Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blogging, Money, and Feminism: Weighing the Costs

Something very interesting happened today. A blog that I have been following regularly for a few years changed into paywall model. Gina at The Feminist Breeder announced her new subscription format today.

The conversation about this decision on her Facebook wall has brought up a lot of questions for me.


First of all, I want to go on record to say that I think Gina has every right to charge for her content and that I wish her nothing but luck in being able to make her skills and passions profitable. I also think that her fees are reasonable ($5/month, $35/year), especially when compared to comparable content like magazines.

That said, I won't be paying for the content. 

This isn't because I don't think it's worth $5 a month, and it isn't even because I can't find $5 a month to spend on reading content. (It is, and I could). However, I currently have well over 100 blogs in my Google Reader feed, many with topics that are closer matches to my own personal interests than The Feminist Breeder's. I absolutely cannot afford to pay $500 a month to read these blogs. 

Judging from her responses to readers about this decision (which have ranged from excited to disappointed to angry), it appears that Gina has several reasons for making this decision. A public legal battle with an anti-homebirth internet persona has brought calls on her sponsors to drop their ads from her pages, a strict WHO code compliance has made it difficult to join bigger ad networks (though, shout out to BlogHer for letting me opt-out of all formula ads in their network!), and a general frustration with the abuse she takes from trolls on the internet have all combined to make this the right decision for her. 

The thing that struck me the most though, was when she said this:
"I understand if people can't/don't want to pay for it, but accusing me of 'denying privilege' because I'm asking for payment for my work is just about the most anti-feminist thing I've ever seen on this page (and BOY, I've seen a lot). Ladies, if I want something you make, I'll pay you for it. If I can't pay you, I won't ask you to make it for me. If you're willing to give it to me for free under certain circumstances, then I'll say THANKS! But at no time will I insult you because you won't work for free. Please, ladies, STOP working for free."
There's not much money in blogging. Well, I take that back. For a very narrow section of blogs, there's money, but there's not much money for most blogs, especially for blogs that serve as a sort of niche market for social issues, like the feminist blogs out there. At the same time, a lot of feminist work is being done online, and it's a great asset to all social justice issues to be able to connect and share ideas online. But when blogs that are doing a lot of that work are including figuring out economic sustainability models into their goals, we have to have a discussion about how we value that work.

I blog as a hobby. It's the one space where I get to wear all of my hats simultaneously, and--for that--it's a reward in and of itself. It makes me a better scholar, teacher, mother--a better person, really--to get my ideas out on the page and get feedback from other people. Sure, I sometimes spend longer than I should researching some silly little blog entry that's going to get a few thousand hits and then vanish into the cyber world, but I know that when I start doing it. I don't ever expect to get rich blogging, and I'm happy when the money I bring in from ads is enough to cover the expenses of paying for hosting fees and maybe a couple bottles of wine over the course of a year (and I don't drink expensive wine).

Am I hurting feminism by "giving it away"? Are bloggers who don't charge for their content devaluing themselves and--by extension--the others who do similar work?

Obviously, I'm biased when I say that I don't think so. I think that blogging has helped me professionally and personally, and I have never seen it as a for-profit endeavor. I don't think that choosing to run community writing workshops for free or helping friends edit their resumes is devaluing my skills, either. We all have to find a balance between the work we do for money and the work we do for love, and when the two intersect, we can rejoice.

That said, I understand that there is a need for people to do this type of writing and work that are paid for it. We need consistent, high-quality, high-traffic sources for these conversations, and that takes time, talent, and resources. That takes money.

I don't know how to resolve the fact that I won't pay for Gina's blog now that it's moved to a subscription service with the understanding that paying people for what they produce is important. If every blog on the internet suddenly went to the same model, I would probably choose two or three blogs and hope that would be enough to fill my desire for knowledge and community.

I'm glad that's not a choice I have to make and that these things are free, but I hope that my joy doesn't cost the people creating those blogs more than it should.

What do you think? What are the economic ethics of blogging? Would you pay for the blogs you read? Do you pay for the blogs you read? How do you find a balance between work you do for pay and work you do for love?

