I’m reading this story on how Vice, the news and style outlet that’s all the rage because it keeps expanding in its mission to be the preferred source for Millennials, and thinking I’ve read this before. The stories of how freelance writers and producers are asked to work fornothing, how their dedication is taken advantage of and how there’s a general sort of disdain hearkens back to a decade or so ago when we had the same conversation about the then nascent Huffington Post.
HuffPo then and Vice now are seeking to be new models of media and journalism. HuffPo wanted to do so by aggregating the best of other outlet’s material – often lifting over fifty percent of a story and sometimes “forgetting” to drop in a token link to the original – and supplementing that with essays and op eds by Alec Baldwin and other celebrities. While it’s certainly changed at least some of its less-than-stellar practices when it comes to how it treated writers, it built an empire on freelancers who were paid next to nothing or actually nothing outside of “exposure.”
That was by no means the only offender. And Vice isn’t the only one since then to come under fire for how it’s treating the people who are producing the content that creates pageviews against which native ads or sponsored content are sold against, because banner ads are out. This is a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again since the early 2000s. So the question has to be, when will this become part of the coverage and commentary when the next big thing launches?
Right now much of the attention for these outlets is focused on how they’re *making* money. Are they VC funded? What’s their sponsored content model? How are they monetizing their Facebook audience? Much of that is because everyone in the media world is concerned with revenue models, largely because those of the previous generation are failing left and right as newspapers cut coverage and staff, magazines eliminate print editions or consolidate and so on. With so much failure, everyone is looking for an example of something that works as a potential lifeline to be emulated.
But the media pundits – those who for the last week have been breathlessly analyzing the dumpster fire that is Facebook’s Trending section – need to be just as attuned to asking how those new media news organizations, the ones that want to reach Millennial audiences with Snapchat Stories and Facebook Live video and more – are *spending* their money. What’s their per-story rate for freelancers? How much does it cost to produce one of those Snapchat videos? What’s the overhead on that Tribeca loft space? Are they looking outside New York City, London or San Francisco for talent?
How these companies treat the people who are helping to build the brand is just as important, if not moreso, than how money is being made. And the same standard needs to be applied to new ventures from legacy companies – I’m looking at you, tronc – since big pivots in strategy and tactics are likely accompanied by big pivots in resource allocation. With so many freelancers out there contributing to so many publications, this is an important aspect of the “gig economy.” Media Twitter should be all over that.