Guy Vs. Guy: Making a Living in the New Economy

Last Updated Nov 11, 2009 10:51 PM EST

Welcome to Guy Vs. Guy! In this recurring feature, Rick and Dave square off on the business and technology issues of the day. This week's topic: The race to the bottom. Is technology making it harder for creative professionals to survive in today's economy? Or is it just a matter of learning to adapt and, well, working harder?

Dave: Last month, Conde Nast Publications shut down Gourmet Magazine, which has been on newsstands since 1941. It's getting a lot harder to be a writer these days -- the magazines that remain typically pay a fraction of what they did just 10 years ago. And writers aren't alone: photographers, videographers, and graphic artists also see their paychecks shrinking. Technology is making it harder for creative professionals to earn a living. Should we be freaking out that tech really is taking away our jobs?

Rick: I'm of two minds about this. As a longtime magazine writer, I am indeed freaked out by the rapid disappearance of so many tech journals. I mean, I cut my teeth writing for the likes of Computer Shopper and PC Magazine, and both are now newsstand memories (though PC Mag lives on as an electronic publication). On the other hand, consider the old saying: When a door closes, a window opens. I've been lucky enough to shift my writing career to the online world, and while the pay might not be quite as good, the jobs are still there. And I think that's the lesson here: creative types need to learn to to adapt, Borg-style.

Dave: No argument there -- adapt or die. Magazines became blogs. Stock photography services morphed into microstock. But there's a disturbing trend: Professionals are being replaced by casual hobbyists. Writers that once commanded a dollar a word are being replaced by folks who will blog for free just for the joy of seeing their name in print. Companies that once paid thousand-dollar-an-hour videographers now go to $50/hour semi-pros who bought camera gear for a tiny fraction of the cost of last decade's pro gear. Technology is eliminating the barrier to entry, and that is killing entire creative professions.

Rick: I agree, but the pendulum swings both ways. Professionals can buy the same affordable gear as semi-pros, and thereby lower their rates to be more competitive. Writers accustomed to spending days on a single magazine piece can churn out half a dozen blog posts per day. (Any blogger who writes for free won't do it for long, because free don't pay the bills.) The work is still out there if you know where to look. That said, there's no question we're now living in a value economy. Creative professionals may have to work longer and harder for less money than before, but the costs of doing business have decreased as well. Anyone "killed" by technology just failed to adapt to it.

Dave: Despite being dropped on your head as a child, you've hit the nail on the head. For many creative professionals, the way to adapt is by adopting the Taco Bell strategy: Profit through volume. In an age when rates for all kinds of creative gigs are shrinking, you have to look for ways to do more. A lot more. Thanks to microstock sites, you now have to make an average of 25 photography sales to equal just one decent sale from 5 years ago. Which means you have to take a lot more photos than you used to. As chronicled in the latest Wired, some videographers now generate dozens of short how-to videos a week for $20 a pop for online video mills like Demand Media. I posit that cheaper gear isn't the problem. Professionals are running up against the hard limitations of the clock to do enough work to maintain their standard of living. There just isn't enough time in the day, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Rick: Whoa, don't let the sky bonk you on the head, Chicken Little. You said at the beginning that tech is taking away our job, but what you really meant is people. The reality is that specialized creativity -- such as photography and videography -- becomes less "special" when more people practice it, and cheap gear has made that possible. By your reasoning, musicians are in jeopardy, too, because more people are learning the guitar. I still say excellence will out; if you're good at what you do and know how to market yourself, you can make it. Of course, luckily for folks like us, most people can't write worth a damn -- and no amount of tech will change that.

Dave: Your logic doesn't hold up. It truly is technology that's lowering the bar. Well, tech, combined with the rise of a new "talent economy." Follow me here: In the past, only skilled writers could get published, because it was expensive to publish a magazine. So publishers only worked with the best talent they could find. Today, publishing a blog is virtually free, so publishers can risk working with less talented folks. Publishers can throw a huge volume of content online, hoping that customers will be happy with a smorgasbord of all-you-can-eat fish heads instead of a modest taste of caviar. And it's win-win, since these writers are often happy to work for a tiny fraction of the old rate.

"Excellence" is clearly not winning out; even old guard print magazines are using microstock photos. Not because those photos are good, but because they are good enough, and they are virtually free compared to the more professional stuff. Don't think I'm focusing on writing and photography because that's what I do for a living. To bring it back to your music example, musicians aren't in trouble because more people are playing guitar. Musicians are in trouble because anyone can publish anything on the Internet, which has eliminated the barrier to entry that once separated the professional from the hobbyist. Which is admittedly great for the hobbyist.

Rick: Wow, you're like the cranky old guy shaking a rake at kids playing on the lawn. "Get outta my yard, ya gul-durn technology!" I can only speak from experience: I've been a technology writer for the better part of 20 years, and buried countless magazines and newspapers along the way. But these days I'm busier than I've ever been, and I'm definitely making a living. Am I incredibly lucky? Absolutely. But what you call a race to the bottom, I call nothing more than a paradigm shift. (Yes, I used the P-word.) Time will tell.

Okay, who won the argument? Voice your own opinions on the comments!