Workers of the Web, delight

FOR "WORD PEOPLE," THE NEW MEDIA BOOM MEANS A RARE CHANCE TO MAKE A REAL BUCK.


Andrew Leonard
October 31, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Is the Web biz out of whack? Listen to a few "new media" industry
insiders gape at currently prevailing salary numbers: "Wildly inflated,"
"amazing" and just plain "stupid." Astonishment reigns when the Web's
workers examine their own material reality. The numbers just don't seem to
add up.

They're not talking about hotshot programmers buying million-dollar
homes in Silicon Valley, either. No one raises an eyebrow these days when
they hear the latest anecdote about a 24-year-old C++ coder who knows his
way around an Oracle database choosing between $90,000 Chief Technical
Officer executive positions. Programming talent is priceless, now, more
than ever.

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The same is true, on a lesser scale, for graphic design specialists
(who, increasingly, are expected to wield some programming chops
themselves). But the supply of competent design talent has also always been
limited.

Never mind the artists and the geeks -- it's the money being made by the
so-called "word people," as one editor puts it, that has Web industry
observers all hot and bothered. Editors and writers, project managers and
producers -- at one large media company, English majors fresh out of
college are walking into $35,000 to 40,000-a-year jobs, with benefits, while those
with a few years of experience are landing producer or executive producer
positions ranging from $40,000 to $65,000. How can this be? More
importantly, how can it continue?

"When I went into journalism, I remember seeing on a salary survey that
'journalist' was in the bottom quintile, perched between rabbi and social
worker," says David Sims, editor of CMP's Net Insider. "I never expected to
make more than $35,000 -- maybe into the low $40,000s as an editor after
years of grumbling.

"But the Web is the great vindicator for people like geeks and
wordsmiths who, only a decade ago, were thought less important in this
society than stockbrokers and bankers," says Sims. "Reporters with hardly
any experience can make about the same in Web/tech reporting that their
print counterparts only get after many years of drudgery -- in the 35K-45K
range. Add some editorial and project management into that mix and you can
get close to six figures in a very short time."

Not to mention stock options. Actual salary figures for Web workers may
even be artificially low, given the disproportionately high number of
start-up companies that reward employees for their long hours with chunks
of stock. Stock-option gambling doesn't always pay off -- Wired Ventures'
failed public offering springs readily to mind -- but on the whole, the
Web's work force is young and willing to wager.

Welcome to the brave new media world. Sounds great, doesn't it? But
there are plenty of warning signs that should give delighted Web publishing
flunkies pause. First of all -- just what the heck is "new media?" Does it
refer to any kind of publishing or entertainment venture that involves a
computer? Or does it mean merely "interactive," as in a videogame or
CD-ROM? Or is it, as one gathers from talking to people who tend to use the
term, increasingly a synonym for "the Web"?

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Surely, anything that is on the Web is by definition "new media" -- and
therein lies the key. Ultimately, new media, like the Web, implies the
merger of software and news/entertainment content. The Web, like no other
medium before it, permanently blurs the lines that once separated entities
like the news business from, say, the spreadsheet software business.

For "content providers," the new media merger has meant the happy
collision of two very different business models. All of a sudden, editors
and writers are being paid as if they were working in the software business.

For once, content providers find the laws of supply and demand working
for them: It's a sellers market. Breaking into print journalism has always
meant competing with a horde of byline-wannabes who are willing to work for
next to nothing, or, in many cases, nothing at all. On the Web, the
situation is reversed. True, there may be a comparative shortage of
top-notch, high paying positions with any reasonable measure of job
security -- as one former executive from the San Francisco online
publishing scene notes, "No online news service, or magazine, can compete
with a union salary at the San Jose Mercury News." But at the all-important
entry level, opportunity abounds.

A comparison between the content and the coding sides of Web publishing
is instructive. At the dawn of the World Wide Web, much was made of the
fact that any halfway intelligent peon could learn enough HTML in an
afternoon to start coding Web pages. When the Web exploded, their talents
were in sudden, and lucrative, demand. But those happy days didn't last
long. Indeed, even as long ago as 1995, interns at HotWired were paid a
measly $10 an hour to write basic HTML code.

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HotWired's virtual sweatshop reputation aside, today, Web design rates
range anywhere from rock bottom to sky-high -- $100 an hour for quality
"dynamic" HTML content; $200-$300 for custom banner advertisement design.
Compensation is ruthlessly connected to skill set, online and off. Supply
and demand operate normally -- whether one is coding for the Web or for
Microsoft.

The current flush situation for neophyte editors and reporters, however,
is leading some to question whether today's state of affairs makes economic
sense.

"For writers and project managers especially," says one producer pulling
down $50,000 a year working for a major media company's online
publishing adjunct, "the skills required are very much analogous to print
media -- but in print media, writers and project managers would be paid
half as much as they do in new media."

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"Not that I don't like making money. But we can't afford to pay people
what we pay them -- salaries are inflated, and they're fucking with the
bottom lines of most content companies. Why are layoffs starting? Because
our costs are too damn high ... Until we begin to show returns that shame
our print counterparts, I don't see how we can justify paying the salaries
we do. It just makes companies pull the plug faster."

Of course right now, the plug keeps getting pulled, but the bathtub
never drains. In the current go-go climate, layoffs happen, but they don't
hurt. The venture capitalists are undismayed -- the number of people and
machines connected to the Net surges every day. Sooner or later, someone
has to make money, right?

Conventional wisdom says that the best way to get promoted is to get
fired first. As new media headhunter Cheryl Eisen notes, "It's actually
seen as a good thing to have been in a failed startup -- you know what
mistakes not to make again." Her observation appears to be as true for
content providers as it is for programmers or CEOs.

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Can the new media shell game last forever? Or will investors finally pay
attention to the weirdness that they wreak?

One production manager at HotWired laughed grimly at the question.

"Eventually, some bean counter is going to add it all up," said the
manager. "And then we'll all have to go back to work at Starbucks."


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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