able to stuff your fat face with the tasty riches from the Yahoo! Contributor Network because, well, they’re pretty meagre. This is the publishing equivalent of when they reduced the size of a Curly Wurly and frankly no less shocking. 

What Yahoo! is proposing to its friends, family and co-conspirators is effectively Judas Goat+. It is a step up from the brazen ethics taught at the Arianna Huffington Yah Whatever School of Business but it’s still a distinctly negative turn of events.

This is Yahoo! slaking off its previous pretence at becoming some bastion of editorial quality and instead planning to bring a vast content farm of ‘that’ll do’ pieces predicated on the need to get clicks, clicks, clicks (which is the song a young Beyonce would have written now if confronted with that terrible boyfriend, Google AdWords). 

Let’s look at the list of suggested topics new recruits should be prepared to write about:

fashion trends, photography, pregnancy advice, ‘Towie’, rom-coms, beauty secrets, ‘Made in Chelsea, app reviews, classic B-movies, dieting, ‘Dancing On Ice’, Brit flicks, video games, exercising, home cinema, tips for new fathers, internet security and more?”

I like the special quarantine quote marks around the reality TV shows as if they can somehow contain the toxicity. Stare at that list and what you’re seeing is the vomiting out of some SEO gold, of search terms that have been doing the business. 

The deputy vice admiral writing the email says the new Yahoo! Contributor Network is looking for writers who might be students, bloggers or even (this is where I laughed spluttering my mouthful of Vimto over the computer screen)…professionals seeking additional work. 

It’s the line “and they even get paid!” that’s particularly enjoyable as if the notion of receiving payment for labour is like a quaint hobby, Morris Dancing with a keyboard. And there’s that damn exclamation mark again. Truly loyal Yahoo! staff get one tattooed on the inside of their eyelids so they are greeted by surprise each morning . 

Now I’m certain that those of you who have already written to me to yell “quit y’er whining, journo pig” or words to that effect will renew your howls of protest now. Yes, the Yahoo! Contributor Network will be pouring a few pennies to contributors but it will be a very meagre lot. The fee for accepted work will be set at £20 which works out at £0.025 per word for the 800 word articles provided by the email as good examples of the sort of ‘content’ that will be required. 

The email notes that the authors of the two pieces flagged up have earned £60+ from each of the articles and will “keep earning as the articles are read over the coming months”. Assuming that those authors earned exactly £60 in the weeks since their articles were published (3 weeks at the timing of writing), that bounty would bring the effective word rate up to £0.075/word.

As the email states that 70p will be earned by contributors for every 1000 page views, that would mean that the pieces would need to have racked up over 57,000 views to reach those totals. Are that many people interested in black bridal wear? It’s not totally implausible but the fees don’t take into account the time required to interview people, do research or check facts. Many of those tasks are likely to go by the wayside entirely. In vast swathes of the web they already have. 

The problem is that, as professional freelancers of all stripes know, big companies tend to push their rates down over time and even at the dawn of the #judasgoat+ future of the Yahoo! Contributor Network, the pay is risible. While it may make nice pocket money for some, this is another blow to professional writers attempting to pay their bills and bring in a living.

The need to bring in a sufficient number of clicks to make your pay day will also lead to articles that are geared entirely to the predictable whims of the search engines and social networks rather than creating anything original that could surprise with its popularity by dint of a journalist’s skill at telling a story or writing a compelling opinion piece. So what’s new? OK, fair point. 

As Deep Search so eloquently puts it: “Yahoo! are planning to launch this ‘great’ initiative whereby members of the public get paid f*ck all for writing shiploads of content on the promise of a tiny share of the revenue it gets per click.”

This is another example of paid employees of a media conglomerate conspiring with the grey suits to see writers provide their services at far below the minimum wage. In a sense, it is worse than HuffPo because in its derisory payments and metric for measuring success, it accepts that yes, these words do have value, it’s just that the creators of them won’t get a fair slice of the rewards. 

Yahoo! Contributor Network is already up and running in the US where content farms like Demand Media (latterly stuffed by a Google search algorithm update) are staffed by battery hen hacks tapping out click fodder for pennies are rampant. It will launch in the UK on February 28 and be integrated into Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Lifestyle, omg! and Yahoo! Movies with plans to weave it into all other sections of Yahoo! editorial.

While there’ll be a little tag to tell you the article you’re reading is the product of the #judasgoat factory farm, it’s likely many readers will not realise that these news sources have brought in a new strain of cheap labour.

The excitable cheerleader says in his email that there is “no cap on earnings from a single article” and that “page views can be anything from a few hundred to a million or more!” That’s possible but it’s very unlikely.

