Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why MPW Turned Down the Washington Post

Five weeks ago, I received an unsolicited offer from the Washington Post. They asked if they could post my picture and biography on their website and link to every new blog post appearing here if I agreed to produce regular original content for them at their request. I turned them down. Why?

Because they wanted me to work for them for nothing.

The Post is organizing a “local blogging network” linking to selected blogs from their website and asking bloggers to submit original content, which would be edited by them. The Post’s rights to that content would be enforceable under a written agreement. That agreement was written as follows:

Dear [Blogger],

This Agreement is intended to cover the republication of [blog] (the "Work"), written by [author] ("You") and originally published at [blog address] ("Your Site"), on WashingtonPost.com (the "Site") by The Washington Post ("The Post") and any original blog posts that you submit.

You and The Post agree to the following terms:

1. You grant to The Post a non-exclusive right to republish the Work (in whole or in part) on the Site in real time simultaneous with Your own publication of the Work, as well as the right to adapt, edit, display, store, and promote the Work in connection with such republication on the Site. The Post may also display or republish the Work or any part of it in forms or on media reasonably related to the Site, such as on mobile devices and in e-mail newsletters.

2. You shall facilitate the establishment of technical means to allow The Post to exercise the rights set forth in Paragraph 1.

3. You represent and warrant that the Work is Your own creation, that you have all necessary rights and permissions to grant the rights set forth in Paragraph 1, and that The Post’s republication and distribution of the Work will not violate any copyright or other right of any third party. You agree to indemnify and hold harmless The Post from any claim related to the Work.

4. As full consideration for the rights granted by You to The Post, The Post shall credit you and provide a link back to Your Site whenever The Post publishes the Work on The Site.

5. The Post's right to republish the Work on the Site in real time simultaneous with Your own publication of the Work shall terminate on 30 days notice by either party, although such termination shall not affect The Post's rights with respect to previously published material from the Work. You and The Post may renew this agreement with written notice prior to the termination date.

Your signature:
Every blogger signing the agreement is expected to participate in a blogger “discussion” initiated by Post editors or other bloggers at least once a week. Each blogger is also expected to stick to a “workflow plan” in which he or she will manage the other bloggers and submit extra material for a week on a rotating basis. In return for this commitment, the bloggers receive… absolutely nothing.

When I was approached for this, I was told that I would be part of a group but the Post repeatedly refused to disclose who would be included in that group. Later, I learned that eight bloggers were solicited. The only other Maryland blogger was Kenny Burns, who averages 0.5 posts a week and was so embarrassed at our revealing his lack of traffic that he banned public access to his visit statistics.

So why did I not go along with this?

First, the Post underestimates the reach of the blogosphere. Let’s take MPW as an example. The Post will not release its Maryland site visits stats, so we have to use Google subscriber counts, which only track a minority of blog traffic, as a proxy. Here is a comparison between MPW and the Post’s Maryland sites.

Google Subscribers, 4/19/10

MPW: 337
Post, Maryland News Articles: 324
Post, Editorials Page (All): 208
Post, Maryland Politics Blog: 68

That’s right, folks, by this measure, MPW’s rag-tag band of volunteers, guests and rogues has slightly more regular online subscribers than the Post’s entire paid staff of Maryland reporters combined. Remind me again why WE should be working for the Post for free?

Not everyone shares the Post’s views on bloggers. Conservative billionaire and Examiner owner Phil Anschutz pays his bloggers, including some in Maryland like Mark Newgent and Michael Swartz. Why does Anschutz believe blogging has value when the supposedly enlightened Graham family does not?

Let’s remember the original purpose of this blog. American University professor David Lublin founded MPW in 2006 to look at Maryland politics from a Montgomery County point of view. I spend dozens of hours a week working on this blog for the joys of causing trouble, trading stories, unearthing new facts and slamming beers with the spies. I suppose someday I may have to run ads to pay for Andres’s diapers, although everyone knows there is no real money in this. But if I am going to be asked to make money for the Grahams, why shouldn’t I get a cut? Do they think I’m so desperate for their approval that I would sign away my work to them for nothing? Furthermore, I don’t believe that a masthead over my name lends anything to my words. Content stands on its own merit in the blogosphere.

Finally, the implications of the Post’s plan to use bloggers as free labor are troublesome for its paid columnists. The Post has several good local columnists like Colbert King, Courtland Malloy and Robert McCartney. If bloggers fill their functions for free, the Post will inevitably phase them out. In the labor movement, we have a term for workers who undercut other workers and threaten their jobs: scabs. As a labor guy for sixteen years, I have no intention of blogoscabbing.

And so this comes down to a choice: an extra couple dozen site visits per day or self-respect. For me, that’s an easy choice to make.