Thursday, August 27, 2015

The New York Times Magazine: The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t

The New York Times Magazine: The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t

In the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art. Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.

By Steven Johnson | August 19, 2015

On July 11, 2000, in one of the more unlikely moments in the history of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch handed the microphone to Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, to hear his thoughts on art in the age of digital reproduction. Ulrich’s primary concern was a new online service called Napster, which had debuted a little more than a year before. As Ulrich explained in his statement, the band began investigating Napster after unreleased versions of one of their songs began playing on radio stations around the country. They discovered that their entire catalog of music was available there for free.

Ulrich’s trip to Washington coincided with a lawsuit that Metallica had just filed against Napster — a suit that would ultimately play a role in the company’s bankruptcy filing. But in retrospect, we can also see Ulrich’s appearance as an intellectual milestone of sorts, in that he articulated a critique of the Internet-­era creative economy that became increasingly commonplace over time. "We typically employ a record producer, recording engineers, programmers, assistants and, occasionally, other musicians," Ulrich told the Senate committee. "We rent time for months at recording studios, which are owned by small-­business men who have risked their own capital to buy, maintain and constantly upgrade very expensive equipment and facilities. Our record releases are supported by hundreds of record companies’ employees and provide programming for numerous radio and television stations. ... It’s clear, then, that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable. All the jobs I just talked about will be lost, and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear."

The intersection between commerce, technology and culture has long been a place of anxiety and foreboding. Marxist critics in the 1940s denounced the assembly-line approach to filmmaking that Hollywood had pioneered; in the ’60s, we feared the rise of television’s "vast wasteland"; the ’80s demonized the record executives who were making money off violent rap lyrics and "Darling Nikki"; in the ’90s, critics accused bookstore chains and Walmart of undermining the subtle curations of independent bookshops and record stores.

THE NEW MAKING IT: Six creatives in the
Los Angeles area are supporting themselves with
gigs that would have been impossible 15 years ago.
But starting with Ulrich’s testimony, a new complaint has taken center stage, one that flips those older objections on their heads. The problem with the culture industry is no longer its rapacious pursuit of consumer dollars. The problem with the culture industry is that it’s not profitable enough. Thanks to its legal troubles, Napster itself ended up being much less important as a business than as an omen, a preview of coming destructions. Its short, troubled life signaled a fundamental rearrangement in the way we discover, consume and (most importantly) pay for creative work. In the 15 years since, many artists and commentators have come to believe that Ulrich’s promised apocalypse is now upon us — that the digital economy, in which information not only wants to be free but for all practical purposes is free, ultimately means that "the diverse voices of the artists will disappear," because musicians and writers and filmmakers can no longer make a living.

Take a look at your own media consumption, and you can most likely see the logic of the argument. Just calculate for a second how many things you used to pay for that now arrive free of charge: all those Spotify playlists that were once $15 CDs; the countless hours of YouTube videos your kids watch each week; online articles that once required a magazine subscription or a few bucks at the newsstand. And even when you do manage to pull out a credit card, the amounts are shrinking: $9 for an e-book that used to be a $20 hardcover. If the prices of traditional media keep falling, then it seems logical to critics that we will end up in a world in which no one has an economic incentive to follow creative passions. The thrust of this argument is simple and bleak: that the digital economy creates a kind of structural impossibility that art will make money in the future. The world of professional creativity, the critics fear, will soon be swallowed by the profusion of amateurs, or the collapse of prices in an age of infinite and instant reproduction will cheapen art so that no one will be able to quit their day jobs to make it — or both.

The trouble with this argument is that it has been based largely on anecdote, on depressing stories about moderately successful bands that are still sharing an apartment or filmmakers who can’t get their pictures made because they refuse to pander to a teenage sensibility. When we do see hard data about the state of the culture business, it usually tracks broad industry trends or the successes and failures of individual entertainment companies. That data isn’t entirely irrelevant, of course; it’s useful to know whether the music industry is making more or less money than it did before Ulrich delivered his anti-­Napster testimony. But ultimately, those statistics only hint at the most important question. The dystopian scenario, after all, isn’t about the death of the record business or Hollywood; it’s about the death of music or movies. As a society, what we most want to ensure is that the artists can prosper — not the record labels or studios or publishing conglomerates, but the writers, musicians, directors and actors themselves.

Their financial fate turns out to be much harder to measure, but I endeavored to try. Taking 1999 as my starting point — the year both Napster and Google took off — I plumbed as many data sources as I could to answer this one question: How is today’s creative class faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago? The answer isn’t simple, and the data provides ammunition for conflicting points of view. It turns out that Ulrich was incontrovertibly correct on one point: Napster did pose a grave threat to the economic value that consumers placed on recorded music. And yet the creative apocalypse he warned of has failed to arrive. Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved.

The closest data set we have to a bird’s-eye view of the culture industry can be found in the Occupational Employment Statistics, an enormous compendium of data assembled by the Labor Department that provides employment and income estimates. Broken down by general sector and by specific professions, the O.E.S. lets you see both the forest and the trees: You can track employment data for the Farming, Fishing and Forestry Occupations (Group 45-0000), or you can zoom in all the way to the Fallers (Group 45-4021) who are actually cutting down the trees. The O.E.S. data goes back to the 1980s, though some of the category definitions have changed over time. This, and the way the agency collects its data, can make specific year-to-year comparisons less reliable. The best approximation of the creative-class group as a whole is Group 27-0000, or Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations. It’s a broader definition than we’re looking for — I think we can all agree that professional athletes are doing just fine, thank you very much — but it gives us a place to start.

The first thing that jumps out at you, looking at Group 27-0000, is how stable it has been over the past decade and a half. In 1999, the national economy supported 1.5 million jobs in that category; by 2014, the number had grown to nearly 1.8 million. This means the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy, making up 1.2 percent of the job market in 2001 compared with 1.3 percent in 2014. Annual income for Group 27-0000 grew by 40 percent, slightly more than the O.E.S. average of 38 percent. From that macro viewpoint, it hardly seems as though the creative economy is in dust-bowl territory. If anything, the market looks as if it is rewarding creative work, not undermining it, compared with the pre-­Napster era.

The problem with the O.E.S. data is that it doesn’t track self-­employed workers, who are obviously a large part of the world of creative production. For that section of the culture industry, the best data sources are the United States Economic Census, which is conducted every five years, and a firm called Economic Modeling Specialists International, which tracks detailed job numbers for self-­employed people in specific professions. If anything, the numbers from the self-­employed world are even more promising. From 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ "independent artists, writers and performers" (which also includes some athletes) grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation.

What do these data sets have to tell us about musicians in particular? According to the O.E.S., in 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014, more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent, compared with overall job-­market growth during that period of about 6 percent. The number of self-­employed musicians grew at an even faster rate: There were 45 percent more independent musicians in 2014 than in 2001. (Self-­employed writers, by contrast, grew by 20 percent over that period.)

Of course, Baudelaire would have filed his tax forms as self-­employed, too; that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also destitute. Could the surge in musicians be accompanied by a parallel expansion in the number of broke musicians? The income data suggests that this just isn’t true. According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves. Somehow the turbulence of the last 15 years seems to have created an economy in which more people than ever are writing and performing songs for a living.

How can this be? The record industry’s collapse is real and well documented. Even after Napster shut down in 2002, music piracy continued to grow: According to the Recording Industry Association of America, 30 billion songs were illegally downloaded from 2004 to 2009. American consumers paid for only 37 percent of the music they acquired in 2009. Artists report that royalties from streaming services like Spotify or Pandora are a tiny fraction of what they used to see from traditional album sales. The global music industry peaked just before Napster’s debut, during the heyday of CD sales, when it reaped what would amount today to almost $60 billion in revenue. Now the industry worldwide reports roughly $15 billion in revenue from recorded music, a financial Armageddon even if you consider that CDs are much more expensive to produce and distribute than digital tracks. With such a steep decline, how can the average songwriter or musician be doing better in the post-­Napster era? And why does there seem to be more musicians than ever?

