The Inflatable Thought Leader

The Inflatable Thought Leader

by Tim Williams

You’ve probably seen the “business person writing about writing about business,” a recursion that only ends because the plug for an e-book has to go somewhere. People, it turns out, will read anything business-related, even blatant ads. But business news sites have become so flooded with editorial junk written by executives that they’ve started hiring journalists to ghostwrite #content that will stand out.

For a while, Amy Westervelt supplemented her freelance reporting income by ghostwriting content under various executives’ names for Forbes, VentureBeat and, among others, sometimes earning a thousand dollars for just a couple of hours work. But she recently gave it up and called on other ghostwriters to do the same, saying she was “tired of making rich white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are.” So, the other day we talked about business bros, the collapse of freelance journalism for some outlets, and the inflatable thought leader business.

How did you start ghostwriting?

I worked with the launch team of a site called The Faster Times like five or six years ago and it was like a lot of —

I know people who worked there! (Including me, briefly!)

It was a lot of refugees from other traditional media outlets needing a paycheck. At a certain point, the managers were like, “Hey, we got contacted about this, we feel it’s a good way for our writers to make a little bit of extra cash, so we’ll be putting out opportunities as we get them.” One of them was for Nissan, for their corporate blog, not bylined. It paid really well, and it was one of those things where I could almost repurpose a lot of stuff that I have done before, do a couple of posts a week and make my rent.

Over time, the gigs that were coming from that network started becoming lower and lower-paid. I got to the point where I was like, “If I’m going to be doing corporate copywriting, I need to be making more than what I would make by doing shitty blog posts for other places.”

So I kind of tapered off a little bit, but then this second wave hit. A lot of companies where I had interviewed executives for stories, either the sources themselves or their marketing person or PR firm would contact me, asking if I, or anyone I knew, would be interested in some copywriting. It almost always started out just by doing stuff for the company’s own blog.

And then in most cases, it seemed to be this shift where all these websites started taking more free content, so all of these PR and marketing people started saying, “Why should we waste it on our own company blog that probably no one reads, when we could be putting it on like or whatever.”

You mentioned in the Medium post you only have about ten really great ideas a year. How did the contributed content take away from your other work?

So, some lady on LinkedIn went OFF about this and how anyone worth hiring should have ten great ideas before lunch or some such. I have a lot of ideas, many of them perfectly good, but the really great ones I want to sink my teeth into? Probably about ten, maybe twelve. One of them was a piece on privacy and location marketing. It’s now been written about a fair amount, but it hadn’t been last year. While I was figuring out who to pitch it to I wound up mentioning it to a CEO I worked with, who wanted to do a story on it. Totally not his fault, but a real danger of doing this sort of work.

Did your clients seem generally pleased with your work?

Yeah. One of the things that I think kept me doing it for so long was frankly, it’s nice. I think the expectations are fairly low, so everything I would turn in, they’d be like, “This is amazing!” It wasn’t like I was having to do revisions for anything. It was really just like, the time it took to interview the CEO and the time for you to write up a post.

Was there a specific point you can recall where you were like, “Nope, I’m done doing this?”

Well, there were two things that happened. One, I got a request from a PR firm to write for a CEO who had a social app thing. Not to trade in stereotypes, but he seemed like your garden-variety tech bro. They wanted me to write up things that were sort of relevant to his business but that would also make him seem really philosophical and artsy. That was just like, oh, I can’t.

Philosophical and artsy?

Yeah, they wanted stuff on transiency and ephemerality; self expression; creativity and what drives it. And then, in the same week, a director of marketing wanted me to pitch a story I had ghostwritten to a publication that I write for and did not understand why there would be any problem with that.

I’ve had a couple of people — I don’t know, I think they kind of saw it as a two-fer: They had a journalist who was writing stuff for them, a freelancer, so that person would also pitch the story. In the course of trying to explain to the marketing director how that would be strange and probably frowned upon and whatever, she was like, “But I don’t understand. I mean, how else would they get content? Who has the time to write all this stuff?”

“Well, writers. Who used to be paid for this.”

Do you feel like Forbes and other places were aware that this was the result of their wide expansion of contributed content, or were they in the dark and didn’t know what policies should be?

I would say they were aware. I mean, I know Forbes had to have been, because first of all, they were accepting a bunch of free content from the CEO of X company, and then they had a lot of high-profile mishaps with it. The National Resources Defense Council threatened Forbes with a lawsuit [for libel].

Plus, you would get regular emails to all of the contributors that were like, “Since a lot of you aren’t trained journalists, we just want to remind you that it’s not OK to copy and paste from other websites.” So even they knew the standards were dropping.

I do think that it’s improved. In the last year or so, I have heard from people that they’ve gotten better about cracking down on posts that are overly self-promotional and things like that. But even then, there was a guy from Forbes who commented on that Medium post saying, “nearly 40 percent of contributors are or were freelance journalists.” I was like, oh, I can’t believe you would say that in public, that’s even worse than what I thought! So, more than 60 percent are not, which is crazy.

And if sixty percent are not bylined as writers, probably a lot of the posts are being ghostwritten.

Right, right. I mean, I don’t think any CEO has the time, nor should they, to write one post a week. That’s lot of extra time, especially for someone who struggles with writing.

Is there a good example of a transparent way to do this?

I think there’s a lot of people who brought up to me that one way to do this transparently would be to have the writer’s name in there too. Or, I would like to see some kind of visual treatment of these things that clearly differentiates contributed content. But no, I haven’t yet seen anyone that I think does a great job.

Do you have friends who are doing this sort of work or still do this work? How did they view the piece?

Yes, I do. Most of them said, “Yes, even though I’m still doing this, I agree with what you’re saying, and I feel like there’s a part of this that’s really fucked up, and if I were making more money, probably I would choose not to do this.” Then, I had a couple of people that got really defensive about it and felt like I was trying to be the ethics police.

Did they have a specific defense of ghostwriting?

Actually, it’s funny, because one of the people who got the most annoyed about it used the “people need to make money” kind of defense, but is someone who does not need the money.

OK. So, you’re not ghostwriting, what are you doing now?

I’m still freelancing for a variety of publications. I co-founded this project on the Beacon platform. It’s a platform that allows writers to charge their readers for subscriptions, and doing so, get access to all the other writers on that platform — but our group is doing kind of a magazine-style experiment. I still do a lot of copy editing and editing and proofreading and copywriting. I’m not saying no to those jobs.

This is a thing that I kind of wish I had said in that post, but it’s not like I have reached this pinnacle of freelancing where I’m making it, so now I’m like, “Screw all these stupid other jobs!” I just feel I don’t want to contribute to this one thing that really makes it easy for publications to not pay writers.

Do you feel with things like Beacon, there’s hope for another way to pay journalists on the internet?

Yeah, I do! I mean, I was part of the staff for this Faster Times experiment, and they had a lot of the same write-ups and accolades Beacon is getting now, six years ago. So initially I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve been there before, and it didn’t work.”

But, I think that the Beacon guys are really experimenting with some different things. And then I think like, Quartz is doing some interesting things, or the Glenn Greenwald project that I can never remember the name of. The fact that a lot of the tech-y business people are getting into the media space makes me think that maybe there’s a chance that we’ll see some new business models.

Those are all the questions I have. Hopefully, they’ll publish this.

Will they pay you?

They will pay me.

That’s exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo via Niel vuolo.

Tim Williams is a community moderator for the New York Times.