Create For Yourself

With disruption hitting the media industry acutely in 2024, now is the time to lean into owning your creative work. Have a say in your creative destiny.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: One of the first full-length articles I published for public consumption on the broader internet—rather than the visual blurbs I posted on my old site, ShortFormBlog—has become something of a mission statement for the career I’ve built since that day. It was on Medium, at a point where Medium was brand new, and it was titled “Sure, write stuff for free. But write for yourself.” The piece, dating to 2013, discusses how the mere discussion of turning a design into a T-shirt got me thinking more carefully about ownership in the digital age. Since then, most of my work has appeared on sites I own. One of the sites it semi-frequently appeared on that I didn’t own, the Vice-operated Motherboard, randomly shuttered this week, the victim of a slow-motion corporate end-run that tried to turn something cool into something it wasn’t. I stand behind my little rant from 2013, but the current moment, full of journalistic disruption, has me pensive. We can’t trust that even giant content apparatuses with 30-year track records have a chance of staying online. So with that said, I want to discuss the importance of content ownership in the era we’re in now—when the chances of your hard work disappearing randomly one day are more than theoretical. Today’s Tedium still thinks you should write for yourself, even if it’s for free. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The number of media sector layoffs in January alone, according to data compiled by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas on behalf of Fast Company. The media outlet notes that more than 21,400 media jobs were lost in 2023, roughly 14 percent coming specifically from the news sector. However, 2024 is looking particularly bad, with 528 layoffs at news outlets in January alone, a number that does not account for all the stuff happening this week.

If your boss looks like this, run.

If you don’t like what a corporate owner is doing with other people’s work, don’t do it with your own

On Friday morning, the radio station WAMU decided out of nowhere to shutter DCist, a local news publication that escaped sudden death more than half a decade ago, after a billionaire decided he would rather shut off his websites than negotiate with a union.

If DCist was a cat, it appears to have lost another life, sadly. (Does it have any others? We’ll see.)

But something weird the NPR affiliate did on Friday was that they auto-redirected the content to WAMU without a way to click off the links. You cannot read these stories anymore, because WAMU decided it was better to redirect you to its front page instead.

There’s no reason WAMU had to do this. The content was someone else’s hard work, work that people with creativity, good sourcing, and boundless energy spent their time and hard work making, in exchange for money and/or exposure. But while I can’t read the employment or freelance contracts people signed, I understand the gist: The radio station likely contracted this work out for hire, meaning that when the work is completed, it is owned by the station. And if they want to put a redirect in front of this content, they are within their rights. (What’s SEO, anyway?)

Think that’s bad? It’s not even the first time it’s happened in the past month. Just ask the staff of The Messenger, who saw the site they were working for shut down out of the blue, blowing through $50 million in cash in just nine months. And rather than keep this work online, they also just shut the site’s doors, almost ensuring it might never see the light of day again.

If you’re a journalist, you have lots of stories like this. Of newspapers and magazines that were there one day, and gone the next. The public can’t easily push back against situations like these, despite the damage they do to the public good, because they require collective action, and the internet is a diffused medium that inherently splinters us. It’s ironic—as an engine of capitalism, the internet can’t be beat; as a tool of collectivism, it routinely wears us down. While there are some exceptions, it largely exposes our differences instead of our similarities.

No wonder the harshest effects of capitalism are winning.

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Is all your work work-for-hire? (Mike Hindle/Unsplash)

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Vice, which is facing this exact scenario right now. I have no direct visibility into its inner workings. But I do know that former employees and freelancers are worried that their hard work may soon go offline, no matter what assurances the company offers. The website’s private equity owners have the right to do that—after all, they own much of that work, and if they want to separate that work from the open internet, we can’t stop them.

These anti-creative moves have small costs, every time they happen. Sure, it starts with a pin-prick here and a paper-cut there, but eventually, the body starts bleeding out. And we’re holding our hands up, worn down by the fact that the comfort we once had has been replaced by uncertainty.

That uncertainty is the real threat, more than anything else. If you don’t know if you can pay rent next month, it becomes harder to look at the bigger picture, which also matters. There’s no room for the macro, for the stories that need to be told. The work becomes about the paycheck; the bigger picture, the deeper value of what we create, gets lost.

That is the threat for journalists trying to stay in the game—that the value of our creative work will be sucked dry by people who don’t value us, but instead see us as a means to an end.

But here’s the thing. While the internet struggles with collective action, every movement starts from a single action. If you’re a creative person, one of the most important actions you can take, full stop, is to take some ownership over your work. Maybe, if you want to have a financial upside, you can’t own all of it. Maybe you have to pick and choose what your ownership picture looks like. But own some of it. Make it yours.

Create for free. But create for yourself. Even if you don’t get paid for it at first. Because someday, you might.

