On Curbed, and the Craigslisting of Journalism

October 10, 2013

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality...

Have you heard of Curbed? It’s a great site, or rather collection of sites, that keeps an eye on the minutiae of real estate in 15 US cities and, now, two Canadian ones, in Toronto and Vancouver. It’s fun, and in its purposely scattershot way, ends up being the source for much real estate-related news that makes its way into the mainstream media. You should read it.

And once you do, perhaps you’ll join me in my wonderment, confusion, and, ultimately, desolation. Because, from what I can tell, they pay their staff an average of $12.50 per story.

If you don’t make money from that sort of work, as I do, you may wonder why you should care. I don’t remember the last time I worried about the wage of the guy at Second Cup while he served me my coffee. Except, this is journalism, and though Curbed is generally writing about the more consumer-friendly aspects of real estate (and its sister sites, Eater and Racked, about food and shopping, respectively), its massive expansion—the company produces 55 publications at the moment—means success, and success breeds, invites, demands imitation. Everyone from Gothamist to the Toronto Star is looking for ways to stay afloat. The model the Curbed Network—the umbrella organization co-founded by Harvard MBA and chartered finance analyst Alexis Juneja and the delightfully named former Gawker managing editor Lockhart Steele—is putting forward suggests words are the least of your concerns.

That way great crappiness lies.

I haven’t checked into the rates at each of the city sites, but I did look into writing for them when they proposed bringing Curbed to Toronto back in July. They were looking for someone to be in charge, someone who knew the market, and I figured I’d like writing in their knowing but casual, Gawker-like style. So I talked to the editorial director, and she told me what they were offering: $1,500 a month. That included 5-7 stories a day, complete with pictures. Five to seven stories a day, no matter how short, pretty much takes up your day. This means that $1,500 a month has to be at least the lion’s share, if not the entirety of your income. That’s $18,000 a year. Maybe Alana Charles, who took the Toronto job, and Nicole Soloveoff, who’s heading things up in Vancouver, were able to negotiate this upwards. I hope so. (When reached for comment, Soloveoff would neither confirm nor deny that number. Charles has yet to respond.)

The Internet is, of course, filled with low- and no-paying gigs for aggregation sites, gossip sites, cat fancier sites, crowd-sourced sites. They’re mostly garbage that add very little to anything. People like to write for Huffington Post, and the old The Mark News, to see their names in the pixels, and every once in a while, you get something good. Mostly, though? Garbage.

But Curbed is not a garbage site. It may be frothy, but for people who like this sort of thing, it’s got the goods.

This is not a good sign.

As staffs and payrolls get trimmed from the big papers and every journalistic enterprise—no matter how oblique a relationship they may have with the term—searches for a way to make money, I can understand the flowering of freebies, hobbyists who write in their spare time because they like the idea that someone might read it. But Curbed, precisely because it’s as good as it is, precisely because that takes people who actually know how to write and report, represents something quite dark that may be going on before our eyes. Call it the Cragislisting of journalism.

Craigslist, as you’ll recall, has been blamed for the print media crash, stealing its classified ad income, which used to be sizable. The papers’ administrators—specifically their publishers—are far more to blame for the current downward spiral than Craig Newmark. But Craigslist did do something disturbing. It took something of value—a classified ad—and made it valueless. Craigslist makes money chiefly from charging companies for job ads in certain cities, but most of us know it as the place we can sell stuff for free. It used to be if you wanted to sell your VCR or some puppies, you paid a newspaper, say, $25 for a couple of lines in print. Thousands of people did this every week, and, in doing so, helped fund the paper’s guy in Vietnam or wherever. I believe they call it a value chain.

Anyway, that’s gone now. A classified ad no longer has any value. And that’s what Curbed is doing to writing itself.

They’re not sending people to Afghanistan, I grant you. But the people who used to do what these writers do, the ones who worked for the newspaper real estate sections, would spend time and make living wages writing about this or that house on the market. That writing had value. But Curbed has assigned the writing part of their publication as close to zero value as it’s been able to get: $12.50 an article.

I’m not privy to any other aspect of the Curbed business model, but it’s a fair bet that they don’t spend that little on any other part of their operation.

Writing—the stuff that actually brings us to any text-based publication—needs to be valued in order to survive in anything like a viable form. I could wax poetic about the unbreakable bond between journalism and democracy, about an informed populace being a strong populace, or the importance of all those little bits and pieces of journalism, such as double-sourcing and fact-checking, that ensure the story you tell yourself about the world you live in is one that bears a relationship to the world you actually live in. Those bits and pieces take time to learn, money to fund, and a careerists’ conscientiousness to lock into place. But you knew all that.

If writing goes the way of classified ads—a null point in the value chain, a placeholder to drive whatever the actually meaningful part of the business is—we’re in for a far greater crash than the decimation of the newsrooms. They’ve found a way to make journalism pay; all it takes is to not pay for the journalism part of the equation. Imagine if the airline industry—another business with wafer thin profit margins—decided it could slash pilots’ salaries because, after all, so many people like doing it just for the thrill of it. It might work. You’d have a lot of happy hobbyist flyers and, if they were able to pass those savings along, a lot of happy passengers, too. But watch for a while. See that plane careening into the mountain? And those other two slamming into each other? Considerably fewer people are likely to die in the Curbed scenario, but as far as journalism is concerned, it could be just as devastating.

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Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality).