Writing is on the wall for the new slaves: Contributors who work for free for website magazines

Despite the latest upbeat job figures, a fifth of 16-24 year-olds remain out of education or work - and some firms are taking advantage

Last year an American website called Journatic, a “hyperlocal content provider”, was revealed to be employing writers in the Philippines to produce seemingly regional news stories with ersatz “American-sounding bylines” at a rate of at least 250 pieces per week for 35 cents a piece. 

At the same time, an online service known as Statsheet was going global. Its raison d’être? Statsheet advances the logic of the new media to its apotheosis; using algorithms to convert numerical data into written articles for over 400 sports sites, Statsheet renders writers permanently redundant.

Welcome to the post-recession world, where social discourse is subordinated absolutely to advertising and paid work is replaced with “experience”. This is the business model that was pioneered by the Huffington Post and described by Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times as “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates”.

At 23, and writing for an online-only magazine, I am a part of this landscape of exploitation, an atavistic “internship” culture that has been able to thrive in large part because of the global financial crisis, but that has been crucially aided in the UK by the Conservative party’s conclusive establishment of Great Britain plc. Among the worst hit by welfare reforms are those between 18 and 25. There are approximately 7.5 million Neets across the EU, nearly 1 million of whom are in the UK, and it is to the young unemployedthat these exploitative media sites appeal most.

Less than six months away from graduation and impending Neet-dom, I am one of those who has relied upon what these sites describe as “opportunity”. They offer   “experience”, which is elevated to an absurd level of sanctity in a world of devalued education and an overflowing labour pool.

In reality, of course, they represent nothing more than an opportunity for the owners to generate enormous levels of wealth via unpaid labour through the exploitation of pathogenic labour practices.

It was with more than a little chagrin, then, that I watched Mehdi Hasan of Huffington Post UK, attack David Cameron for his persecution of the young unemployed on BBC 1’s Question Time recently.

I work for a magazine called Planet Ivy. The magazine has a pool of “more than 500 writers” – the majority of whom work for absolutely nothing. This is in our contracts, which state: “In the event that the Contributor chooses to provide Content to the Company, the Contributor does so of his own volition and without expectation of payment or compensation.” And further on: “The Contributor hereby assigns to the Company all existing and future Intellectual Property Rights.” 

The website is able to successfully generate advertising revenue by targeting the youth market – guaranteeing companies an audience between 18 and 25, Planet Ivy sells ad space to Peroni, American Apparel, Universal Studios and Levi’s, among others, and is hitting a million unique users per month. Indeed, it is set to become the “fastest-growing online-only magazine in the country by the end of the year”. And yet its founder, the jet-setting Vincent Dignan, feels no shame in insisting that “across all boards we have a unique relationship with our writers. They’re highly engaged, and are happy to produce content for us for free”.

But I am not happy to continue participating in the condescending game of part-time service sector cultural capitalism, where I am told that it is a luxury to be able to “choose” when I “want” to work, and when I don’t. I am far from unique. The zero-pay contract may be the jewel in the new-media crown, but almost every industry is exploiting those crippled by the cruel and post-digital economic pattern.

Unemployed graduates are termed “job snobs” by the same party that tripled university fees, and a truly vicious circle is engendered: forced to work for free in return for their jobseeker’s allowance, the unemployed are corralled back and forth, adding value to transnational corporations without the hope of ever securing a job.

Even if you are one of those lucky enough to secure employment there is little guarantee of dignity, sufficient pay, or even work. More than 5.2 million people in the UK are paid less than a living wage, and nearly 75 per cent of 18-21 year olds. A recent survey by Unite suggested 5.5 million Britons, from lecturers to breadmakers, are on zero-hour contracts that often promise less than three hours’ work a week.  The pattern continues worldwide.

What does this say about our society, that the economy can improve and living conditions get worse? I signed away my moral and intellectual rights to Planet Ivy, whose owner will probably float the company and sail away into the sunset, thanking us all for our “voluntary contribution”. 

It is in this light, perhaps, that Russell Brand’s recent call for political transformation gains its traction. When this is published, my work will be taken down from Planet Ivy media, all rights reserved. And I am glad it will be. Please, spread the word, and don’t forget to share.

Robert Hall, an English student at Goldsmiths University, provides content to ‘Planet Ivy’ without expectation of payment or compensation

Right of reply: Reporter incentives

Getting on the employment ladder is harder than ever for young people today – particularly going into journalism, as traditional routes such as local papers have pulled up the drawbridge.

At Planet Ivy, we offer a way for writers to get exposure on our site as well as sending their work to the Huffington Post and Guardian. We make it as flexible as possible to fit around other jobs – we’ve even had a City lawyer write for us – and offer feedback and constructive criticism so that writers improve while they work with us.

We’ve also recently introduced a revenue-share pay model whereby we pay writers based on the pageviews their work generates. This meant that one writer earned £140 for his first article last month.

Barney Guiton, editor, Planet Ivy

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