Blog until you drop

Posted by Hitarth Jani | 10:37 AM | 0 comments »

In the 24/7 web world, some writers don't know when to stop, writes Matt Richtel.

They work long hours, often to the point of exhaustion. Many are paid by the piece - not for garments but blog posts. This is the digital-era sweatshop. You may know it by a different name: home.

A growing workforce of labourers and entrepreneurs, wired to the hilt with computers and smartphones, are toiling in their home-offices. The demands of the around-the-clock internet economy have put them under great physical and emotional stress as they try to provide a constant stream of news and comment.

Of course, the bloggers could choose other work but they profess to love the nonstop action and the opportunity to create a global media outlet without a major up-front investment. At the same time, some are wondering if something has gone very wrong: in recent months, two among their ranks have died suddenly.

In March, 60-year-old Russell Shaw, a prolific US blogger on technology subjects, had a fatal heart attack. In December, another American technology blogger, Marc Orchant, also had a heart attack and died, aged 50. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack the same month.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the strain of producing news and information for the always-on internet.

There is no official recognition of death by blogging and the premature demise of two people does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased and fellow information workers say those deaths have got them thinking about the dangers of their working lives.

Being well paid is no compensation. The pressure even gets to those who work for themselves and are being well-compensated.

"I haven't died yet," says Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, a technology blog. The site has brought in millions of dollars in advertising revenue, but there has been a hefty cost.

Arrington says he has gained 13.5 kilograms in the past three years, developed a severe sleeping disorder and turned his home into an office for him and four employees.

"At some point, I'll have a nervous breakdown and be admitted to the hospital, or something else will happen. This is not sustainable," he says.

It is not known how many people blog for pay but an educated guess would be several thousand and maybe even tens of thousands.

The emergence of this class of information worker has paralleled the development of the online economy. Publishing has expanded to the internet and advertising has followed.

The internet has changed how we work, even at established companies, by allowing people to work from any location at any time. That flexibility has a downside: workers are always a click away from the burdens of the office. For obsessive information workers, that can mean never leaving home.

Blogging can be lucrative but those on the lower rungs of the business can earn as little as $10 a post - in some cases they are paid on a sliding scale that rewards success with more work.

There are growing legions of online chroniclers, reporting on and reflecting about sports, politics, business, celebrities and every other conceivable niche. Some write for fun, but thousands write for publishers, as employees or contractors, or have started their own online media outlets with profit in mind.

One of the most competitive areas is technology and blogs about the subject are in a vicious around-the-clock competition to report company activities, reveal details of new products and expose corporate gaffes.

To the victor go the ego points and, potentially, the advertising. Bloggers for such sites are often paid for each post, though some are paid based on how many people read their material. They build that audience through scoops or volume or both.

Some sites, such as those owned by Gawker Media, pay bloggers retainers and then bonuses for hitting targets, such as if the pages they write are viewed 100,000 times a month. Then the goal is raised, like a sales commission: write more, earn more.

Bloggers at some of the bigger sites say most writers earn about $32,000 a year when they start out, but some can make as much as $75,000. A tireless few bloggers reach six figures and some entrepreneurs in the field have built mini-empires on the web that are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Others who are trying to turn blogging into a career say they can end up with just $1000 a month.

Speed can be essential. If a blogger is beaten by a millisecond, another post on the subject will bring in the audience, the links and the greater share of ad revenue.

"There's no time ever, including when you're sleeping, when you're not worried about missing a story," Arrington says. "Wouldn't it be great if we said no blogger or journalist could write a story between 8pm Pacific time and dawn?

"Then we could all take a break," he says. "But that's never going to happen."

All that competition puts a premium on staying awake. Matt Buchanan, 22, is the right man for the job. He works for Gizmodo, a popular Gawker Media site that publishes news about gadgets, and is paid for each reader. Buchanan lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn, where his bedroom doubles as his office.

He says he sleeps about five hours a night and often does not have time to eat proper meals. He stays fuelled by regularly drinking a protein supplement mixed into coffee.

But make no mistake - Buchanan, a recent graduate of New York University, loves his job. He says he gets paid to write (he will not say how much) while interacting with readers in a global conversation about the latest and greatest products.

"The fact I have a few thousand people a day reading what I write, that's kind of cool," he says. And, yes, it is exhausting. Sometimes, he says, "I just want to lie down."

He has been known to fall asleep at the computer.

"If I don't hear from him, I'll think: Matt's passed out again," says Brian Lam, the editor of Gizmodo. "It's happened four or five times."

Lam, a manager with a substantially larger income, works even harder. He pulls all-nighters at his own home office in San Francisco to keep his site organised and competitive. He says he is well equipped for the torture; he used to be a Thai-style boxer.

"I've got a background of getting punched in the face," he says. "That's why I'm good at this job."

Lam worries that his blogging staff might be burning out and he urges them to take breaks, even vacations. But he says they face tremendous pressure: external, internal and financial. He says the evolution of the "pay-per-click" economy has put the emphasis on reader traffic and financial return, not journalism.

In the case of Shaw, it is not clear what role stress played in his death. Ellen Green, who had been dating him for 13 months, says the pressure, though self-imposed, was severe. She says she and Shaw had been talking a lot about how he could create a healthier lifestyle, particularly after the death of his friend, Orchant. "The blogger community is looking at this and saying: 'Oh no, it happened so fast to two really vital people in the field,"' she says. "[They are wondering,] 'what does that have to do with me?"'

For his part, Shaw did not die at his desk. He died in a hotel in San Jose, California, where he had flown to cover a technology conference. He had just written a last email dispatch to his editor at ZDNet: "Have come down with something. Resting now, posts to resume later today or tomorrow."

The New York Times

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