Part of the answer is that the decline in recorded-­music revenue has been accompanied by an increase in revenues from live music. In 1999, when Britney Spears ruled the airwaves, the music business took in around $10 billion in live-­music revenue internationally; in 2014, live music generated almost $30 billion in revenue, according to data assembled from multiple sources by the live-music service Songkick. Starting in the early 1980s, average ticket prices for concerts closely followed the rise in overall consumer prices until the mid-1990s, when ticket prices suddenly took off: From 1997 to 2012, average ticket prices rose 150 percent, while consumer prices grew less than 100 percent. It’s elemental economics: As one good — recorded music — becomes ubiquitous, its price plummets, while another good that is by definition scarce (seeing a musician play a live performance) grows in value. Moreover, as file-­sharing and iTunes and Spotify have driven down the price of music, they have also made it far easier to envelop your life with a kind of permanent soundtrack, all of which drives awareness of the musicians and encourages fans to check them out in concert. Recorded music, then, becomes a kind of marketing expense for the main event of live shows.

It’s true that most of that live-­music revenue is captured by superstar acts like Taylor Swift or the Rolling Stones. In 1982, the musical 1-­percenters took in only 26 percent of the total revenues generated by live music; in 2003, they captured 56 percent of the market, with the top 5 percent of musicians capturing almost 90 percent of live revenues. But this winner-­takes-­all trend seems to have preceded the digital revolution; most 1-­percenters achieved their gains in the ’80s and early ’90s, as the concert business matured into a promotional machine oriented around marquee world tours. In the post-­Napster era, there seems to have been a swing back in a more egalitarian direction. According to one source, the top 100 tours of 2000 captured 90 percent of all revenue, while today the top 100 capture only 43 percent.

The growth of live music isn’t great news for the Brian Wilsons of the world, artists who would prefer to cloister themselves in the studio, endlessly tinkering with the recording process in pursuit of a masterpiece. The new economics of the post-­Napster era are certainly skewed toward artists who like to perform in public. But we should remember one other factor here that is often forgotten. The same technological forces that have driven down the price of recorded music have had a similar effect on the cost of making an album in the first place. We easily forget how expensive it was to produce and distribute albums in the pre-­Napster era. In a 2014 keynote speech at an Australian music conference, the indie producer and musician Steve Albini observed: ‘‘When I started playing in bands in the ’70s and ’80s, most bands went through their entire life cycle without so much as a note of their music ever being recorded." Today, musicians can have software that emulates the sound of Abbey Road Studios on their laptops for a few thousand dollars. Distributing music around the world — a process that once required an immense global corporation or complex regional distribution deals — can now be performed by the artist herself while sitting in a Starbucks, simply through the act of uploading a file.

The vast machinery of promoters and shippers and manufacturers and A&R executives that sprouted in the middle of the 20th century, fueled by the profits of those high-­margin vinyl records and CDs, has largely withered away. What remains is a more direct relationship between the musicians and their fans. That new relationship has its own demands: the constant touring and self-­promotion, the Kickstarter campaigns that have raised $153 million dollars to date for music-­related projects, the drudgery that inevitably accompanies a life without handlers. But the economic trends suggest that the benefits are outweighing the costs. More people are choosing to make a career as a musician or a songwriter than they did in the glory days of Tower Records.

Of the big four creative industries (music, television, movies and books), music turns out to be the business that has seen the most conspicuous turmoil: None of the other three has seen anywhere near the cratering of recorded-­music revenues. The O.E.S. numbers show that writers and actors each saw their income increase by about 50 percent, well above the national average. According to the Association of American Publishers, total revenues in the fiction and nonfiction book industry were up 17 percent from 2008 to 2014, following the introduction of the Kindle in late 2007. Global television revenues have been projected to grow by 24 percent from 2012 to 2017. For actors and directors and screenwriters, the explosion of long-form television narratives has created a huge number of job opportunities. (Economic Modeling Specialists International reports that the number of self-­employed actors has grown by 45 percent since 2001.) If you were a television actor looking for work on a multiseason drama or comedy in 2001, there were only a handful of potential employers: the big four networks and HBO and Showtime. Today there are Netflix, Amazon, AMC, Syfy, FX and many others.

What about the economics of quality? Perhaps there are more musicians than ever, and the writers have collectively gotten a raise, but if the market is only rewarding bubble-­gum pop and "50 Shades Of Grey" sequels, there’s a problem. I think we can take it as a given that television is exempt from this concern: Shows like "Game Of Thrones," "Orange Is The New Black," "Breaking Bad" and so on confirm that we are living through a golden age of TV narrative. But are the other forms thriving artistically to the same degree?

Look at Hollywood, and at first blush the picture is deeply depressing. More than half of the highest grossing movies of 2014 were either superhero films or sequels; it’s clearly much harder to make a major-­studio movie today that doesn’t involve vampires, wizards or Marvel characters. This has led a number of commentators and filmmakers to publish eulogies for the classic midbudget picture. ‘‘Back in the 1980s and 1990s,’’ Jason Bailey wrote on Flavorwire, ‘‘it was possible to finance — either independently or via the studio system — midbudget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million) with an adult sensibility. But slowly, quietly, over roughly the decade and a half since the turn of the century, the paradigm shifted.’’ Movies like ‘‘Blue Velvet,’’ ‘‘Do the Right Thing’’ or ‘‘Pulp Fiction’’ that succeeded two or three decades ago, the story goes, would have had a much harder time in the current climate. Steven Soderbergh apparently felt so strongly about the shifting environment that he abandoned theatrical moviemaking altogether last year.

Is Bailey’s criticism really correct? If you make a great midbudget film in 2015, is the marketplace less likely to reward your efforts than it was 15 years ago? And has it become harder to make such a film? Cinematic quality is obviously more difficult to measure than profits or employment levels, but we can attempt an estimate of artistic achievement through the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, which aggregate critics’ reviews for movies. Based on my analysis, using data on box-­office receipts and budgets from IMDB, I looked at films from 1999 and 2013 that met three categories. First, they were original creations or adaptations, not based on existing franchises, and were intended largely for an adult audience; second, they had a budget below $80 million; and third, they were highly praised by the critics, as defined by their Rotten Tomatoes score — in other words, the best of the cinematic midlist. In 1999, the most highly rated films in these categories combined included "Three Kings," "Being John Malkovich." "American Beauty and "Election." The 2013 list included "12 Years a Slave," "Her," "Zero Dark Thirty," "American Hustle" and"‘Nebraska." In adjusted dollars, the class of 1999 brought in roughly $430 million at the box office. But the 2013 group took in about $20 million more. True, individual years can be misleading: All it takes is one monster hit to skew the numbers. But if you look at the blended average over a three-year window, there is still no evidence of decline. The 30 most highly rated midbudget films of 1999 to 2001 took in $1.5 billion at the domestic box office, adjusted for inflation; the class of 2011 to 2013 took in the exact same amount. Then as now, if you make a small or midsize movie that rates on the Top 10 lists of most critics, you’ll average roughly $50 million at the box office.

