Confessions of a Mercenary Writer

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The Internet is boundless, yet we’re trying our best to fill it with words. Successful news, gossip, opinion, culture, and music websites have one thing in common: traffic. Google Analytics is the gold standard and online publishers have caught on. Blog publishing deadlines are shorter and more frequent. (We at Utne Reader are experts at taking our time.) The “stories” are shoddily fact-checked and often poorly edited. Content farms proliferate. But with all the thousands of words flung our way each day, it’s easy to forget that there’s a person behind every hastily-written, superficial article. And that person is probably getting paid peanuts.

Oliver Miller was one of those content mercenaries, that is, until he got fired by AOL Television. He recounted his grueling work experience in the content mill and his disenchantment with a contemporary writer’s life in a recent essay for The Faster Times. Miller’s tell-all is reminiscent–just as unbelievable, just as maddening–of the 2008 award-winning New York Magazinefront-lines account of Gawker Media and its hard-driving mogul Nick Denton by Vanessa Grigordiadis.

Miller worked late into the night, often assigned to write articles about popular television shows like “The Simpsons” and “Law & Order” in 30 minutes or less. The pressure to churn out stories made him push the boundaries of ethical reporting (he and his fellow employees were “actually instructed to lie by our bosses”) and suffer in health (“I had panic attacks; we all did. My fellow writers would fall asleep, and then wake up in cold sweats . . . One night, I awoke out of a dead sleep, and jumped to my computer, and instantly began typing up an article about David Letterman. I kept going for ten minutes, until I realized I had dreamed it all”).

The problem is systemic; a writer’s boycott of AOL or Huffington Post or Gawker, despairs Miller, won’t solve the larger issue at all:

I disliked my job, but I dreaded being fired from it, and with good reason; it’s been five months since my firing now, and I’ve run through my savings, and I still haven’t found another full-time writing gig.

And, as much as I need the money, maybe I shouldn’t. AOL is among the most egregious offenders–but then, this isn’t just an article about AOL. This is an article about a way of life. “The AOL Way” doesn’t simply stand as a pattern for a major corporation; it’s the pattern of the Internet as a whole. The Internet has created more readers than ever before in the history of the world. And yet, perversely, the actual writer is more undervalued than ever before. Every news site that hopes to survive, The Faster Times included, thinks about whether their titles will show up in search engines. In the age of Internet news, Google “keywords” matter . . .Regular old words, not so much.

Source: The Faster Times

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