Why I quit blogging and why you should too (if you’re a writer) [UPDATED]
By Jeff Nield
EDITOR’S NOTE: Changes have been made to this post as a result of a request from TreeHugger’s parent company, Discovery Communications, which claims certain disclosures in the original post were in violation of a confidentiality clause contained in an agreement signed by the author.
Until last week, I was a part-time blogger at TreeHugger. I mostly covered sustainable food and agriculture, but was free to post on anything under the “green” umbrella. It’s a fascinating beat and I could write from anywhere. But, after three and a half years of trying I accept that I’m not a blogger, so I quit.
This news will not send ripples through the world of journalism like Kai Nagata’s high-profile resignation from CTV and subsequent “Why I Quit My Job” letter did up here in Canada. Most of my fellow contributors won’t notice my absence until I send them a link to bring them here. That isn’t a gripe, it’s simply a byproduct of a geographically dispersed team and my status as a bit player at the web’s preeminent green property. If I were one of them, I wouldn’t notice my absence either.
TreeHugger (TH) was launched in 2004 by Graham Hill as “the definitive, modern yet green lifestyle filter.” While Hill isn’t yet famous enough to have his own Wikipedia entry, he is smart and savvy enough to have created a website to “help you improve your course, yet still maintain your aesthetic” and, three short years later, sell it to Discovery Communications.
Green lifestyle was, and still is, a burgeoning market with a potentially huge upside. In a post-buyout video interview with Elephant Journal, Hill said a big part of the decision to sell to the media giant was their huge public reach, reputedly 1.5 billion people. If you’re working at “driving green mainstream”, Discovery is undoubtedly a suitable partner. Although, I’m sure the $10 million cheque they gave Hill helped seal the deal.
By the time I published my first post in August, 2008 TH had been a part of Discovery for about a year. By all accounts it still maintained the plucky attitude of a start-up, most of the original staff and writers were still on board and Time Magazine pegged TH as one of the top websites of the year. I was so captivated with the prospect of being a part of this green juggernaut that I turned a blind eye to the downside and enthusiastically jumped on board.
The Pay Stinks
Shortly after this article was first posted, the good people at Discovery asked me to cease being so specific with regard to how much/little I was paid per post and how much that worked out to by the hour, on average, if one were to do the math. So perhaps the best way for me to rephrase this without incurring further phone calls from senior vice presidents of litigation and intellectual property in Maryland is this: If you took the amount that I was paid per blog and divided it by the number of hours each blog took me to produce on average (and please forgive me that I can no longer divulge this important proprietary information), I was making significantly less than minimum wage where I live.
What exactly went into the creation of my TreeHugger posts? It usually started with me racking my brain for a post-worthy topic for a few hours in the morning while I worked on something that would actually help me pay the bills. Around noon I’d hopefully have progressed far enough with the rent-paying gig to give TH my full attention. I could prattle off some analysis on my chosen topic pretty quickly if I happened to be in the zone. (This was rare.)
But then I’d have to do all the necessary tasks that distinguish bloggers from writers. At TH these tasks included:
- Sourcing lead and other photographs,
- Formatting said photographs,
- Importing said photographs,
- Adding links in-line in body of post,
- Inserting tags,
- Formatting subheads,
- Changing post basenames to compensate for a programming quirk, and
- Searching the site for related posts to add to a “for more on this topic” list, and then cutting and pasting titles and linking URLs.
And then, post-publishing there would be:
- Responding to comments,
- Fixing the inevitable typos (hopefully not in the headline),
- Moderating comments,
- Stumbling Upon,
- “Digg”ing, and most importantly,
- Obsessively watching FB “likes”, number of Tweets and page views.
What all of this means is that I was making about the same as what an organic farmer pays him/herself. At least the organic farmers are growing food that they can feed their kids. I cannot feed my kids hyperlinks.
So Why Did I Do It?
I haven’t worked for that kind of pay since I took a gig schlepping boxes on the night shift at a UPS warehouse in Alberta over 20 years ago. I quit that job after a week, so why would I keep blogging away at TH for so long?