The critics are right that big Hollywood studios have abandoned the production of artistically challenging films, part of a broader trend since the 1990s of producing fewer films over all. (From 2006 to 2011, the combined output of major Hollywood studios declined by 25 percent.) And yet the total number of pictures released in the United States — nearly 600 in 2011 — remains high. A recent entertainment research report, The Sky Is Rising, notes that most of that growth has come from independent production companies, often financed by wealthy individuals from outside the traditional studio system. "Her," "12 Years a Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" were all funded by major indies, though they usually relied on distribution deals with Hollywood studios. At the same time, of course, some of the slack in adventurous filmmaking has been taken up by the television networks. If Francis Ford Coppola were making his "Godfather" trilogy today, he might well end up at HBO or AMC, with a hundred hours of narrative at his disposal, instead of 10.

How have high-­quality books fared in the digital economy? If you write an exceptional novel or biography today, are you more or less likely to hit the best-­seller list than you might have in the pre-­Kindle age? Here the pessimists might have a case, based on my analysis. Every year, editors at The New York Times Book Review select the 100 notable books of the year. In 2004 and 2005, the years before the first Kindles were released, those books spent a combined 2,781 weeks on The Times’s best-­seller list and the American Booksellers Association’s IndieBound list, which tracks sales in independent bookstores. In 2013 and 2014, the notable books spent 2,531 weeks on the best-­seller lists — a decline of 9 percent. When you look at the two lists separately, the story becomes more complicated still. The critical successes of 2013 and 2014 actually spent 6 percent more weeks on the A.B.A. list, but 30 percent fewer weeks on the broader Times list. The numbers seem to suggest that the market for books may be evolving into two distinct systems. Critically successful works seem to be finding their audience more easily among indie-­bookstore shoppers, even as the mainstream market has been trending toward a winner-­takes-­all sweepstakes.

This would be even more troubling if independent bookstores — traditional champions of the literary novel and thoughtful nonfiction — were on life support. But contrary to all expectations, these stores have been thriving. After hitting a low in 2007, decimated not only by the Internet but also by the rise of big-box chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores have been growing at a steady clip, with their number up 35 percent (from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,227 in 2015); by many reports, 2014 was their most financially successful year in recent memory. Indie bookstores account for only about 10 percent of overall book sales, but they have a vastly disproportionate impact on the sale of the creative midlist books that are so vital to the health of the culture.

How do we explain the evolutionary niche that indie bookstores seem to have found in recent years? It may be as simple as the tactile appeal of books and bookstores themselves. After several years of huge growth, e-book sales have plateaued over the past two years at 25 to 30 percent of the market, telegraphing that a healthy consumer appetite for print remains. To many of us, buying music in physical form is now simply an inconvenience: schlepping those CDs home and burning them and downloading the tracks to our mobile devices. But many of the most ardent Kindle converts — and I count myself among them — still enjoy browsing shelves of physical books, picking them up and sitting back on the couch with them. The trend might also reflect the social dimension of book culture: If you’re looking for literary community, you head out to the weekly reading series at the indie bookstore and buy something while you’re there. (Arguably, it’s the same phenomenon that happened with music, only with a twist. If you’re looking for musical community, you don’t go out on a CD-­buying binge. You go to a show instead.)

All these numbers, of course, only hint at whether our digital economy rewards quality. Or — even better than that milquetoast word "quality" — at whether it rewards experimentation, boundary-­pushing, satire, the real drivers of new creative work. It could be that our smartphone distractions and Kardashian celebrity culture have slowly but steadily lowered our critical standards, the aesthetic version of inflation: The critics might like certain films and books today because they’re surrounded by such a vast wasteland of mediocrity, but if you had released them 15 years ago, they would have paled beside the masterpieces of that era. But if you scan the titles, it is hard to see an obvious decline. A marketplace that rewarded "American Beauty," "The Corrections" or "In the Heart of the Sea" doesn’t seem glaringly more sophisticated than one that rewards "12 Years a Slave," "The Flamethrowers" or "The Sixth Extinction."

If you believe the data, then one question remains. Why have the more pessimistic predictions not come to pass? One incontrovertible reason is that — contrary to the justifiable fears of a decade ago — people will still pay for creative works. The Napsterization of culture turned out to be less of a threat to prices than it initially appeared. Consumers spend less for recorded music, but more for live. Most American households pay for television content, a revenue stream that for all practical purposes didn’t exist 40 years ago. Average movie-­ticket prices continue to rise. For interesting reasons, book piracy hasn’t taken off the way it did with music. And a whole new creative industry — video games — has arisen to become as lucrative as Hollywood. American households in 2013 spent 4.9 percent of their income on entertainment, the exact same percentage they spent in 2000.

At the same time, there are now more ways to buy creative work, thanks to the proliferation of content-­delivery platforms. Practically every device consumers own is tempting them at all hours with new films or songs or shows to purchase. Virtually no one bought anything on their computer just 20 years ago; the idea of using a phone to buy and read a 700-page book about a blind girl in occupied France would have sounded like a joke even 10 years ago. But today, our phones sell us every form of media imaginable; our TVs charge us for video-­on-­demand products; our car stereos urge us to sign up for SiriusXM.

And just as there are more avenues for consumers to pay for creative work, there are more ways to be compensated for making that work. Think of that signature flourish of 2000s-­era television artistry: the exquisitely curated (and usually obscure) song that signals the transition from final shot to the rolling credits. Having a track featured during the credits of  "Girls" or "Breaking Bad" or "True Blood" can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a songwriter. (Before that point, the idea of licensing a popular song for the credits of a television series was almost unheard-­of.) Video-­game budgets pay for actors, composers, writers and song licenses. There are YouTube videos generating ad revenue and Amazon Kindle Singles earning royalties, not to mention those emerging studios (like Netflix and Yahoo) that are spending significant dollars on high-­quality video. Filmmakers alone have raised more than $290 million on Kickstarter for their creations. Musicians are supplementing their income with instrument lessons on YouTube. All of these outlets are potential sources of revenue for the creative class, and all of them are creatures of the post-­Napster era. The Future of Music Coalition recently published a list of all the revenue streams available to musicians today, everything from sheet-­music sales at concerts to vinyl-­album sales. They came up with 46 distinct sources, 13 of which — including YouTube partner revenue and ringtone royalties — were nonexistent 15 years ago, and six of which, including film and television licensing, have greatly expanded in the digital age.

The biggest change of all, perhaps, is the ease with which art can be made and distributed. The cost of consuming culture may have declined, though not as much as we feared. But the cost of producing it has dropped far more drastically. Authors are writing and publishing novels to a global audience without ever requiring the service of a printing press or an international distributor. For indie filmmakers, a helicopter aerial shot that could cost tens of thousands of dollars a few years ago can now be filmed with a GoPro and a drone for under $1,000; some directors are shooting entire HD-­quality films on their iPhones. Apple’s editing software, Final Cut Pro X, costs $299 and has been used to edit Oscar-­winning films. A musician running software from Native Instruments can recreate, with astonishing fidelity, the sound of a Steinway grand piano played in a Vienna concert hall, or hundreds of different guitar-­amplifier sounds, or the Mellotron proto-­synthesizer that the Beatles used on "Strawberry Fields Forever." These sounds could have cost millions to assemble 15 years ago; today, you can have all of them for a few thousand dollars.

From the bird’s-­eye perspective, it may not look as though all that much has changed in terms of the livelihoods of the creative class. On the whole, creators seem to be making slightly more money, while growing in number at a steady but not fast pace. I suspect the profound change lies at the boundaries of professionalism. It has never been easier to start making money from creative work, for your passion to undertake that critical leap from pure hobby to part-time income source. Write a novel or record an album, and you can get it online and available for purchase right away, without persuading an editor or an A&R executive that your work is commercially viable. From the consumer’s perspective, blurring the boundaries has an obvious benefit: It widens the pool of potential talent. But it also has an important social merit. Widening the pool means that more people are earning income by doing what they love.