While some of the targeted topics farmed out from the central nodes of Yahoo!’s journalistic Skynet may catch fire and find riches pouring down on a lucky scribe, most with fizzle and die within the first few days. They may puke out a few pennies now and then in the future but the tiny increments hitting PayPal accounts will be like the depressing royalties reaching a long forgotten songwriter whose novelty hit gets played on a Uruguayan 80s pop station every few months.  

The Yahoo! Contributor Network will not initially allow those writing for it to pitch ideas. While the email suggestions it may in the future, it is just as likely that the project will remain a restless machine demanding highly structured, keyword rich copy to feast on.

Read that list of topics from earlier in the post and glimpse a terrifying future where Google search, Facebook Likes and Twitter trends are the unseen overlords of news to an extent that is almost unimaginable even in today’s SEO saturated, social media ninja plagued business. 

In his email signature, the Yahoo! editor has included a funny quote: “What doesn’t kill you makes you smaller – Mario.”

Unfortunately that’s just what the Huffington Post and the Yahoo! Contributor Network are contributing to journalism, they are like poisonous goombas, shrinking the ambition of writers to a list of popular search terms, to some vaguely snappy captions about Kim Kardashian’s arse or Justin Bieber’s bastardised lesbian Beatles wig. These developments may not have killed journalism yet but they are helping to further shrink the idea that good journalism needs resources to pay for it. 

Read the rest of the #judasgoat series: 

Part 1 The Huffington Post is the Judas Goat of journalism 

Part 2 Revenge of the Judas Goat: the HuffPo strikes back

Part 3: The future of the Judas Goat and pulling shapes 

Part 4: The Judas Goat goes to the supermarket 

iPad 3/iPad HD disappoints? Unless you’ve got a time machine, you should give up tech writing

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Today is the day Apple whips the covers off the iPad 3 or the iPad HD or as I like to think of it The Shiny Sexy Money Hole. There are already hundreds of articles predicting what Apple will/won’t/should do this afternoon. I’m not going to do that. It’ll be better. That’s about the sum of it. The problem is, an army of tech journalists are already predicting that it will be…cue portentous soundtrack…DISAPPOINTING. 

An unannounced, undefined product is going to be disappointing. They said it before the iPhone launched. Too expensive, not enough buttons etc etc etc blah blah blah. They said it before the launch of the first iPad. They said it before the iPad 2 emerged as if the huge sales of the first tablet were somehow a fluke. The iPad 2 sold in even larger numbers than its predecessor. 

And yet, professional tech journalists, people paid to know their onions about the future of technology and especially Apple which looms large over all others, are writing speculative pieces about why an unseen product will disappoint us.

If the iPad 3 ONLY has better battery life and an impressive new screen, it will be enough to power massive sales. Unless the needlessly negative tech writers have Delorians idling in their garages, they are indulging in the worst kind of linkbait bullshit.  

Apple needs to be criticised. A lot of reviews and news pieces are essentially hum jobs given to its powerful PR machine but the simple fact is: Apple makes better products than its rivals.

The iPad is a runaway success because it is lightyears ahead of its rivals. Samsung can’t shift its tablets because they aren’t good enough. The only true competitor is the Kindle Fire which although technically lesser has Amazon integration and a killer price point. 

The iPad 3 won’t disappoint the rational people and the consumers who crave it. Anyone who mithers that it is “disappointing” tonight without first getting their hands on one, is a terrible journalist and should quit the game. The opinions of knee jerking idiots are not needed in the already crowded market of people muttering ill-thought out rubbish. 

Where are our hip young gunslingers? A hymn of praise for today’s young music writers and their editors

I have been thinking a little bit about why there are no real ‘hip young gunslingers’ in journalism today. Where are the Burchills? The Shaar-Murrays? The Kents? God forbid, the young Parsons

Well, it makes sense that they don’t really exist because the environment to foster them doesn’t exist either. The NME, which originally ran the ‘hip young gunslinger’ ad which flushed Burchill and Parsons out of the undergrowth, is a corporate branding machine more bothered about club nights, sponsorships than ‘monetizing’ anything like passionate music journalism. 

That’s what rattled Neil Kulkarni’s cage so much. And in that respect he’s right. But as I said yesterday, criticising NME writers for being somewhat mechanistic in their output is like telling McDonalds workers that they should be pumping out Michelin-starred creations and not the Big Mac. The environment is not conducive to Bangsesque creative chaos. The brief is quick, concise, uncontroversial copy. 