Photo: 401(K) 2013


  1. In general, I think internet stuff should be open source. I think that's part of what makes it great. But I think limiting readership to those who can pay is not the solution. I don't know what is... coalitions or newer/better ad networks or some alternative, but I don't think people should have to pay individual websites for content. I certainly don't think it's anti-feminist to want to be paid for your work, nor do I think it's anti-feminist to feel like shutting down access to important conversations is a bad move. I wouldn't pay a blog for content. I'm trying to think of a scenario when I would do that and very few things come to mind that wouldn't also give me some kind of service in return.

  2. Maybe a different model to make costs much easier to bear - something like 1c automatic payment to the author for every post we read. (I know this couldn't work technically right now, but I can dream.) A model where we pay for what we consume, and can't choose not to. And where those who can't afford, don't pay at all - cross-subsidisation to ensure equity of access.

  3. I like the way Ragen at Dances With Fat does it--she offers memberships for $10/month, and also accepts one-time donations, but her blog itself is free:

  4. That's a great model. It makes me think of how NPR gets funding (and I do contribute to it).

  5. Another model I like is that of Chris Guillebeau: his blog is free, but he charges for e-books that are more in depth than his blog posts:

  6. There is nothing unethical about asking people who read your work to pay you for it in whatever way and at whatever price you ask. This is about the free market. It's far more unethical to refuse to pay or to find a backdoor around payment than to request readers pay for your work.

    I put ads on my blogs, and my readers block them sometimes. They begrudge me the fraction of a cent that having unobtrusive and inoffensive ads on the page brings me because it's just too much trouble for them to allow their eyes to be drawn for a millisecond to that type of content (there are no pop-ups, no moving windows that cover content... just very plain Google ads). The money I get from ads doesn't amount to much - about a dime per post. If I didn't love writing for my own creative expression, I would have stopped a long time ago. I'm not naive enough to ask to be paid for my work. I may have over 1000 RSS subscribers on each of my blogs, but I'm pretty sure that even asking for as little as $5 a year would see that dwindle substantially. When people grow accustomed to getting something for free, the eventually feel that they are entitled to it.

    Someone said that all content should be "open source", but I don't agree. "Open source", incidentally, does not imply "free", but rather that anyone can take anything you post and do what they want with it without credit or payment. This is absurd. At the very least, someone can ask to use a picture or post and link back to the original. Why is this such a problem? Well, because ethics only get talked about on the side of the supplier and not on the side of the consumer who feels entitled to take and take and take and then complain when someone has the audacity to say, "hey, I'd like to get paid for my time, effort, and talent".

    The bottom line is that there is no ethical problem with asking to be paid for your work. Readers can, in such cases, vote with their wallets. If you can't afford it, then you can't have it, just like everything else in this world. If that makes you angry, then it's time to question why you feel entitled to have whatever you want without offering some reciprocal sacrifice.

  7. I agree that there's nothing unethical about asking to be paid for your work. I was questioning whether it's unethical to produce work for free, which then makes it impossible for other people to charge for it because they have so many free alternatives. I ultimately say that it's not because I get other, non-monetary rewards for blogging, but I understand that by producing free content, I am contributing to that system. That's the ethical question I am trying to sort out.

  8. does pretty much this. If a few big blog networks pushed to adopt it, it might get used.

  9. I don't know that ethics are at issue in any of these questions. The problem is the business model. Once you've provided something for free, you've created an entitlement to your work. The catch-22 is that you must provide it for free to get readers to begin with. It's not that it's unethical to change the model and ask for payment, it's just a tough sell. I'm sure Gina will lose a lot of readers - not because she's wrong to ask for payment, but because they've grown accustomed to her free content (as she, and all of us bloggers invited them to do). Hopefully some readers will stick with her. If she continues to be popular, perhaps she'll gain new readers who never read her content for free and see $5 as a minimal fee. If so, then Gina will have created a new model that other bloggers will be grateful for. Perhaps consumers will get used to the idea that popular (high quality) blogs don't stay free forever. In the meantime, I don't think there's anything unethical about producing content for free. Blogging has, from the beginning, been about voice, not money. If we suddenly label free blogs as nothing more than market spoilers, then we begin to silence people. I have still more to say but my comment is getting too long and I'm thinking maybe I should just post about this! :)

  10. I look forward to reading your post on it. Also, I'm so happy you can comment again!

  11. Flattr sounds like a great idea. I would definitely be willing to use it to help support the blogs I read and the videos I watch. However, I don't think I've ever seen a Flattr button on any of the content I consume. Have you? Is it gaining popularity in any particular circles?