Shortly after I started posting I discovered that a friend of mine was also blogging. She was making a measly $12/post for a well-known design group blog. When I began contemplating quitting TH I asked her about her experience and she said, “What was I thinking? Why would I do that? Oh yeah, it was for the cachet.”
Doing it for cachet is probably a more honest answer than my self-justification that I was doing it for exposure. The grand total of gigs that came my way directly from something I posted on TH reveals exactly one (one!).
I would also tell myself that having a regular deadline would help keep me writing during dry spells with more lucrative markets. This may have been true if I actually spent as much time writing as I did sourcing and formatting pictures, cutting and pasting links and half-heartedly attempting to increase my social networking footprint.
To be truthful, along with cachet, my biggest motivation was the big score. There is a high that comes from reading a page view report with big numbers.
A throwaway story I posted a couple of weeks ago topped 6,000 page views in three days. The story was stale by any measure, and I added nothing new to the dialogue, but I knew that TH readers would love it, share it, and the fact that I’d written the 18th most popular post in January would have pretty much zero impact on my well being.
Big page views are a rush, but as any addict can verify, the pipe soon needs refilling to stave off withdrawal. Comments are a more substantial high. It means you’ve touched someone enough that they took the time to tell you what an idiot they think you are or to point out the spelling mistake in your title.
It’s Not Solely About Money
I didn’t quit TH solely because I think organic farmers don’t make enough scratch. I had previously left and come back twice, determined to use the website’s high profile to promote ideas and people in the green world that I felt deserved exposure.
In my experience, most online editors aren’t looking for long-form, award-winning journalism, or anything close to it, really. I once asked a section editor I worked for (I won’t say where) if I could reduce my commitment of three posts per week to two so that I could concentrate on longer pieces. I wasn’t asking this editor for more money, but she politely refused my request, asking me to continue as previously agreed while “focusing on a great angle in the regular blogging style.”
And there’s the rub. Outlets like TH aren’t looking for writers; they’re looking for bloggers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to be both. Everyone at TH can write well enough and a few contributors write as poignantly as anyone I’ve read in any medium. But, aside from the handful of full-timers who I assume are paid a decent salary, I’m not sure how it’s worth anyone’s while.
It’s Not Just TreeHugger
Along with the proliferation of digital media comes new opportunity for writers. But, as new outlets emerge it seems as though appropriate compensation for writers is the last consideration in the business plan. Evidence of this can be found easily; from HuffPo’s well-publicized practice of paying many of their contributors precisely $0, to niche blogs like TH paying—well, actually, I can’t really say what they pay anymore without incurring pseudo-threatening communications from well-paid corporate lawyers—to the daily Craigslist ads looking for volunteer contributors for the latest sure-thing web start-up.
As I can attest, these opportunities can be enticing, especially for new writers looking to get a byline on a high profile website. TH’s story tips email address receives a steady stream of messages from hopeful young and not-so-young writers looking to join the cause. Last week we even received a message from a professor at Southwestern University looking to contribute.
TreeHugger’s ostensible goal, “driving green mainstream,” is a noble one. It’s a goal that I embraced wholeheartedly enough that I kept justifying why I was doing it for next to nothing. It took me too long to realize that writing for cachet and little money was doing myself a disservice.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have come back to TH after the first time I quit, or better yet, I should have written a post or two, collected the byline and cachet, and moved on. Keeping at it for so long hindered my availability to write for paying markets and caused me an inordinate amount of stress. Plus, in the bigger picture, writing for the kind of pay Discovery/TreeHugger would prefer that I not mention to you also does a disservice to my fellow writers by devaluing our collective worth.
I’m glad I quit blogging. Now I can concentrate on writing.
Jeff Nield is an award-winning writer specializing in profiles, food and beverage, agriculture and sustainability pieces. He has written for The Walrus, BC Business, and The Tyee. He triangulates his time between Calgary, Vancouver, and Nelson. He spent 15 years writing proposals, press releases and stakeholder communications for B.C.-based non-profits including the 100 Mile Diet Society, FarmFolkCityFolk, Local Food First and Vancouver Food Policy Organization. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffwnield.