"Opinionating" Is Cheap | Media | Chicago Reader

"Opinionating" Is Cheap 

The strange, poignant logic behind Mayhill Fowler's decision to quit blogging for HuffPo.

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In the old days of mainstream media, ambition was easy to spot. Journalists with lots of it wanted columns, wanted to anchor, wanted glamorous beats and glittering prizes. Life is simpler in the new-media era: ambitious reporters want to get paid.

And that's often asking too much. Mayhill Fowler accomplished everything there is to accomplish at Huffington Post—big scoops, Pulitzer nominations, even a display on the wall of Washington's Newseum. But the other day she put in for a salary, and the result is she's no longer at HuffPo.

"A Blogger Scoops Big Media," says her Newseum inscription. "Bloggers became a major force in campaign 2008. Mayhill Fowler, who blogs for the Huffington Post's 'citizen-powered' Off the Bus Web site, broke two stories during the campaign that sent reporters scrambling to catch up. Though critics panned her unconventional methods, her stories rocketed through the mainstream media. She captured Democratic nominee Barack Obama on tape saying that some 'bitter' working-class voters 'cling to guns or religion.' She also taped Bill Clinton crudely insulting a reporter, sparking a backlash against Hillary Clinton's campaign."

After the 2008 elections, Fowler joined HuffPo's legion of 6,000 regular bloggers. But on September 23 she e-mailed editor in chief Arianna Huffington and editor Roy Sekoff. "Just to give you a heads up that I think today was my last post for you," she told them. "Without pay and some editorial support and a reportorial community for belonging, I find it increasingly hard to find anything worthwhile to say."

Sekoff wrote back, "We've always appreciated your contributions to the group blog. . . . In the days since OffTheBus, you obviously have transitioned into one of our top line bloggers. . . . The door is always open."

Fowler answered, "I realize that the Huffington Post does not pay bloggers, but I have reached a point where I need more for my work. I'm not only an opinionator; I have this last year gone out and done actual reportage. I'm no longer going to do that for free. I've paid my dues in the citizen journalism department; I'm a journalist now. So if you can't find a place for me doing some kind of paid reporting, it's goodbye. In the end, you know, it's not so much about the money itself as the dignity it confers."

Fowler laid all of this out on her personal blog, so HuffPo was within its rights to post its snarky response for all to see. "Mayhill Fowler says that she is 'resigning' from the Huffington Post. How do you resign from a job you never had?" it began. For Fowler was merely "one of over 15,000 citizen journalists who took part in our OffTheBus project's coverage of the 2008 race," albeit the one who "scored one of the biggest scoops of the campaign." For which she was rewarded: "HuffPost paid Mayhill's not-insubstantial expenses for the rest of the 2008 campaign." (About $19,000, says Fowler.)

And after the campaign, she was invited "to continue blogging on our site whenever she wanted—which she's done, posting 25 blog posts over the ensuing 22 months (including posting excerpts from her book). In that time, she also pitched us a few ideas for far-flung stories she'd hoped to cover (these included an extended tour in Afghanistan and a cross-country move to Washington, DC). We passed on these pitches—far from an unusual occurrence, as we get dozens of story pitches a day. . . . At the end of the day, Mayhill Fowler asked for a paid position; we chose not to offer her one. Nothing new media or old media about that."

What's unquestionably new media, though, is writing for somebody for three years for nothing but exposure and expenses. Also very new media is the upside-down nature of Fowler's aspirations. Reporters of old dreamed of becoming columnists. Fowler had no expectation of getting a penny from HuffPo for opinionating. But dammit, when Obama, discussing the marginalized working class of Pennsylvania to a roomful of backers at a San Francisco fund-raiser, told them, "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations" and Fowler had her tape recorder going, that rose to the level of honest-to-god reporting! And if HuffPo wants any more of that, it has to pay.

My sympathy for Fowler jumped a few notches when I came across one of the last things she wrote for HuffPo. There's opinionating, and then there's a serious attempt to think something through, and "He Is Not One of Us," posted September 9, made a more thoughtful run at fathoming what she calls the "Muslim meme," or the "'Obama is a Muslim' delusion," than I'd seen anywhere else. If she wasn't paid for that and didn't even think she deserved to be, the times are very strange.

Two years ago, Fowler was a housewife in her early 60s who liked to write. When Off the Bus put out a call for citizen journalists, she answered. "I had no journalism experience or training," she e-mailed me. "Why would anyone pay me? The set-up from the get-go was that we were working for free. And most people came and went, doing only a bit here and there. I was the crazy person who threw herself into the work."

How did you support yourself? I asked her. "At first," she answered, "not being confident that I could do the work, and very unsure of myself, I stuck close to home in California. And fell in with covering the California grassroots at a time when no one in national media was interested, and indeed most journalists thought Hillary would win. By the end of 2007, I was determined to hit the road. I sold my car. I had a few thousand in savings. My husband said he'd pay my expenses in Iowa as a Christmas present. My dad, who has very little, gave me $500. In Texas, I stayed mostly with family. Pennsylvania I put on a credit card."

Today she no longer feels unworthy. She wanted HuffPo to pay her to cover Hillary Clinton and the State Department—"a great under-reported story," she thinks. "Arianna was on some level afraid to try to do better. Or she was uninterested in taking it to a higher level." HuffPo has been hiring some big names lately, like Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent, but Fowler doubts they'll last. "Even putting aside the working culture at Huff Post, here is what is going to make Fineman call it quits," Fowler wrote me. "At Newsweek, for any given issue he did not have to worry about the story on the facing page being ill-informed. The articles that surround yours on the page influence how your work is received."

In 2009 Fowler got another taste of new media reality when she published a book, Notes From a Clueless Journalist, for cell phones and Kindle. "I may have been a bit ahead of the curve," she allows on her blog. She's made less than $1,000 on it, but "at this point, I could care less," she wrote me. "The book is part of the historical record, and people are going to be studying the 2008 election long after you and I are gone."

If long after we're gone anyone cares about the state of journalism in the early 21st century, historians might also be studying her career. "Going down to the Poynter Institute to teach a class on citizen journalism," she e-mailed me. "I'm not quite sure why. CJ is the albatross around my neck."

To poach a fine word from Mayhill Fowler, there's a lot of half-baked opinionating on the 'net. Speed is of the essence; dawdlers who take time to think through what they write discover the conversation moved on before they joined it.

For instance, here I am writing about Joe the Cop, though that party's long been over. It was probably ancient history by the time our Whet Moser brought common sense to bear on Joe last week. My two cents is strictly for the record.

ChicagoNow is the Trib's collective of ill-paid bloggers. Joe the Cop is one of them. On September 18, George Lash, 19, was shot to death by a Chicago cop on a Red Line train. The police version had it that Lash resisted arrest and brandished a gun; but callers who said they'd been at the scene were telling local newsdesks it wasn't so, and Joe decided to opinionate on why such calls should be taken with a grain of salt. In later posts his skepticism deepened to cynicism: "The family cries for 'justice'. Which really means, they call a lawyer and file a lawsuit. . . .The harsh reality is," he wrote, having cited Lash's arrest record, "George Lash will be a better provider for his family as the subject of a civil lawsuit than he was ever going to be in his adult life."

Joe the Cop was delivering exactly what ChicagoNow signed him up to deliver—a cop's sensibility. Editors are expensive and gum up the blogosphere. ChicagoNow does without them, takes its chances, and when necessary runs for cover. What Joe was missing here wasn't any trace of human decency. It was an editor telling him, "I'm not sure this says exactly what you want it to say." Or more bluntly, "This makes you sound like a jerk."

Upon being pointed to Joe the Cop's post, Time Out Chicago editor and prolific tweep Frank Sennett stepped into the breach. He promptly condemned Joe's opinionating as a "hate-filled, racist rant" and "hateful bile." He professed to be astonished that the Tribune didn't immediately banish the "racist blogger" who'd violated "basic standards of decency." "By the end of the day," ChicagoNow blogger Megan Cottrell would note, "Frank Sennett tweeted 100 times that Joe the Cop is a bigoted racist."

Far too slowly for Sennett, two of Joe the Cop's posts came down. Bill Adee, the Tribune Media Group's vice president of digital development, posted a short statement saying why. "We felt they didn't meet our blogger guidelines," said Adee. He left it unclear which guidelines were violated, but here are the big three: "Be transparent. . . . Be trustworthy. Be right. . . .Use good judgment."

Questioning bad judgment is what editors do. Transparency, yes, was flagrantly violated, given that Joe the Cop writes anonymously. But that's with the Tribune's blessing. The Tribune wanted a cop sounding like a cop until the day it didn't, when hotter heads prevailed. Joe the Cop didn't write much for a while after that, but on October 1 he appealed to his readers. "If anyone else has ideas about inoffensive, non-controversial topics I can address in this here blog, please feel free to email them to me."   


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