Sometimes, when I’m not griping about still having to pay down my student loan, I think about what I really got for my money when I attended Ithaca College. I may not be working in either of the two media mentioned in my major concentration (“radio” or “television”), but I sure do a heck of a lot of writing these days. A lot of that work is as a ghost blogger for some fun and exciting personalities.
Blogging often feels like a curious cross of journaling and journalism. When I start working with a new editor or a new client on a project, I like to make sure that we’re setting ground rules about telling the truth and being transparent. Ben Crane spent a semester drilling the importance of triangulation into my head: if you can’t find the information from two unconnected sources, you don’t run it. It doesn’t matter how juicy it is.
I haven’t talked to Professor Crane in years, but I can’t imagine he’s terribly happy about what blogging’s doing to journalism. A wave of readers and writers who have never known an adult world without the internet take Facebook status updates as absolute fact. A wave of new writers worry that disclosing promotional consideration is going to completely ruin their business model.
The good news: audiences aren’t dumb. They have long memories, and they’ll remember who got the story right. Even in today’s ever-collapsing news cycles, we still have plenty of opportunities to recollect our thoughts and deliver context to readers. Audiences may not always demand transparency, but they reward transparency. Readers who found it difficult to take TechCrunch seriously just about had their heads explode when one of their writers got caught accepting kickbacks for coverage. ZDNet just realized that one of its writers has been using his alter ego as a source.
So, if audiences expect transparency, honesty, and ethics, how can a ghost blogger reconcile those concepts with work that is inherently masked by a pseudonym?
For me, it comes down to using Michael Port’s “red velvet rope policy” when it comes to selecting the companies with whom I do business. When my ghost blogger projects involve writing under a specific byline, I make sure that my client’s values are aligned perfectly with mine. I refuse projects that promote a product or service that I wouldn’t recommend under my own name.
My ideal clients often have the vision to develop great products or ideas, without the writing skills to make those ideas leap off the page. My ideal clients challenge me to refine and amplify their professional voices. My ideal clients even allow me the luxury of writing about things that wouldn’t make sense for me to explore within my personal brand. Often, the only thing I don’t like about ghost blogging is that I write great pieces that I don’t get to take credit for. (Fortunately, my best clients offer me some great referrals.)
Too many companies are content to hop on Elance to find offshore bloggers willing to write 300 words about ottomans for $1.50. I crack up when a prospective client approaches me about writing copy for a ten page website and complains that they have only $50 or maybe $100 for the project. And that they’re doing me a favor by bringing it to me. Sorry, no. After twenty years of writing for money, I’m lucky enough to get to turn down requests that don’t let me get both personal satisfaction and fair compensation.
Some writers aren’t in the position to refuse bad offers. There are days when writing a toothpaste review for $10 isn’t a perk — it’s dinner. I remember those days. And I learned quickly that selling yourself short results in a professional life surrounded by people you can’t wait to escape from.
I agree with Andy Wibbels that ghost blogging is fraud when you’re simply replacing the authentic voice of a company with bland corporate-speak. Ghost blogging is fraud when companies hire writers to “engage in conversations” that they have no intent of fully pursuing. And ghost blogging is most certainly fraud when the writer puts words into a client’s voice that they would never, ever say.
Along those same lines, blogging under your own name is fraud when you’re simply struggling to find a way to cram one more affiliate link into a post. Blogging is fraud when you’re spending more time trying to trick a prospect into buying a product than trying to create great stuff. Blogging is fraud the moment you decide you’re going to try to sneak something past someone, even if you think it’s for the greater good.
While I can’t say I’m 100% proud of every ghost blogging gig I’ve ever completed, I can tell you that there’s nobody in my current roster I wouldn’t hug on stage in front of a thousand of my peers. Every one of those gigs that went wrong (either through my fault or the client’s) helped me learn how to get to today.