The days when Lester Bangs [PDF link] could pump out thousands of words over two issues on The Clash and go out of his way to offend them are long, long gone. When I worked on Q, it was pretty damn clear that the order of the day was not offending big acts with big PRs who could have a big effect on who the mag got on the cover and ultimately how many issues it managed to shift. The ‘truth’ was a very flexible concept, especially when it came to giving Razorlight albums a star rating. 

There are brilliant young music writers at work today. Look at the ziggurat of independence Sean Adams has built and maintained with Drowned In Sound. Look at the quiet, solid excellence of MusicOMH (full disclosure: I write for it, for basically no cash). Consider the brilliant work of John Doran (not so young) and Luke Turner (young enough) at The Quietus. Take a good hard look at some of the stuff The Line Of Best Fit is doing. If you have to, turn to the pretentious cul-de-sac of Pitchfork

And, of course, there’s the writer who I cheerlead incessantly, my good friend Eve Barlow who I strongly believe deserves to be our generation’s Caitlin Moran. Eve’s got a grasp of pop culture and politics that makes my head spin. And the girl does jokes. Good jokes. Every time. I cannot wait for the day when she emerges full force onto the scene to kick some faces right off.

I long for a time when Eve is in the position my other good friend (name-dropping tosswank klaxon) Suzanne Moore is in. Suzanne writes as she wants for polar opposite titles – The Guardian and The Daily Mail – and she started out on Marxism Today! Now that’s inspirational. 

It’s true that there are no hip young gunslingers in the mainstream press these days. Pop writing has become far too commodified. But there are glimmers of brilliance allowed to play at the edges.

Any national newspaper or forward thinking magazine that commissions Peter “Popjustice” Robinson gets a massive A+ gold star from me. But The Daily Telegraph, still employing Chief Rock Writer and perpetual misser-of-the-point Neil McCormack? Oh sweet lord that’s embarrassing. You too can be this obsessed with U2. If you have a frontal lobotomy. 

There are also exciting turns going on in the music press. James “Jam” McMahon is leading Kerrang! through a creative renaissance as the fannish focus of rock brilliance. Andrew Harrison has taken over the good ship Q and brought it back to music-obsessed zenith it should dance upon and Mojo has the solid, home running hitting form of Babe Ruth on a good day. That it plays home to my other favourite young music writer, Sonny Baker, is a massive bonus. 

The gunslingers are out there. But like the beginning of a Sergio Leone flick they are all dissipated. Chewing cheroots on deserted platforms. Wandering among the tumbleweed of an industry that has lost a gun fight. But shit, there are still vital things to be said about music and vital people making those points. If you don’t believe that is true, well, you’re just not looking in the right place. 

Cleaning the alligator’s teeth: why I’ll never work for the Mail or Mail on Sunday

I wrote about therapy and depression in my Telegraph Men column. It was hard to write and publish but I was hugely grateful for the kind reception it received. There was a downside too. Like a hobbit wandering out of his hobbit hole to explore the dark new lands beyond Bag End, I drew the attention of less salubrious forces.

The eye of Sauron shifted on its axis and turned to look down at me. It twitched and gawped at the thought of personal pain to feast on and the emails and calls began. “Would you write a piece on depression for us?” “Did you think of suicide?” “What did your mother think?” “Do you have sexual problems?” “Will you get depressed again?” “Do you still dream of doing yourself in?” “Do you want to f*ck your therapist?”

The tabloid press saw my column and they wanted a piece. They didn’t have the courage to publish it in the first place but once the blood was in the water, the sharks began to swim. There’s nothing better than a human interest story and they don’t care much about the human they direct the interest towards.

You’re chum to be thrown to the hungry mouths of the judgmental readership: “Who cares whether you really found things hard? Tell us about your pain and let us monetise it.”

I wrote about therapy because I believe it can be hugely helpful to some people. It’s not a panacea. It may not work for you. You may not find the right therapist or you might just not need one at all. Some people need medication. Some people need exercise. Some people need to change their diet or leave a toxic job or relationship.

The human mind is a thing of almost infinite complexity. I don’t have any answers really. If I did, I would be so rich that the baubles dangled before me by the tabloids wouldn’t have been tempting for even a moment.

The reality is, the money was tempting. They offered me astoundingly good rates to bare my soul in their papers. But I knew what the real price would be: my integrity (current real cash value £4.50) and my good name (current value £85 ono). I would have opened the newspaper to reveal my words forced through the prism of their prejudices.

It would have been an Eric Morecombe and Andre Previn moment: it would be all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. When they get you under their sway, the tabloids ensure that your words support what they believe and their agendas. You’re just a bird cleaning the alligator’s teeth.