The Columbia Journal Review writes about the possibility of unionizing bloggers.
Author Chris Mooney writes ‘Yes, dear reader: the Bloggers Guild of America
may be on its way. The dispute between screen and television writers
and media conglomerates has its roots, after all, in the Web.’

Author Chris Mooney

As a journalist and especially as a blogger, I
sure picked a hell of a time to move to Los Angeles.
No sooner did I settle here late last fall than my fellow writers in the film
and television industries went on strike. I’ve never done their kind of writing
in a professional capacity, but the more I’ve engaged with the issues at the
center of the current dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the
Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the more I’m convinced
that bloggers could soon find themselves making similar complaints against
their own employers.

Yes, dear reader: the Bloggers Guild of America
may be on its way. The dispute between screen and television writers and media
conglomerates has its roots, after all, in the Web. The sweeping changes it has
impelled in the media over the past decade or so have made film and TV writers
feel less in control of the products of their labor. The current strike is the
culmination of that: the writers are fighting for additional compensation when
a product they’ve created for film or TV is distributed in some form over the
Internet. Their current compensation? Nothing.

Bloggers often earn that same salary. There are exceptions, of course, those
fortunate few who have become quasi-celebrities in their own right and found
themselves, and their sites, snatched up by major media companies (which in
some cases are owned by the same large conglomerates that the Hollywood
writers are, as of this writing, striking against). These big media outlets are
making money from the Web traffic that bloggers bring, via the online
advertisements that that traffic helps to sell.

And blog traffic is growing. According to Technorati, which compares blogs
with mainstream media Web sites using “inbound blog sources” (e.g., measuring
how much a site is being linked to by other sites), the biggest media
sites—,—still have more linkage cred than any blog. But the
blogs are catching up: in the fourth quarter of 2006, Boing Boing, a
collaborative blog, had about a fourth as many inbound blog sources as (19,438 to 83,740), and The Huffington Post and Daily Kos had over
an eighth as many (12,703 and 11,093, respectively). Tellingly, both The Huffington
Post and Daily Kos were slightly ahead of The Economist’s site—and
considerably ahead of The New Yorker’s. Even more tellingly, on
Technorati’s list of the hundred most-linked information sources, twenty-two
were blogs.

But blogs aren’t just part of the proverbial marketplace of ideas; they’re
also part of the plain old marketplace—and site viewership, of course,
translates into ad sales. (Profits add up quickly: A single, week-long,
premium-slot ad run on Daily Kos, according to Blogads, sells for $9,000.) As
top-tier blogs, in particular, become increasingly profitable, it will be fair
to ask just how much of their proceeds are going to the writers who,
ultimately, make it all possible.

Which is not to say that the answers—or even the questions—will be easy.
How, for example, do you define and otherwise distinguish “bloggers”
themselves? Bloggers are an (in)famously diverse bunch: grouping them isn’t
just grouping apples and oranges, but apples and oranges and bananas and the
occasional kumquat. There are the Andrew Sullivans, for instance, whose blogs
are acquired by major media outlets (in Sullivan’s case, first Time,
then the Atlantic). They become, essentially,
contract workers—sometimes even staff members. If and when they do, an at least
somewhat recognizable form of journalistic (or freelance journalistic)
economics kicks in. As a freelancer myself, for example—though not at
Sullivan’s level—I’ve negotiated contracts with several blog sites to
contribute regularly and be paid per contribution. The rates for such work can
rival or even exceed online writing for, say, political magazines—and it tends
to be far easier work, given the informality of blog-style writing, its
generally minimal reporting requirements, and its lack of much editorial oversight
(which is, after all, contrary to the spirit of blogging).

But most bloggers aren’t as high-profile as Sullivan or don’t come from a
journalistic background. They’re not being hired, nor are they freelancing in
the traditional sense. They’re political activists or college students or
professors or celebrities, or simply opinionated and informed citizens. In many
cases, they have day jobs (or are retired) and blog for “fun” or out of
devotion to a cause. They don’t expect to be paid well, if at all—or they don’t
know that they should expect it.

These types of bloggers comprise a significant part of the core content base
of economically significant sites like Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and
ScienceBlogs (where I maintain a regular blog). And current standards for their
compensation are hardly uniform. The Huffington Post, for instance, recently
came under fire when cofounder Ken Lerer told USA Today that the
site’s “financial model” did not involve ever paying bloggers. There’s a
similar lack of compensation for writing “diaries” at Daily Kos. ScienceBlogs,
by contrast, pays bloggers invited to join the network based on their traffic.

In short, it’s a Wild West out there for bloggers—even though, without them,
the Internet’s frontier would not have expanded so broadly or so rapidly. And
even though, without them, the Web-derived profits many of these blog sites are
starting to rake in simply wouldn’t exist.

At the same time, though, there’s sense in diversity when it comes to
compensation: not all bloggers should be treated equally with respect to
remuneration. Most bloggers, after all, don’t draw very much traffic; neither
are they part of a blogging conglomerate that is making real money selling
advertisements. Were bloggers to organize, a threshold would have to be
established between blogging “for fun” and blogging in a way that should be
considered “labor”—between amateurs and professionals, if you will.

Such distinctions are hardly unprecedented—the Writers Guild of America,
after all, does not include everyone with a screenplay squirreled away in his
sock drawer. That’s why it’s a guild—you have to be a professional to
be a member and reap the benefits. Something similar could happen for the
blogosphere. As Nancy Lynn Schwartz relates in her history of the writers
guild, The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, initial organizing was undertaken
by an already successful group of writers—the Andrew Sullivans, as it were, of Hollywood
in the 1930s.

It’s possible and even desirable, I think, that the same may eventually
happen for blogging, perhaps under the auspices of the existing National
Writers Union, which recently voted to make organizing bloggers a priority. I
imagine it something like this: the most successful writers take the initiative
to organize, because they’re the ones who will actually be listened to by
employers. Then, they’ll set up a structure that separates the workhorse
bloggers (those who make large collective sites like Daily Kos and The
Huffington Post possible) from the pure “hobbyists.” Whatever these
distinctions may be, they should have nothing to do with whether or not the
blogger in question has another salary from another job. (Not all writers in
the guild work full-time on TV and screen writing, but all are equally protected.)

A bloggers guild could also, of course, work to protect bloggers’
intellectual property and help ensure they’re compensated for it. In 2001, the
Supreme Court heard The New York Times Co. v. Tasini, in which six
freelance writers took on publications that had run their work in print, paying
them for the copyright, and then republished that work in online databases. In
a 7-2 vote, the Court found in favor of the freelancers, ruling that writers
should be compensated for work published online in addition to their print
compensation. It takes only the tiniest of logical leaps to apply this ruling
to the work of bloggers.

The paradigm shifts we’re in the midst of—in media usage and, then, in
standards of intellectual property—demand that we rethink not just what writers
contribute to the media marketplace, but also how they should be compensated
for their contributions. Individual blogs, and Web sites hosting large numbers
of bloggers, are profiting—not just culturally and intellectually, but
economically—from bloggers’ work. Organizing, in that sense, seems not only
inevitable, but necessary; “professional” bloggers need to be compensated for
their work. It’s only fair.

Via Chris Mooney