  12. Yep. Shakesville does something similar. It's a subscription rather than a membership (for folks who don't know, Ragen's comes with some perks), but there's a subscribe option as well as a one-time donation option.

    I contribute to both -- in alternating fashion, as I am able -- because I regularly read and value the content and conversations (to which I get to contribute) in those spaces.

  13. I also get a lot of non-monetary rewards from blogging. (Which, I mean, I'd better, as my blog generates absolutely zero income for me.) I get the chance to have meaningful connections to and an audience for my writing, as well as the chance to create online conversations and community. My blog also has a small enough readership that, were I to start to ask for monetary compensation (paywall or voluntary subscription), I suspect I'd get to enjoy far fewer of those non-monetary rewards.

  14. I see blogging as a promotional tool. I write books, and expect to be paid for those. I am a firm subscriber to Yog's Law (money flows to the creator) and Scalzi's Rule (F[edit] you, pay me.).
    But blogging? I do that to promote the writing. Like business cards, ebook giveaways and such, I'm not looking to monetize it. I started back in fandom, when selling or charging for anything was taboo.
    I'm not writing magazine quality articles, either. So maybe that's the difference.

  15. See, this is awesome. A nice, calm, non-hostile discussion of an event where the blogger and the commentors discuss the topic at hand without anyone getting called any names. Boy, I don't get to see a lot of that on the Internet anymore.

    The subscription model has been live for a week now and has already been more wildly successful than I ever dreamed possible. First, there was outrage. Then, many started to understand WHY I did it. Then, some of the most vocally "I will never pay for internet content" folks turned around and bought subscriptions because they rethought their knee-jerk reaction. I've made more in subscriptions so far than I did in advertising last year, and I'm no longer at the mercy of sponsors who get spooked by a handful of seriously unstable trolls.

    To answer your question, no, it is absolutely not unethical to work/blog for free. The problem I see is that, because one woman will do something for free, the rest of the world thinks that work is worthless. Yeah, I stay home with my kids and nobody pays me. Does that mean I shouldn't pay someone else who I ask to babysit? No. But some people are OUTRAGED by the cost of childcare, as though it should be free or cheap because it's mostly women's work. It's a viscous double-standard and it's nothing knew under the sun - whether it's blogging or cleaning a house. Some people just get super pissed when a woman wants to carve out a living for herself.

  16. Yeah, I've been following the comments on your Facebook, and I cannot understand the people who feel the need to tell you over and over again how upset they are. I do think that expecting you (or anyone) to work for free is a problem and one that is usually aimed at women's work.

    I'm glad to hear that your subscription model is working out. Maybe it will serve as a model for other bloggers with large readerships to be able to make their work more sustainable.

  17. I disagree when you say that $5 a month to read a blog is comparable to a magazine cost. Thanks to discounts I pay $5-10 for 12 issues a year of a magazine, which is under $1 a month for an entire magazine.
    Also in a magazine we get a range of articles and authors not just one person's writing which, if diligent, is about 30 posts in a month.
    There are also costs with publishing a paper magazine or newsletter that do not exist for digital content. I resent ebook authors, digital newsletter editors and similar charing much higher than it costs for a similar mass marketed paper edition. For example, a $10 new book on Amazon, ebook author wants $30-40 for. They pull the number out of their butts.
    Blogging: I get most hits from google searches. I get 1200-1300 hits a day. I make very little money from my blog for the hours I put in. I just estimated that last year I earned 52 cents an hour from the ad company I work with. I do it as a hobby, started to practice writing because I thought I wanted to write a book, and I blog to share homeschool info but now it is a habit and a place to share a thought or a story each day. My own friends who love me and like my blog don't even read it daily and some never read it, they are too busy, so they'd never pay and would be offended if I asked friends and relatives to pay. I doubt that many people would ever pay to read my blog.
    So much on the internet is free. If my blog is not there to supply your info tidbit, recipe, or whatver, another blog or website will supply that answer free of charge.
    News is free online and many no longer pay for a newspaper subscription.
    Thanks to the internet I have also cut down on my paper magazine subscriptions. I can find info elsewhere free OR I am already too busy reading stuff online and doing stuff online and offline to read many magazines or newspapers.