Your employer can decide one day that they don’t like your work, or that it no longer makes sense for them. But you know its value, and you are willing to fight for it, and that means you’re motivated to make it better in ways that they will not.

It helps, by the way, that we live in a world where you can cut out the middle man from the equation as much as possible.

“I got an opportunity to look at the success that I had as a talent and as an entertainer, and realized I was a work-for-hire. And it’s not that that’s not okay, because it is, but I would much rather be a partner. I would much rather have a choice or an option as to when I want to work and how I want to work, rather than waiting for the phone.”

— Comedian Kevin Hart, discussing how he calibrated his career towards ownership in a recent presentation at the Cannes Lions festival, which led to the creation of his production house HartBeat. Hart had significant success as a performer, but taking ownership of his creative potential put him in the driver’s seat to make his own creative decisions. His company now has more than 75 employees, according to Fortune.

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Sure, the fireworks are nice, but shouldn’t you have your own sparkler? (Warren/Unsplash)

Why content ownership is a secret superpower

I wasn’t the first person to build a newsletter, but I got here early enough to see all the trends, big and small, and have learned a lot in the process.

And while some weeks are better than others from a traffic or subscriber standpoint, the truth is that it often leads to surprising moments.

For example, here’s something I didn’t know was possible until I started writing and syndicating my own newsletter: Sometimes, the publisher of a college textbook will contact you and ask if they can publish your article in their textbook, and there’s a chance you can make royalties from that.

I can’t claim this is something that happens with any regularity, admittedly. This has happened twice, but it’s nonetheless awesome: College students around the country learn how to frame a good argument based on an argument I made on the internet.

If I only worked for hire, I never would have gotten that opportunity. But because I did, a potential door opened. Perhaps one day I’ll consider writing a film treatment around one of the literal hundreds of subjects I’ve covered over the years. (The Internet’s String-Puller: The Story of Jon Postel has a nice ring to it.) Maybe I’ll gather what I’ve created into a book.

I have control of this because I’ve laid the groundwork for this to happen by writing for myself, rather than the other way around. It’s not hard to imagine a world where people write or create cool things, those things get syndicated by larger media outlets who monetize them, and everyone shares equally in its success—rather than what we have now, where your creativity is locked down in corporate shackles until they’re done with you.

If we give them the room to breathe, creative works can live multiple lives. The works will stay online for years, decades even. It will make someone else’s work better, and potentially continue to create new value. Some creations are built for the moment, while some are built for a lifetime. But the secret is motivation. If a company decides one day to pivot to not caring, then those ideas will sit on the shelf, wasted. You have far more motivation to push your ideas towards success than they do—and, thanks to the internet, you actually have a motor to give it a tug. The internet is an engine of capitalism, remember—even if it sucks as a tool for collective power, you can at least leverage its inherent strengths.

By being the steward of the tales you tell, you have some say about how they’re presented, discussed, and promoted. If you work for an organization, you may not be privy to those decisions, which means you may struggle to determine their success.

(The rub of that, of course, is that you are now responsible for the hard work yourself.)

I guess what I’m saying, knowing the challenges that media has faced of late: By building for yourself, you have more room to shape the final product. And that’s a product you can continue improving and tweaking until you’ve perfected the formula.

If you do it right, you’ll be in a stronger position for success than an organization that simply wants to throw money at a never-ending problem. Good ideas will attract good money. Bad money will attract bad ideas.

Now’s the moment to work on a good idea or two.

In the wake of journalism’s dark winter, I want to encourage anyone with an inkling of skill to look at what makes their writing style and artistic work stand out—and to consider what you can do with it without the shackles of a company controlling your output.

Can you sell it? Can you recreate it? Can you rejigger it? And what tools do you need to make those things happen?

Journalism may be in the middle of a dark winter, but you should be aiming for a constructive summer, like the Hold Steady song. (This video comes from the days before Condé Nast owned Pitchfork.)

And how can you do those things with minimal resources, so that your expenses don’t outpace your earnings? What do you need to get there? Who can help you?

I guess what I’m saying is this: Let’s use this moment of sheer terror for creative folks—journalists, writers, designers, artists, video folks, anyone with skills relevant to the digital media industry—to actually build something positive for ourselves. Screw the downtrodden feelings that moments like these seem designed for.

Use the ownership that, too often, is held against us, not merely as a bargaining chip for a future paycheck, but as a way to control our fortunes in a digital economy where fewer gatekeepers than ever are necessary.

We may not get there tomorrow, or even next week. But with the right foundation, you will be surprised at the opportunities that might be put in front of you in the long run.

Maybe we won’t be in the same office anymore. But collectively, we will be stronger in the end.


I hope this is hopeful for folks in the midst of an admittedly shitty time. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal.

And build something. Let me know if you need help with a brick or two.


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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