Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Giving away the milk for free

As I entered adolescence, my mother often repeated, “Why buy the cow if the milk is free?”-- an adage that was supposed to inspire me to keep a teenage boy from taking clumsy advantage of me.

(My mother had other cow-inspired adages, perhaps because we were country people, especially, “Everybody to their own taste said the old woman who kissed the cow,” which was quoted whenever neighbors showed strange taste in clothing, spouses, etc.)

Blogging feels a little like giving away the milk. I’m putting out for free here--I don’t see anyway of making money doing this. That wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, since the slim possibility of being seen outweighs the even lesser possibility of being paid for this stuff, and I don’t know where else to place it anyway.

What bothers me is that paid publications seem to be filling more space with what are essentially blogging posts--letters and submissions on particular topics from anyone anywhere. In the Washington Post, instead of running a columnist on page 3 of their Metro section, they now fill the space with submissions from people recalling strangers’ good deeds or cute moments with children. (Every few days, they fill that space with excerpts from a Post online discussion board.)

I often read and enjoy these letters, since it’s like voices of the sane and sincere freed from the chaos of the Beltway. What bothers me is that none of the letter writers is paid.

The Post Magazine also runs a paid reader-submitted feature called “Editors Query,” asking readers to submit a response to questions they pose, like, “Tell us about a time you made a dining faux pas,” or “Tell us about a time you had to admit your parents were right.” They pay $50 for these gems. That’s a lot less than they paid a writer friend in the early 1990s ($250) to fill essentially the same space in that magazine.

Many of the Post’s feature writers have taken on the chatty, immediate style of blogging, especially in their Sunday Source section. If this is happening in what was traditionally a staid print publication, I shudder to think what will happen elsewhere. How much chattier can People or Us get?

Worse, the Post-owned local Gazette newsweekly has cut its staff columnists due to budget constraints. They seem to be filling the space with more pictures, more ads posing as features (such as stories about local houses for sale). I assume more reader-written submissions are just around the corner.

I like the idea of blogging as an act of democracy—no opinion suppressed, everyone having access to a forum. But blogging culture—the instant and the free--is seeping into traditional print culture and I think all writers and writing will eventually suffer for it.

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