If We Don’t Pay Writers the Terrorists Win

I click on a headline. Read the set up, get hooked on the characters or the world I’ve been invited into, and then, without warning. It’s over. That’s it. The End. No development of plot. No point. Like a glass of water brought to the lips of a hostage and then yanked away.

Too much of what I read today has become a “so what” experience. Even when I click on a link to a piece in a respected periodical, I quickly discover they are blog posts and are over after a few paragraphs.

“They” will tell you – and by “they,” I mean those who pay writers– that it is the digital times we live in. There are too many places to get content. Too much competition for eyeballs which means lower ad sales, which means no money to pay content providers. (We are no longer called writers.) So pay is low, which means pieces can’t take a lot of time to write or be very long. Reporting is a luxury afforded to a handful of writers for a handful of periodicals that still publish on paper.

photo 2

A dollar/word (the going rate when I first wrote for magazines twenty years ago) is now only for writers with “a following.” (By “following” they mean Twitter. Not people who will, say, show up at a bookstore reading to hear you read your work in person). This is because people with followers can tweet. And, the theory goes, some of the people the writers tweet to will click on a link. It doesn’t even matter, really, if the followers read what they find when they get to the link, though it would be better if they liked it (and by “like,” they mean the act of pushing your thumb, to create a digital thumbs up). Even better, is if followers share it (and by “share” they mean re-post it to one’s “wall”). All of these clicks of the thumb can be used to convince an advertiser to spend money to post an ad on the website you are writing for, so that someone will click on the ad to buy a product, rather than read the short, unreported thing you have written.

That last paragraph is not satire.

In a book proposal these days, you need to include a section on your “metrics.” Which means the aforementioned followers, clicks, and shares. It used to be that writing a book was how you got readers. Now you need to show that you already have an audience of people who read 140 characters of your prose regularly. The assumption being that they will be clamoring to read 50,000+ of your words. This strikes me as a wrong assumption, given that most followers can’t be bothered to read your 140 characters regularly. I assume the reason for the metrics in a book proposal is to arm a publisher’s sales force with figures they can take to the bookstores to convince them to stock your book. And by bookstores I mean Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Though actually I guess I mean just Barnes & Noble because Amazon doesn’t need to stock your book. Amazon can just send a drone to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of your book and deliver it if one of your followers thinks about buying it.

I am worried about the state of writing. Not just because I make my living doing it. It has never been a lucrative job. I have had to write board game questions, books about dowsing, and episode summaries of The Wire to pay for my health insurance over the years. I can make more money producing videos or writing soap operas, and frankly, those jobs are more fun than sitting in front of a blank screen or pad of paper and trying to think something through carefully. What I am worried about is the lack of thought and rigor in the things I read. I am worried for what it will do to our individual and collective brains. I am worried for how it will impact our cities, our nation, the world.

Writing is how I think. Some people speak to think. Some write to think. And all of us read to feed our thoughts. As the state of writing gets reduced to blog posts and clickable headlines, nuance and complexity are lost. Maybe it is the reason our nation has been split into 51/49 party lines. We are becoming black and white (or red and blue, in this case) thinkers. No one has time to consider all of the angles. We “like” links on Facebook and post comments without reading the articles. Why read the article when the click-bait headline tells us all we need to know?

If we stop paying writers to report, to think, to make complicated points, we are at risk of forgetting how to think. We are at risk for losing our ability to see the other side of things. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that this kind of intellectual wasteland is what feeds terrorism.

I wrote a click-bait headline: If We Stop Paying Writers, the Terrorists Win. But I have tried to make the argument to earn it.

I could go on. I could post links to many of the lines in this essay, to point you to studies or articles that back up my assertions. But no one is paying me to write this. And it is cold and we need more oil for the boiler so I must turn my attention to something more lucrative. Like a listicle.

This is not an attack on “they.” It is not their fault. It’s how the business of writing is being allowed to deteriorate. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think the profession of writing needs to be saved. It is a matter of national health and security.

In the meantime, I leave you with this brief blog rant. (Though at 1000 words, it is nearly twice as long as today’s preferred syndicated column length.) And I urge you to read something long and complicated.

Mapping Gowanus: Nevins b/w Union & Sackett

This entry of Mapping Gowanus comes from neighbors and architects Alexandra Burr and Allen Slamic.

