Sportswriters Working For Free, Version 2.0

The sports world is moving away from hard core journalism and towards a focus on fan participation.

Last week I talked about Sports Illustrated laying off employees while simultaneously purchasing The original content on FanNation consists of fan blogs which are written for free. My take was that paid employees with benefits were being exchanged for volunteer employees without benefits. Lynn Berenbaum of left a number of very good comments about the role of hardcore journalists versus bloggers and this week’s Time Magazine joins us in the discussion.

In an article titled “Getting Rich Off Those Who Work For Free”, Justin Fox points out that software writers work for free too. If you’re using Firefox (what the hell does that name mean?) to view this post or log into Wikipedia to find out what Goran Ivanisevic’s ranking was when he won Wimbledon in 2001 (answer: 125), you’re benefiting from volunteer labor. Wikipedia is written by a consortium of volunteers and Firefox is open source software meaning that it’s also written by volunteers.

According to the Time article, the world of software seems to be humming along just fine with a mixture of paid and unpaid workers. IBM may charge huge money to install the open source operating system Linux on its computers but volunteers can make money as Linux consultants.

As for the internet media world, things are not so clear. Take YouTube for instance. YouTube is the first honest-to-goodness internet television station. It’s as if major networks, cable outlets, and the satellite stations all got together and decided to stream on one site. You could get anything you wanted from the television world just by logging on to YouTube.

Now that YouTube has been bought by Google, a lot of those pirated clips are being taken down but a lot of them will stay because YouTube is making deals with television producers to share the online advertising income from those clips.

What about the volunteers who provide programming for Youtube in the form of user uploaded clips? YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley announced in January at the World Economic Forum that YouTube will start sharing revenues with these users. By the way, World Economic Forum? Jeez, that tells you how big YouTube is in case you’ve been off-planet for the past year or so.

How is the “gift economy” shaping up in the sports world? Sports Illustrated bought FanNation so it could make its site more fancentric. The sports world is moving away from hard core journalism and towards a focus on fan participation. It started with fantasy sports – CNNMoney reports that there are between 15 million and 18 million fantasy sports players in the U.S., fan blogging sites joined in, and now fan sites are being bought for big bucks.

Financially there’s not much difference between writing for a fan site and being an independent blogger. The independent blogger gets all of the ad income on their site but they also have to maintain it. The major benefit of writing for a fan site is exposure. For instance, I get press credentials to tennis tournaments because MVN has such a big readership – around 20 to 30 million hits a month. I’ve also appeared on an online radio show through a connection at my site.

If I get to enough tournaments and make enough connections and write enough engaging work, I’ll get an opportunity to write for a website or publication that actually pays freelancers. Even so, as the media employment world becomes more fractured and steady work becomes harder to find, I’ll be in the same scramble to find work as current journalists are to hold onto work.