These new careers — collaborating on an indie-­movie soundtrack with a musician across the Atlantic, uploading a music video to YouTube that you shot yourself on a smartphone — require a kind of entrepreneurial energy that some creators may lack. The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-­mindedly focusing on their craft. There are certainly pockets of the creative world, like those critically acclaimed books dropping off the mainstream best-­seller lists, where the story is discouraging. And even the positive trends shouldn’t be interpreted as a mindless defense of the status quo. Most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills, and so if we have levers to pull that will send more income their way — whether these take the form of government grants, Kickstarter campaigns or higher fees for the music we stream — by all means we should pull those levers.

But just because creative workers deserve to make more money, it doesn’t mean that the economic or technological trends are undermining their livelihoods. If anything, the trends are making creative livelihoods more achievable. Contrary to Lars Ulrich’s fear in 2000, the "diverse voices of the artists" are still with us, and they seem to be multiplying. The song remains the same, and there are more of us singing it for a living.

Steven Johnson is the author of nine books, most recently “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

A version of this article appears in print on August 23, 2015, on page MM30 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: "Creative Accounting".

From: New York Times Magazine

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Radio New Zealand News: Teens reading less, say school librarians

Teens reading less, say school librarians

By John Gerritsen \ July 28, 2015

Some school libraries are reporting big drops in the number of books teens are reading, and they're blaming social media and computer games for the fall.

They said the trend could be harming young people's ability to read long texts, use correct grammar and spelling, and succeed in life.

Teens' reading habits are changing. (Photo: 123rf)
Librarian at Marlborough Girls' College Colleen Shipley said the number of books issued at her school reached a high point of 13,420 in 2011.

But since then, issue numbers have plummeted by a third, or nearly 5000 books, to sit at 8942 last year.

Ms. Shipley said it was partly because the English curriculum covered fewer novels than in the past, but the main culprit was social media.

"Some girls will read off their phones, but they're not reading books.

"They're reading off social media, they're reading fan fiction and if you have a snapshot look at that type of reading that they're doing, it's bad - the grammar's bad, the spelling's bad," she said.

"The big worry is that if they're not reading in print with long passages of reading, they lose the ability to concentrate for that length of time, and that is going to affect them if they want to go on to tertiary education."

Wellington High School librarian Jane Shallcrass said she too had noticed a fall in the number of books teens were reading.

She said research showed those who stopped reading for pleasure did not do as well in life as those who kept reading.

"That's not just in their literacy, but in all their school subjects and then in life after school.

"So whether they go into tertiary education or they don't, the reading habit means they'll be more successful in their job, they'll be more successful in their relationships."

School Library Association president Miriam Tuohy said book issues had been falling at her school, Palmerston North Girls' High School.

She said teens' reading habits had changed, but she was not sure that was a problem.

"I'm not one of those people that thinks it's a terrible, terrible thing that people are reading shorter texts per se.

"As long as these young people are reading something they enjoy, and they're not out of the habit of reading itself - that's where you don't want to end up."

And not all librarians have noticed a decline in book issues.

Dunedin's Kings High School librarian Bridget Schaumann said there had been no drop at her school.

"If anything, our stats have steadily risen over the last five years."

But she said librarians needed to be able to get in front of students in order to promote the books on their shelves and have a good budget, so they could buy what teens want to read.

From: Radio New Zealand News

TES: Rise in number of children reading for pleasure

TES: Rise in Number of Children Reading for Pleasure

By Helen Ward | May 20, 2015

Dystopian teen novels such as the Hunger Games trilogy are likely to be one reason for children being increasingly likely to say they enjoy reading, say literacy experts.

A new survey from the National Literacy Trust reveals that 41 per cent of children aged 8 to 18 said they read daily outside class in 2014, up from 32 per cent in the previous year.

And the proportion of teenagers aged 14 to 16 who say they enjoy reading has jumped from 37 per cent last year to 43 per cent this year – although overall levels of enjoyment remain lower than for younger children.

National Literacy Trust Director Jonathan Douglas said there could be a number of reasons for the rise in the number of older teenagers who enjoy reading. “A new wave of hugely popular fiction such as the Twilight and the Hunger Games series has played its part in engaging readers,” he said. “A series of major campaigns and initiatives including Bookstart, the Summer Reading Challenge, and the Young Readers Programme have combined with the attraction and ease of digital reading.”

While the most popular form of reading for all children was text messages – which are read at least once a month by 73 per cent of pupils, the survey also found that 47 per cent of children read fiction, 31 per cent read newspapers and 60 per cent read websites. Magazines were the only format that had seen a decline in popularity, from 58 per cent picking them up once a month in 2010 to 49 per cent last year.

Those who read each day outside lessons are five times more likely to be above the expected level in the subject for their age group, compared to youngsters who never read outside school.

But the annual study of 32,000 students also shows a continuing gender gap, with boys less likely to enjoy reading than girls, and suggests that many youngsters would still rather watch TV than have their nose in a book.

More than half (55 per cent) of those polled still prefer watching TV to reading, although this is down slightly on the year before, and three in 10 say they cannot find things to read that interest them.

Just over one in four say they only read when they have to and 24 per cent say their parents do not care if they spend any time reading.

Malorie Blackman, children’s laureate, said: “We must continue to work to ensure that all our children develop the reading for pleasure habit to improve their life chances.  To this end we must ensure that each child has access to the literacy tools they require – including school libraries and public libraries – to fulfil their true potential.”

Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, said: “The government should remember that literacy must first and foremost be enjoyed, if we are to engage our most reluctant readers. And remember too that libraries and librarians, both in schools and in our communities, must be a priority.”

From: TES

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Toronto Star: Meet the boy behind mystery ripped-book apology to library

The Toronto Star: Meet the boy behind mystery ripped-book apology to library

By Tara Deschamps | August 19, 2015

Jackson Dowler, 8, met with the media today after days of speculation 
over his identify.  He returned a book last week with a note apologizing 
for a torn page, and the story went viral. (RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR )
Jackson Dowler, 8, is an avid reader who said he’s learned his lesson after he fell asleep with a book and awoke to find a page torn from it.

For the last few evenings, Alison Dowler’s nightly ritual of tucking in 8-year-old Jackson has come with a twist.

Rather than searching for monsters lurking under his bunk as some parents would, Alison started scouring for books.

That’s because Jackson caught plenty of attention earlier this week when a note he wrote to his library branch apologizing for ripping a page from a borrowed Asterix book went viral.

There was no last name on the letter scrawled in blue marker and left in the Toronto Public Library’s Main Street branch on Friday. All it said was, “I am sorry that a page ripped when it fell out of my bunk when I fell asleep reading. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry, Jackson.”

The note and the search for Jackson made headlines in the Star and as far away as the U.S. and Europe, but Jackson was too busy with summer camp to notice. His parents only realized who the world was searching for when a neighbour stopped by last night to ask about the news reports.

A portrait photo of Jackson, the 8-year-old Toronto boy whose heart-felt 
apology for a torn library book went viral. (ALISON DOWLER PHOTO)
“It was kind of crazy, but cool at the same time,” said Alison, who rushed to a computer to search for the story.

Jackson, who had been busy outside playing, said his reaction to the news was, “Oh, my Goddddd!”

He told the Star he concocted the plan to write the letter with his mother’s permission after he “woke up to the page being ripped and she was mad.” (Alison chimed in to say she was “more upset than mad.”)

“Jackson was worried that the other kids wouldn’t be able to read it,” so Alison said she wanted to use the mishap as a chance to teach Jackson and his siblings a lesson.

That lesson, said Jackson, is that “telling the librarian what happened is a good thing, instead of what other people do when they hand it in and don’t say anything.”

