In the Hunger Games-esque world of online journalism, everyone is looking for ways to cut costs and increase traffic. Unfortunately, industry giant Entertainment Weekly has hit on the most depressing and shameful strategy for doing just that: Exploiting hundreds of aspiring professional writers for a new platform called "The Community," which will rely on a base of "community contributors" — the vast majority of whom will be paid absolutely nothing for their work.
You can ignore Entertainment Weekly's spin about "passion and unique voices." This is a deeply cynical decision that feeds off the dreams of inexperienced writers who are hoping to make a name for themselves in entertainment journalism. According to a story in Digiday, The Community will be made up of bloggers discovered "through social media and J-schools." Let's call that what it really is: Entertainment Weekly taking advantage of young writers who want to launch their careers, but aren't sure where else they can be published.
So what are those writers getting in exchange? They'll be "compensated in the form of prestige," says Digiday, without any apparent irony. (If you can find a landlord that accepts prestige in lieu of a monthly rent payment, let me know.) But the already negligible value of that "prestige" is already dropping. Entertainment Weekly is kicking off the beta version of The Community with "20 or 30 bloggers," but wants as many as 1,000 to begin writing for it in the months to come. How much is all that "prestige" going to be worth when there are 999 other writers vying for space on the landing page?
And how can any magazine possibly maintain a basic standard of quality with so many writers to edit? The answer is the only one that makes sense: it can't. Despite touting the benefits of "access to the brand's editors," Entertainment Weekly concedes in the very next paragraph that the long-term goals for The Community will "require spending on technology to automate the editing process and monitor posts for Federal Trade Commission-mandated disclosures." In Entertainment Weekly's ideal scenario, The Community's articles won't even require editors: they'll generate traffic without a single paid writer or editor ever touching them.
This is a trap — a major brand leveraging its well-known name to get boatloads of free content from writers without the clout to demand more for their work. Of course, Entertainment Weekly will be making plenty of money on the deal — if it wasn't, it wouldn't be doing it — but its contributors haven't been deemed worthy of even the smallest slice of that pie.
The precedent being set here is deeply troubling, and anyone who cares about the future of journalism should be disturbed by it. Entertainment Weekly is published by Time Inc., a subsidiary of Time Warner that also publishes TIME, People, Sports Illustrated, and over a hundred other magazines. If The Community is successful, Time Warner plans to apply the same model to other "sports and lifestyle content." ("Conversations are already happening at People," says Digiday, ominously.)
But make no mistake: Whatever the financial benefit to Entertainment Weekly, this is a lose-lose-lose deal from a creative standpoint. Entertainment Weekly is diluting its own editorial brand to earn a few more clicks. Readers will be pushed toward stories by less experienced writers that haven't had the benefit of a full edit. And inexperienced writers won't get money or the careful attention of an editor who can actually help them advance in their careers.
In this volatile time for journalism, established brands need to do their part to treat their writers with care and respect. So allow me to extend a standing offer: If you're an aspiring writer or critic who's tempted to contribute to the The Community, don't. Send me a pitch instead. I'll be honest: I receive many pitches, and my bar for approving them is high. But if you come to me with a smart, compelling idea for a story, I will work with you to make it a reality — and I will make sure you're compensated for it. You can reach me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.