oD Blog

Words and money

Our Editor-in-Chief responds to Yasmin Nair, who argues that those who write for free are 'scabs'.

Magnus Nome
19 March 2014

I read with interest Yasmin Nair’s Scab academics and others who write for free, which names openDemocracy - along with Huffington Post, Guernica and The Rumpus – as a neoliberal workplace and scab.

The piece was published on Nair’s own blog, so I assume she wasn’t paid for it. Luckily for her she already had the audience and writing skills to reach people.

But let us imagine for a moment that Nair had something important to say, but hadn’t already built an audience for herself through her blog, or maybe she didn’t have the English fluency, time or confidence to self-publish.

Such an alternative version of Yasmin might instead have contacted openDemocracy, an independent not-for-profit (and so very much unlike AOL’s HuffPo) employing skilled editors to work with the content it publishes, and with an established worldwide reputation and audience.

But had she done so, following her logic, she’d be a scab, and by paying that editor a modest living wage to work with her material we’d be neoliberal. In Nair’s world such are the consequences of not being able to either sell at a high price or go it alone.

Not that all of oD’s contributors are in need of much editorial assistance of course, hundreds of established writers choose to come to us, their many reasons include no pressure to dumb down their writing to be commercially more appealing, and a global readership that is both interested and influential.

Perhaps most importantly: by writing for oD, they contribute to a huge body of writing and thinking that will stay free and available to everyone with an internet connection.

While writers need to make a living, the principle that all writing needs to be paid for wouldn’t be a good one for the writing itself; a piece that’s worth money in the marketplace isn’t necessarily worth either reading or writing in the first place, and important writing can’t always find a pay check however hard one looks. It shouldn’t be left alone in a drawer for that reason.

We would lose something immeasurably important by assuming that there can only be a viable exchange through the commodification process.

So the vast majority of openDemocracy’s writers are not paid. Not because we don’t consider their content valuable, nor because we dismiss it as something that should be done as a ”labour of love”. I wish we had the resources to offer pay to all, but take it from someone who has worked to fund the modest core operations of oD over the last couple of years: such sums aren’t easy to come by.

So until we do, our digital commons model means we can’t offer compensation to most contributors. We don’t take ownership of their writing either, rather we publish everything under Creative Commons licensing, making it available for free to all other not-for-profit operations (again quite unlike AOL/HuffPo). If a commercial outfit wants to republish the material we split the fee with the author.

If oD would have to pay all its contributors, that financial burden would kill the organisation. That would lead to exactly zero new paid jobs for writers, but some hard working editors would be out of a job, and we’d have lost a platform that has published about 25.000 articles and sparked numerous debates since 2001 - on issues of human rights, inequality, war, economy, migration, democracy and surveillance amongst countless others.

We have many supporters, some contributing with cash, some with time, others with their writing. Our editors are clever people who could have earned a higher salary elsewhere, but work with oD because they believe in free thinking for the world.

Journalism is in an on-going crisis, and the lack of resources to pay authors and investigators is a serious issue those of us who care about democracy, transparency, debate and fine writing will have to wrangle with for years to come.

But with corporate media giants towering above us all, dumbing down and often paying staff or freelancers lousily while enriching shareholders, it’s a peculiar decision to take aim at openDemocracy. Yasmin Nair isn’t only barking up the wrong tree, she appears to have completely missed the forest.

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