“He was honest about his mistake and he owned up to it and that’s important because honesty is the best policy,” branch manager Daniel Colangelo told the Star. “That is the take home message.”

It was a message Jackson wanted to make sure everyone knew, even this Star reporter, who confided in the boy that as a child she accidentally dropped a library book in a toilet and was forced to ’fess up.

He told her that if she had written an apology note, she, too, “might have got famous.”

When Jackson arrived at the library Wednesday afternoon with his mom, grandmother, 2-year-old brother Bobby and 7-year-old sister Charlie in tow, he was shocked to find a throng of reporters and photographers anxiously awaiting his arrival.

Daniel Colangelo, the head of the Main St. branch of Toronto Public 
Libraries, holds up the apology letter by the mysterious "Jackson."  
“You got your 15 minutes of fame early. I’m still waiting for mine,” said a joking member of the library staff who greeted Jackson.

“You’re getting it now because you’re meeting me,” the boy said, teasing with a toothy grin.

In the children’s section, instead of handing Jackson a fine, city librarian Vickery Bowles handed him a gift basket and admitted that she often falls asleep reading, too.

Then she left Jackson to roam the library aisles.

He made a beeline for the Asterix shelf, promising he would return all the pages intact.

As for the letter, library staff said they plan to hang it on the branch’s wall.

From: The Toronto Star Did technology kill the book or give it new life? Did technology kill the book or give it new life?

By Padraig Belton and Matthew Wall | 14 August 2015

The picture book that you can personalise online became a bestseller. 

The book is dead, long live the book.

Digital technology has certainly had a profound effect on the traditional book publishing and retailing industries, but has it also given the book a new lease of life?

At one point it looked as if the rise of e-books at knock-down prices and e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook posed an existential threat to book publishers and sellers.

"Literature found itself at war with the internet," as Jim Hinks, digital editor of Comma Press, succinctly puts it.

But contrary to expectations, the printed book is still surviving alongside its upstart e-book cousin, and technology is helping publishers and retailers reach new audiences and find new ways to tell stories.

Print fights back?

While there can be no denying that printed book sales have taken a massive hit with the rise of digital, there is some evidence that the rate of decline is slowing and that the excitement over e-readers is subsiding.

Kindle sales - peaking at 13.44 million in 2011 - fell back to 9.7 million in 2012 and have plateaued since. Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader has been losing about $70m (£45m) a year and the US bookseller has been trying - and failing - to find a buyer for the division.

In the UK, roughly £1.7bn was spent on print books last year, compared with £393m on e-books, says Nielsen Book Research's Scott Morton. The digital newcomers' share of the market seems to have settled at about 30%.

On the high street, Waterstones saw physical book sales grow 5% over the Christmas period compared with the year before, while Foyles saw sales rise 8.1%.

The era of the printed book, it would seem, is far from over. But a lot depends on the sector you're looking at.

Adult fiction - particularly romantic and erotic - has migrated strongly to the e-book, whereas cookery and religious books still do well in print, as do books with illustrations. All for fairly obvious reasons.

Does format matter?

There are plenty of services out there trying to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital, extending the definition of what a book is.

Lostmyname's books bridge the gap between the physical and the digital

In 2014, a personalised publishing experiment won the largest equity deal ever on the BBC Dragons' Den TV programme.

The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name - a printed book that could be digitally individualised to include the name of the child reading it - went on to be the top-selling children's picture book in Britain and Australia.

Spanish company SeeBook offers e-books as physical cards that can be bought online or in bookshops like other gift cards.

Simply scan the QR code in the card with your smartphone or tablet to download the book.

"Some book stores still see digital as the big monster that's going to eat them, and prefer to put their head into the sand," says SeeBook director Dr Rosa Sala Rose.

SeeBook is trying to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital

London-based tech start-up Bookindy is using technology to encourage people back to struggling local bookshops.

It does this with a Chrome browser plug-in - each time you search Amazon for a book, a window pops up saying how much it would cost at your nearest independent bookseller.

Founder William Cookson, who describes himself as "just an average sort of book reader", says his creation took just three days to code.

It helped that he could tap in to an existing network of 350 independent British bookshops called Hive, which enables retailers to check stock and fulfil orders.

Bookindy aims to being people back to local bookshops by
highlighting that Amazon isn't always cheaper.

Serial revival

Digital is also reviving some centuries-old publishing ideas, says Anna Rafferty, until recently head of Penguin Books Digital.

Just as Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers was published in instalments in 1836, so Serial, a prizewinning US murder story, was podcast last year in 12 episodes, to great acclaim.

"Digital technology and the rise in the digital reading culture has allowed authors and publishers many more new creative opportunities to develop 'the book' further and delight readers," she says.

"It also allows authors to publish directly, to connect intimately with their readers and, crucially, to create new ways of  telling their stories."

The Pigeonhole - launched in October by former Random House employee Anna Jean Hughes and partner Jacob Cockcroft - serialises books and enables readers to share comments and interact with the authors, all via an app. It's like a digital book club.

Anna Rafferty, former head of Penguin Digital, reads a print book to her boys at bedtime

In a similar vein, Manchester-based MacGuffin from Comma Press acts like a Spotify for books - you can hear authors reading their stories out loud. Its analytics reveal what gets read where, and at what point people lose interest.

Readers can append tags to a story - "sci fi", "dystopian", or "feminist", for example - and use these to discover other new fiction, much in the same way someone might browse through a physical bookshop.

Digital distraction

Competition from mobile devices is one reason for Kindle sales levelling off.

"With mobile phones, screens are so much bigger, and the experience not as garish as it used to be," says Mr Hinks.

But although smartphones are convenient - you can buy and download a book in seconds - they can also be very distracting, posing an added challenge to e-book sellers.

Books on electronic devices "compete with games, news, and social media, and so need to be slicker," says Laura Summers, co-founder of BookMachine, a popular publishing networking website.

Rook is providing access to free e-books at selected wi-fi hotspots

To hook people into reading, another start-up, Rook, is offering access to free e-books at wi-fi hotspots, such as London Underground stations, participating coffee shops and retailers.

"By the time they have to leave and go off about their life", says co-founder Curtis Moran, "they'll be so hooked into the book they're going to have to buy it."

He compares his start-up to a traditional bookshop, where you can sit and read for as long as you wish, but have to pay if you want to take the book with you.

So the book isn't dead; technology is simply helping it evolve beyond its physical confines.

Long live the book.

From: The

Monday, August 24, 2015 Librarians explain why they discard books

Librarians explain why they discard books

By Amy Marchiano | July 11, 2015

At what point does a book stop providing value to readers?

Libraries only have so much space and try to provide a constant source of interesting material to the public. Once that value diminishes, libraries take to the process of “weeding,” or discarding books.

“A good librarian is sad when they weed a book. The main reason that libraries weed books is space. You only have so much shelf space,” Claudia Gross, director of the Orwigsburg Area Free Public Library, said Friday.

Gross discarded two books Friday. Both were at least 10 years old and had seen better days. She said the pages were falling out of the books.

“Many, many times books are repaired and put back on the shelf,” she said.

In this case, that was not possible, she said.

“It was read to death,” Gross said about two books, “The Strangler” by William Landay, a hardcover book, and a paperback romance novel by Jude Deveraux.

Before recycling the books, Gross said she tries to let others read them. She donates the books to veterans, The Republican-Herald book sale at the Schuylkill Mall and nursing homes in the area. She said the library has a lot of fiction books, so they could get weeded more.

“People do judge a book by its cover,” she said, although what is inside is what is also important.

Keeping up-to-date books for readers is essential.

“There should be fresh materials,” Gross said.

Lynette Moyer, director of the Schuylkill Haven Free Public Library, said the library determines which books to remove based on condition and non-usage.

