Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for December, 2007

Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 8, 2007

As the US entertainment writers’ strike continues, I can’t avoid weighing in with a few words of support for the striking members of the Writers’ Guild. Their long drawn-out strike is proving that without the creativity, concentration, and plain old sweat of professional writers there would be no cinema nor television, whether for better or for worse. Yet, most writers labor silently in the background with neither the celebrity, earnings continuity, nor stellar recompense that goes to many headlining actors and directors.

I could quibble about the quality of present-day Hollywood films and American television — their cliche-ridden humor, fascination with murder, and justification of authoritarian police behavior and Mafia violence — but the central issue of the present strike is business-like and central to concepts of intellectual property and the rights of labor, i.e. residuals, the ongoing payments to writers for the rebroadcasting and reuse of creative works they have conceived and shaped and their right to share in the fruits of the long-term popularity and earnings of productions they have penned.

The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Some Strike-Related Links

The writer’s strike is explained and tracked in detail at United Hollywood. The United Hollywood site also contains links to a number of YouTube pieces in support of the strike. My favorite is a testimonial by nonagenarian Writers’ Guild member Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers in the late-1930s and for television (“The Life of Riley”) in the early-1950s. Also on target is this report (ABC Executive Now Writing All Their Shows Himself) from my favorite source of news as it could or should be, Doyle Redland of the Onion Radio News. Last, hose who are not afraid of Brooklyn-size dollops of political incorrectness might want to look at this characteristically unsparing (but smiling) piece from Dallas Penn, the point of which is that openness in terms of personal identity does not necessarily equal progressiveness or compassion when it comes to political and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of others.

And “Hackwriters” Too

For most of my life, I’ve been cursed with the ability to write. In many of the places I’ve worked, the task of writing has fallen on my shoulders. My strengths as a writer have been neither my style nor even my knowledge, but simply my ability to muscle my way through half-thought-out or poorly-expressed ideas — whether my own or those of others — and sharpen and express the thinking, motives, facts, and logic behind them and leave no essential point unarticulated. This dubious ability led me for years to make my living bouncing back and forth between writing/translating and management, organizational, and project consultancy. Put simply, when asked by mayors or marketing execs or “CEO”s to write articles or commercial, legal, or technical documents presenting their strategies, policies, or activities, I had to clarify and tighten-up not only their syntax but their thinking, intents, and understandings of their own organizations and the world-at-large By writing, I created a mirror by which strategies could be tested and implemented, organizations changed and motivated, projects realized, and markets and populations reached and influenced. This was not always appreciated.

Corporate and technical “hackwriters” are on the bottom of the organizational totem pole in both the public and private sectors and in academia and science as well. In all fields, they are anonymous cogs in the wheel, this regardless of their communications skills being the medium of exchange that enable organizations to function. The situation is most extreme with the proposals and grants writers who debug the thinking and craft the documents that bring in multi-million dollar grants and multi-billion dollar projects for others. Like most corporate and tech writers, they receive no bonus shares of the projects they land nor any residuals from the worth of the companies and institutions they help enrich build. It is time for business and techwriters to follow the lead of striking entertainment writers and claim their fair share. As the “Wobblies” of the old IWW would have had it: “One Big Union!”

(This post is written with the support and approval of Naomi Yoder-Harris, a fine institutional writer who for two decades has been an important sounding board for the quality and content of my own work.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Internet, Media, Work | 2 Comments »