Wendell Pierce, a veteran of David Simon's The Wire, plays trombonist Antoine Batiste on Simon's new HBO series, Treme. Simon has just started blogging. But he won't write for free.
I’m a writer, and while I’m overpaid to write television at present, the truth is that the prose world from which I crawled — newsprint and books — is beset by a new economic model in which the value of content is being reduced in direct proportion to the availability of free stuff on the web. In short, for newspapers and book publishers, it has lately been an e-race to the bottom, and I have no desire to contribute to that new economy by writing for free in any format. Not that what is posted here has much prolonged value — or in the case of previously published prose, hasn’t soured some beyond its expiration — but the principle, in which I genuinely believe, holds: Writers everywhere do this to make a living, and some are doing fine work and barely getting by for their labor. Anything that says content should be free makes it hard for all writers, everywhere. If at any point in the future, this site offers more than a compendium of old prose work and the odd comment or two on recent events — if it grows in purpose or improves in execution — I might try to toss up a small monthly charge in support of one of the 501c3 charities listed in the Worthy Causes section. And yes, I know that doing so will lose a good many readers; but to me, anyway, the principle matters. A free internet is wonderful for democratized, unresearched commentary, and it works well as a library of sorts for content that no longer requires a defense of its copyright. But journalism, literature, film, music — these endeavors need people operating at the highest professional level and they need to make a living wage. Copyright matters. Content costs.
If you've been paying attention to the debate over anti-piracy legislation — SOPA/PIPA — and new legislation that seeks to address Internet security (CISPA), you can see if Simon's statement a familiar entertainment industry line.
It is, unfortunately, not a very good line to be taking. True, it's irritating when opponents of anti-piracy laws make it seems as if preserving copyright will destroy innovative online culture when what they're really trying to do is build a trillion-dollar business on a mountain of freely shared content. But it's equally annoying when Very Successful content purveyors like Simon try to divide content into something that can be thought of as pre- and post-Internet.
The stuff that "costs," in Simon's estimation — "journalism, literature, film, music" — is pre-Internet. The stuff that deserves to be be free — "democratized, unresearched commentary" — is post-Internet. Simon proposes not to be doing much of that. In other words, if he's blogging, making the "odd comment or two," then sure, his efforts can be consumed gratis. But if he convenes with the muse, then readers will have to pony up for his pensées.
The Web is merely his vessel, and it shall be reformed! Okay, he has a reasonable point that quality content should not be driven down in value, simply because there's a great deal of similar content trending toward free online. But he's failing to acknowledge that the pre-Internet content business is being thoroughly disrupted by the post-Internet model, and that what's really causing the disruption is explosive expansion of the delivery system. It's still possible to get paid in this framework. But the challenge for Big Content, Hollywood, and those who have reaped the past financial benefits of a relatively closed system is that the framework wants to pay less. Sometimes a lot less. Sometimes...nothing at all.
That doesn't mean the content is unprofessional or mere commentary, unresearched. A quick review of the econoblogosphere — made up of major academics and serious journalists who capably debate arguably the biggest issue of the moment — will reveal that it's anything but. So on the one hand, it's admirable that Simon is making a stand, and in particular stepping down from the TV-writer pedestal and considering the lesser fortunes of journalists and authors. But on the other hand, he's unfortunately restated an old duality between good content and junk content — one worth a buck or two, the other Web-based and better used as virtual fishwrapper — that doesn't exit, but that certainly serves the interest of a content elite.