“The books in bad condition are put in the recycling bin and the books that haven’t been checked out for years are put on the sale carts in the foyer (after being deleted from our circulation system). If the condition is border-line, we also have a “free book” box,” Moyer wrote in an email.

The Pottsville Free Public Library also cleans its house of books. The library posted a blog July 2 on its Facebook page in an effort to inform people why they discard books. The post included how they determined which books to weed and the efforts taken at the library to make sure its collection remains interesting.

“Libraries call the process weeding. Just as you remove the weeds from your garden so there is space for the plants you want, libraries remove the ‘weeds’ from their book collections so there is space for the books their patrons want to read. No library has an infinite amount of space. If we purchase new books, we have to have someplace to put them,” the blog post, written by Becki White, head reference librarian, said. “ ... Books that are in really bad condition are obviously candidates. If a book looks so ‘icky’ you don’t want to touch it, or if the book is physically falling apart, who’s going to want to read that.”

The post says the library discards books that are out of date or not often read. To replace weeded books, the library does what it can to select new reads that are interesting to patrons. It does so by reading reviews of books and positive reviews of other materials to add to the collection.

“No one wants to go into a library and see old books. That’s not a library. That’s a storage facility,” White wrote.


The Atlantic: The Covert World of People Trying to Edit Wikipedia—for Pay

The Atlantic: The Covert World of People Trying to Edit Wikipedia—for Pay

Can the site’s dwindling ranks of volunteer editors protect its articles from the influence of money?

By Joe Pinsker | August 11, 2015

On January 11, 2013, James Heilman, an emergency-room physician and one of Wikipedia’s most prolific medical editors, was standing watch over the online encyclopedia’s entry for a back procedure called a kyphoplasty. The page originally suggested that the procedure’s effectiveness was “controversial,” and an unidentified Wikipedia user had proposed changing the text to “well documented and studied”—a characterization that Heilman thought wasn’t supported by existing research. He rejected the change.

Kyphoplasty, along with vertebroplasty, the procedure it shares a Wikipedia page with, is a common treatment when someone’s spine breaks—a frequent occurrence in people with osteoporosis, which makes bones brittle—and then doesn’t heal naturally. The procedure is meant to reduce the pain of a fracture, even though it sounds unpleasant: It consists of inflating a tiny plastic balloon near the fracture, removing the balloon, and then injecting a toothpaste-like plastic cement into the resulting crevice and letting it harden.

The procedure grew popular in the ‘90s, despite the fact that its effectiveness wasn’t backed up by definitively convincing research. By the time two studies published in 2009 found that vertebroplasty—and, by extension, kyphoplasty, which is similar but has not been tested in controlled experiments—was no more effective than a placebo treatment, at least 100,000 of the two procedures were being performed every year. (It’s hard to say an exact number, as the procedures are not recorded in any national database.) In 2011, Medicare paid out around $1 billion for vertebroplasties and kyphoplasties, and the number of the procedures performed each year is not estimated to have decreased significantly since then.

Some are concerned about the money being spent on a procedure that’s controversial and sometimes risky. “To my mind, [kyphoplasty] is an unproven modality and based upon current evidence would have to say it works as well as vertebroplasty, which is to say likely to work as well as a placebo,” says Rachelle Buchbinder, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Australia’s Monash University, as well as a co-author of a recent vertebroplasty review published by the Cochrane Collaboration, a network of independent researchers. She notes that in Australia, where she lives, public funding for the procedures was withdrawn after the two 2009 studies were published. “From my perspective there is no longer any dispute,” she says.

There are experts who disagree. Sean Tutton is a professor of radiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and spoke to me on behalf of the Society of Interventional Radiology, which put out a position paper with other medical societies that called vertebroplasties safe and effective under the right circumstances. “If my mother had a vertebral-compression fracture and after several weeks of conservative management with bed rest, plus or minus bracing, and appropriate pain management, if she still was having ongoing pain and disability, I would treat her,” he says. “I wouldn't even think twice.”

As James Heilman thought more about the attempted edit to the page for vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty, he grew curious about who might be trying to write over the controversy of the procedures, so he Googled the would-be editor’s Wikipedia username. Sifting through the results, he saw that a man named Kim Schelble had an email address that contained the same nickname. Schelble, Heilman found, was employed by Medtronic, a company that sells medical devices used for, among other things, kyphoplasties.

There is little evidence to suggest that kyphoplasties are any better than vertebroplasties, but to a medical-device manufacturer, there’s an important distinction: A kyphoplasty kit sells for thousands of dollars more than a vertebroplasty kit, which generally costs a few hundred dollars. Medtronic doesn’t supply the latter, but it spent nearly $4 billion in 2007 to purchase a company that makes some of the products included in a kyphoplasty kit.

“Their concern is that those at Medicare might read the Wikipedia article,” Heilman says. “If I go to Google, and I put in ‘percutaneous vertebroplasty,’ the first page that comes up is Wikipedia.” Is it really a concern that some high-level decision maker at Medicare or a hospital system might be making billion-dollar decisions based on information from Wikipedia? “Yes,” Heilman insisted. “Definitely.” Indeed, Schelble at one point complained in an email to Heilman, “This site and the content on here is scaring prospective patients and insurance companies are not wanting to cover these procedures.”

(Schelble, who no longer works for Medtronic, didn’t respond to multiple requests to comment for this article, and Medtronic would not comment on the actions of a specific employee. However, communications between Heilman and Schelble did later confirm that it was Schelble who tried to make the edit.)

Schelble’s concern that a Wikipedia article was hurting his company’s business is a common one—the site has enormous reach, and the information it contains makes its way to nearly everyone, from consumers to policymakers to people Googling innocuous questions on their phones. Even minor changes in wording have the potential to influence public perception and, naturally, how millions of dollars are spent. What this means for marketers is that Wikipedia is yet another place to establish an online presence. But what this means for Wikipedia is much more complicated: How can a site run by volunteers inoculate itself against well-funded PR efforts? And how can those volunteers distinguish between information that’s trustworthy and information that’s suspect?

Soon, Heilman found himself rejecting other changes to the page for vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty. After the word “controversial,” a user who Heilman says was most likely Schelble, tried to add “among some but not among the actual physicians who perform these procedures.” The site’s Talk page for the procedures, where proposed edits are discussed, took on a bitter tone. “[Heilman] clearly cares more for his cyber reputation than producing reputable content … Patients who find their way to this page will not be shown the best and current findings on the topic,” wrote the user Clay1500. That handle belongs to Clay Schwabe, another Medtronic employee. “After...seeing how grossly selective Mr. Heilman was being in what data he chose to editorialize on the page, I did write that post,” Schwabe told me, but he insists that he did not contribute to the Talk page in his capacity as a Medtronic employee.

Shortly after these proposed edits and comments came in, Heilman received an email from Douglas Beall, a radiologist in Oklahoma, encouraging him to reconsider the importance the Wikipedia page placed on those two 2009 studies. This might have seemed like a good-spirited scientific discussion between two M.D.s if it weren’t for two things.

One was that Beall has been consulting for Medtronic since 2005 (among several other companies), and disclosures indicate that he has received $150,000 or more from the company between 2012 and 2014. The other thing was that Beall had cc’d about 30 others, a group that he referred to informally as “the North American experts on Vertebral Augmentation.” Heilman said he felt intimidated; included on the list of recipients were one of his medical-school professors and a Vancouver doctor Heilman had in the past referred patients to. By the time the email thread had finally gone quiet, almost 300 addresses had been cc’d.