This block is home to the former National Packing Box Factory, a large brick building built in 1910 with remnants of the old signage still on the facade. We drew our inspiration from this building and a few distinct elements. There is an amazing series of fire escapes, bridges and a floating corrugated metal box suspended between this building and another in an alley. There is also a series of beautiful yellow doors leading to Cabinet, the arts and culture magazine headquarters. And lastly, lining the permitter of the building are wooden planters filled with well maintained plants. With these components as inspiration we crafted a yellow planter box, made from folded paper like a small little package, placed it on two wooden dowels so it hovers above the ground and filled it with dirt and a small succulent. We then brought it over to the alley and placed it next to the components we found inspiring. We documented this exercise and have turned the photos into a short animation.

Want to share your views on Gowanus?

Tired of no one listening to you opine about the changes going on in the neighborhood? Here’s a chance to be heard.

This weekend, my husband and I met filmmakers Jamie Courville and Chris Reynolds hanging out on the Carroll St. Bridge.  We got to talking and they told us about their documentary Gowanus Current,which is following the changes taking place in the neighborhood.

They are incorporating audio testimonials in the film and are eager for folks to call their hotline and leave their thoughts on Gowanus – anonymously, or not.

Check out their Facebook page for news from the neighborhood and updates on their film.

Here’s a reminder of how fast things are changing: Two Before/After shots they have collected for their project. By my recollection these were taken just a couple of months apart.





Mapping Gowanus: Ninth St. Bridge

This post of Mapping Gowanus was created by Philip Goetz.

Day 1 & 2 – The Sink

I pulled into the Find parking lot next to the bridge and when I got out of the car the first thing I saw was a broken sink and toilet against the bridge wall. Since the gate is close during the night, I have to assume this happened in daylight and it seemed deliberate. Like an art piece. Then, I noticed bugs flying around the thick brown bag and became aware of an incredible stench. My daughter Sasha was with me. We had to run from the smell. I became certain it was a piece of art.

Day 1 & 2

Day 1 & 2

I had taken documentary pictures as a test, and felt compelled that this would be more of a documentary piece. But after stumbling across the “bathroom sink and toilet piece” I decided this had to be an art piece. So I have begun “art-ing up” the photos.

Day 3 – The Rain

These images were shot at dusk on this rainy summer’s eve. I went with more of a “cut-out” approach to stylizing them. Again the interesting image in the series is the one that is un-retouched, with the “Drawbridge” sign. After 3 years and millions of dollars of construction, the barely reopened train station overpass provides this subtle hint that your trip down ninth street might be delayed by the passing of a small boat coming into the canal to measure the toxicity of the Superfund site.


“As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies. Contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. The contamination poses a threat to the nearby residents who use the canal for fishing and recreation.”

Day 3

The oil rainbow floats with the reflection of the cloudy dusky sky. They are married in the slowly drifting current. it makes one thirsty for a soda. The bottom image shows two light structures that float over Hamilton Avenue draw bridge. My neighbor won the commission for these structures he designed. His apartment overlooks them as they change with the season and react to the traffic.

Day 4 – The Big Picture

I took pictures yesterday focusing on the bridge itself. I realized that in general, and especially with the construction that has surrounded it for the past 3 years, that there are very few perspectives where you can actually see the bridge. It hides, or lurks, under the looming subway overpass. The 9th street bridge, is ominous, but almost invisible from any form of daily view. It is the Big Secret.

Day 4

On the walk to the bridge I took a picture of grass in the parking lot, in a large hole created by the Sandy storm. With high tide cresting the barrier of the parking lot, I realized that this little garden is fed by the toxic water of the Gowanus. I walk with my two kids and dog along this path along the Gowanus all the time. I have used the ledge boarding the water to have difficult conversations with the people who work for me. I once was almost provoked to throw one of them into the water, an action that would have served as a double-edge sword for him. I knew this person for years, we were once close friends, and our relationship went sour in that conversation. We no longer speak.

This project at first seemed ominous. Despite my deep relationship (of over 30 years) with the location of the 9th street bridge that includes my home one block West and my office adjacent to the East, at first I couldn’t imagine what to do with it. Then I settled on still photograph, and realized it was difficult to frame. Then as I took the pictures it became easy. Like an intimate friend you finally had time to spend real quality time with.

In the coming months this bridge will likely be trafficked heavily by recent ex convicts, as the new headquarters for the regional federal parole office is being developed on the Gowanus, and the bridge will serve as one of the direct routes from the subway to the office. This situation may serve as the “last conversation” I have with this neighborhood, at least for my office.

In the end, thinking about what the Gowanus really is, outside of the scenic and unique characteristic of a flowing body of water, supporting tug boats, barges and social boating in the midst of a concrete jungle, I came to see it as the piranha it really is. It left me in a state of fear and anxiety. That’s Brooklyn for you I guess.

Philip Goetz August 14, 2014