So asks Russell Smith in yesterday's Globe and Mail. What begins as a justified rant against the Huffington Post's abusing free talent for corporate profit (to the tune of $315 million) ends in a mystified intergenerational musing on the abuse young, creative writers seem willing to take.
His main complaint: young writers are too eager to publish for free. They are buying into the myth of celebrity: that if the writing gets enough exposure, all its slave labour pays for itself.
(Aside: When does that myth of self-promotion become a convenient trope for content-hungry conglomerates to thieve talent? When does the thieving stop? Only after the fact, as in the case of the Huffington Post, when unpaid writers finally organize and sue?)
The division is generational, says Smith. Older writers—picture the curmudgeonly coots sitting at their typewriters glaring over their glasses at these free-wheeling newbies—aren't impressed by the siren call of celebrity. The old-timers know that writing, good writing, is really quite a bit of work. It takes time and talent, but also calculated discipline and—here's the catch—usually quite a bit of education. The problem with writing is not just to be able to craft a sentence well. The art of it is, of course, a serious business. Serious thought is what deserves not merely reward but compensation. It's expensive to generate and maintain.
Smith laments, "There now exists an entire generation of intelligent people who have grown up without any expectation of compensation for imaginative work." That, combined with the immediate celebrity gratification of blog posting or Twittering, means the endorphin rush of mob acceptance has become payment enough. It also means the impetus for improvement, mentorship, and considered reflection is much diminished.
The internet makes everyone a thinker, with every spare moment in traffic dedicated to a new clever op-ed. But that's not thinking, or at least not the serious kind, and it's probably not great writing. Serious thinkers, like serious writers, are old codgers like Russell Smith that spent their 10,000 hours "chasing down police radio calls on the night shift, or writing a dozen numbing profiles on local hair-salon owners." The journalistic talent that comes from generalism starts with that kind of numbing work; from knowing and studying impossibly arcane details about labour and construction law in a province, municipal codes and bylaws, trade subsidies for border infrastructure and an awful lot more. It's not sexy. It's banal and it's meticulous. It's long-caffeinated editorial fights, with people good enough at what they do that they get paid for it.
Russell Smith admits his conflict of interest in the end. He doesn't care much for young people or their careers, so much as that their youthful talent handed out free on street corners makes them hard competition. Crowd-sourced euphoria and the logic of free aside, it will also probably mean narcissistic young folk won't develop much actual talent and insight either. Free leaves everyone poorer.