To be clear, there is no reason to believe that Beall was coordinating with any Medtronic employees, and his numerous consulting gigs with other companies suggest that he is not some sort of kyphoplasty huckster in Medtronic’s thrall. Still, says Sohail Mirza, a spine surgeon and the former chair of orthopaedics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, doctors can grow to prefer the devices of certain companies over others as a result of such consulting arrangements. In the operating room, the manufacturer’s presence can be more than some abstract notion: “Often the [sales] reps are in the operating room for all of these procedures … guiding the surgical team: ‘This is next’; ‘Here’s how you mix this,’” says Mirza.

Mirza, who is himself not convinced of the procedures’ effectiveness, adds that another plausible reason physicians might prefer vertebroplasties and kyphoplasties is that they believe they’re better at selecting patients, and thus think that they can personally beat the results of randomized, controlled trials. “I think radiologists and surgeons generally believe that their patients do better. That's the only way I can imagine them rationalizing it,” he says.

Beall, for his part, acknowledges that he has “financial ties and research ties to many medical-device and pharmaceutical companies,” but points out that the overwhelming majority of high-quality medical literature on vertebroplasty has been funded by medical-device manufacturers. An economic reality of modern medical research is that rigorous studies can cost millions of dollars, and large companies are often the only ones willing to foot the bill.

A doctor named Lawrence Epstein responded to the email thread lamenting this fact. “The problem we have [is] that the majority of the studies that support Kyphoplasty (even when they are well done) are authored by investigators who receive compensation from, or the studies are funded by, Medtronic,” he wrote. “Many of those who read these … are sensitive to this and take even the most convincing data with a grain of salt. What we need are non-industry funded, completely independent studies.” To which Beall responded: “I believe in critiquing the study itself rather than focusing primarily on the sponsor.” He lamented that this sponsor was typically the medical-device industry, but concluded, “Until unbiased and independent funding becomes more available this is the situation that we will all have to live with.”

Through all this, Heilman kept most of the Wikipedia page intact, but it is easy to imagine a different result if the page’s custodian had been less dogged or less allergic to corporations. By now, Heilman doesn’t find companies' keenness to learn more about Wikipedia unexpected. He has received emails on behalf of companies such as IMS Health, GlaxoSmithKline, and Alexion Pharmaceuticals requesting more information from him about the editing process for Wikipedia’s medical content. “I do not consider the goals of the pharmaceutical companies to be educating people about pharmaceuticals,” he says. Still, he says, “Medtronic has been the worst company that I have encountered with respect to aggressively editing Wikipedia to promote their products.”

“The effectiveness of vertebroplasty,” Wikipedia currently reads, “is disputed.”

* * *

In 2006, Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia’s most public-facing board member, reportedly said that undisclosed paid editing—trying to alter the content of Wikipedia without revealing a financial conflict of interest—is “antithetical” to the site’s aims. The practice continued at a low hum over the rest of the decade, but a few years ago Wikimedia started hearing from its volunteer editorial corps that weeding out undisclosed paid edits was distracting from more substantive work. "They were spending a tremendous amount of their time patrolling articles, particularly articles about celebrities or individuals or companies for PR-type editing,” says Katherine Maher, a spokesperson for Wikimedia. The issue took on a sense of urgency in the fall of 2013, when a firm called Wiki-PR was banned from the site for using hundreds of dummy accounts to fabricate widespread support for pages that flattered its clientele.

To combat activity like this, Wikimedia amended its terms of use last summer to ban any undisclosed paid editing that might carry a conflict of interest. (To clarify, the scenario of a political-science professor, who’s paid to think about political science, forgoing disclosure when she edits a page about Japanese elections doesn’t present a conflict of interest and is thus kosher.)

Maher says the terms-of-use change has been received well by those in the Wikipedia community devoted to stamping out paid editing. Perhaps it has—several large PR firms pledged not to violate Wikipedia’s rules—but the practice hasn’t disappeared entirely. Two months ago, an investigation revealed that even after the rule change, employees of Sunshine Sachs, a public-relations firm, had still been editing the Wikipedia pages of their clients without disclosing their affiliation. One email sent by the company boasted, “Sunshine Sachs has a number of experienced editors on staff that have established profiles on Wikipedia. The changes we make to existing pages are rarely challenged.” Sunshine Sachs is reported to have scrubbed, among other things, Wikipedia’s references to Naomi Campbell’s critically-panned R&B album and Mia Farrow’s Ecuadorian activist efforts.

Many people who work within companies’ public-relations departments are inexperienced in the ways of Wikipedia, and some firms  look outside of their ranks for editing help. Priceline, for example, once hired a third party to edit Wikipedia on its behalf; Viacom reportedly did the same. Free online guides for outsmarting Wikipedia’s gatekeepers proliferate, but those can only get a novice so far.

"Wikipedia writing is like no other writing,” says Mike Wood, a freelancer who makes a living editing Wikipedia pages for clients, referring to the site’s tireless pursuit of a neutral tone. Wood has set up his own website, and scores of other Wikipedia editors-for-hire await on freelance websites such as Elance. He says he works with highly visible people and companies, who pay him anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per article, but he won’t name names, for fear that someone might seek out and dismantle the Wikipedia pages of his clients. “You could turn on either Fox or CNN right now, and within one half hour you will … see a commercial for [a company or an interview with someone whose] page that I’ve created, or I’ve edited,” he claims. He says that he’s worked with “one of the world’s fifth largest banks” and members of “numerous presidents’ administrations.”

Wood started editing Wikipedia pages about seven years ago. “Wikipedia actually becomes addicting after a while,” he says. “You’ll see people on there all day long. It’s kind of like anyone who wants to play Warcraft or Candy Crush.” The novelty faded for him, though, and he spent a while seeking out freelance writing opportunities. But as he looked around, he noticed a growing number of ads looking for people to edit Wikipedia pages. “It was good money,” he says. In 2010, he returned to contributing regularly to the site, this time as a paid editor.

During his hiatus, Wood says, the tenor of the site had changed. Veteran editors used to patiently help out new ones. “Now, if you’re brand new to the site, and you make a mistake, you’re going to get jumped on by editors very quickly,” he says.

What changed in his absence, Wood says, is that employees of public-relations firms began to understand the value of a Wikipedia page, and tried going in to make edits themselves, with little regard for the site’s standards. The result was that the burden of proof became even heavier on newcomers, and, Wood says, even valid information was getting rejected out of hand by seasoned editors. Those PR companies are now some of Wood’s clients. “They contracted me for their Wikipedia work because some of their writers are so in tune to writing PR pieces that they can't handle writing for Wikipedia,” he says.

“We’ve had some good editors who’ve done really good work begin to offer their services for sale because this is a decent way of making a living,” says James Heilman. After looking into what’s on offer at Elance, he’s concluded that lots of money changes hands there over Wikipedia edits. Heilman says he’s even come across an Elance posting by a Wikipedia editor with the title of “administrator,” an upper-echelon status that comes with exclusive powers on the site and currently belongs only to about 600 active users. (Heilman says Elance has taken down one paid editor’s posting at his request, on the grounds that this editor is violating Wikimedia’s terms of use, but many postings remain.)

The task falls to Wikipedia’s volunteer editors to detect and reject changes made by editors with undisclosed conflicts of interest. The site has several tens of thousands of volunteer editors who update the site regularly each month, and this would seem like enough to head off any biased edits.

But many active editors are there to help with pages about subjects that they’re passionate about, not to spend their time parsing and eliminating PR-speak. And on top of that, the ranks of volunteer editors are dwindling, leaving fewer and fewer people to maintain a growing site. The authors of a study published in American Behavioral Scientist in 2012 concluded that the number of active Wikipedia contributors has been declining because the site’s community isn’t welcoming enough to new editors. “For somebody who’s making their first edit,” acknowledges Katherine Maher, “we could do more to make it clearer as to what constitutes an edit that is in good faith, that is not a conflict-of-interest edit.”

A larger image available here. Elisa Glass / The Atlantic

A larger image available here. Elisa Glass / The Atlantic

Heilman, too, has come to a similar conclusion after conducting a study of his own, which was published this spring in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. He and his co-author, Andrew West, found that between 2008 and 2013, the number of Wikipedia editors who focused on medical topics decreased by 40 percent. Undisclosed paid edits, Heilman says, “often distract the core community of editors away from more important topics.”

There is also a fear that editing will wane as a larger and larger percentage of Wikipedia’s users access the site from phones and tablets. The site, Andrew Lih, a professor of journalism at American University, wrote in The New York Times, “has always depended on contributors hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing articles using a special markup code.” Mobile devices simply aren’t conducive to those activities.

Mike Wood also has doubts about the Wikipedia community’s resources for fighting paid editing. Since the terms of use were updated last summer, he’s seen more Wikipedia editing jobs posted on Elance. For this reason, he likes the policy—in that it has created business for him. “There are so many rules, so many guidelines, that it's made it near impossible to edit Wikipedia without having issues,” Wood says. Last summer’s policy change was yet another rule for new users to wrap their minds around, and newbies, even those acting in good faith, have trouble gaining the blessing of a Wikipedia veteran. So they give up. “The next search they do is ‘help editing Wikipedia,’” Wood says. “And guess what comes up? My website.”

But Wood himself, who makes his living editing Wikipedia articles on behalf of companies and individuals, doesn’t adhere to the policy—he won’t disclose his conflict of interest when he edits pages for clients. Gregory Kohs, whose own Wikipedia-editing business was reportedly denounced by Jimmy Wales in 2006, also declines to acknowledge when he’s writing for pay.

Wood and Kohs have determined themselves exempt for the same reason: They don’t think Wikimedia follows its own rules. “As soon as Jimmy Wales adheres to Wikipedia guidelines, I will adhere to Wikipedia guidelines,” Wood says. Wood is referring to many alleged hypocritical acts, but the most notable is when Wales was reported to have edited his own Wikipedia page, designating himself “the founder of Wikipedia” and attempting to erase the academic Larry Sanger’s role in the development of the site.

* * *

All of this is troubling only if one sincerely believes that the information on Wikipedia is read at face value. No high school teacher would (knowingly) accept it as a source, and Wikipedians are fond of saying that research can start on Wikipedia, but it should never end there.

But the way people answer their everyday questions today means that a lot of research does end on Wikipedia. The site’s pages are regularly among the top links that search engines turn up—among the general public, the site’s medical articles are estimated to have a larger readership than WebMD. Google has even started embedding excerpts from Wikipedia pages alongside its search results. Wikipedia isn’t just the final destination of typical denizens of the Internet; sometimes it’s where professional researchers end up as well. Fifty to 70 percent of physicians have been found to consult it as a source of medical information—a testament to its reliability.

In fact, the site’s content can make its way into even trusted academic texts, as a recent case of plagiarism demonstrates.

In October of last year, James Heilman was paging through a copy of The Oxford Textbook of Zoonoses, put out by Oxford University Press. Because western Africa’s public-health crisis had been in the news, Heilman was focusing on chapter 31, “Marburg and Ebola viruses,” written by Graham Lloyd, who works at the British government-research facility Porton Down, when he noticed that some text looked familiar.

Medical Textbook vs. Wikipedia: A Side-by-Side Comparison

On the left: The Wikipedia page for Ebola, as of 2010. On the right: Page 364 of The Oxford Textbook of Zoonoses, published in 2011. Highlights indicate text
that is copied. (Click 
here to view a larger image.)
He brought up the Wikipedia page for “Ebola virus disease,” and grew troubled. Some of the text on Wikipedia looked eerily similar to the text in the book—a lazy Wikipedia editor had copied from the Oxford textbook, he guessed.

He pulled up the page’s revision history to identify the offending editor. He saw that the section was co-written in 2006 by two users, Rhys and ChyranandChloe, and that it was updated in 2010. He jumped back over to the textbook and saw that it was published in 2011. It turns out Heilman had it backwards: It was someone on Oxford’s side, perhaps Lloyd, who had taken from Wikipedia. (Lloyd did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

The plagiarism was barely concealed. For reasons that remain unclear, some of the original citations from the Wikipedia page dropped out, and were replaced by pointers to other articles—articles that didn’t appear to support the claims made in the text, according to Heilman. In that sense, the Oxford textbook did not simply contain plagiarized text from Wikipedia; it appeared to make it less reliable.

Christian Purdy, a spokesperson for Oxford University Press, acknowledged that some text was copied, but says this didn’t qualify as plagiarism. Instead, he called it an “inadvertent omission of an appropriate attribution.”

“That our content was able to pass … review at OUP is another indication of our quality,” says Heilman. “I think the fact that world experts feel okay with ‘copy and pasting’ from Wikipedia and claiming it as their own is a statement of just how good some parts of Wikipedia have become.”

Heilman had hoped that Oxford University Press would release its textbook with updated attribution into the Creative Commons, as is permitted under Wikipedia’s license, but the press has decided instead to rewrite the relevant section itself. Whatever the outcome, the provenance of the textbook’s information does not bode well for the sourcing of the average AP English essay.

* * *

Because an undisclosed paid edit that goes through is undetectable, it is hard to empirically assess the effectiveness of Wikipedia’s responses to conflict-of-interest editing over the years. Nowadays, the estimated prevalence of paid editing changes depending on whom you ask. “The site itself is so massive that when you talk about problems, they actually tend to be quite small compared to the overall body of work,” Maher says. She points out that Wiki-PR, the furthest-reaching paid-editing operation yet discovered, only made a few thousand edits. Still, undisclosed paid editing is enough of a fly in the ointment to prompt the Wikimedia Foundation to say it “affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia.”

Joseph Reagle, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and the author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, tends to agree with Maher’s assessment. “If we were to enumerate the list of the things that would cause people to be skeptical of the quality of Wikipedia … I suspect paid contribution would be relatively low,” he says. "It's not an issue where there's none, or there's a lot. It's just one of those things where, probably, everyone speeds a little bit.”

Those who consult on editing Wikipedia frame things a little differently. “Undisclosed paid editing, especially on the part of the largest PR firms, is rampant on Wikipedia,” says Patrick Taylor, the head of communications for Wiki-PR, which has, after being banned, refashioned itself as a Wikipedia consultancy. However, Taylor is convinced that most of these edits actually improve the site, and that conflicts of interest are rooted out fairly efficiently.

In a way, undisclosed paid edits are just a smaller instance of a much more foundational problem for a site that strives for unalloyed “neutrality.” All Wikipedia editors, whether volunteer or paid, come to their keyboards with some kind of bias. The presence of money in this equation is never a reliable indication that some information is untrustworthy, since it’s frequently the case that the people who feel they have the biggest stake in promoting their views on Wikipedia are often the best informed. Douglas Beall might receive money from medical-device manufacturers, but part of the reason they’re paying him in the first place is because he’s an expert on certain medical devices. Moreover, plenty of people hold views for which they receive no compensation that would nevertheless render them inadequate editors. For example, a volunteer Greenpeace activist might not be the most impartial steward of a page about the coal industry. Money is but one limited signifier of information’s quality.

These questions are as salient as ever now that Wikipedia has become not a place to go for information, but the place to go. "Many people do not consider other people to be intelligent enough to use Wikipedia with a grain of salt, yet they consider themselves to be intelligent enough to use Wikipedia properly,” Heilman observes. To rely on Wikipedia without any skepticism is to act as though every editor is as relentless, principled, and stubborn as he is.

From: The Atlantic