“Ever wanted to write for The Stranger? Now’s your chance,” chirps the copy on an ad shared by the Vera Project on Twitter yesterday afternoon. It continues:
The Stranger is partnering up with Bumbershoot and The Vera Project to bring you an exclusive opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at Bumbershoot! Calling all budding journalists for: The Stranger’s Official Bumbershoot Correspondent Contest 2017.
As you can see above, the ad features The Stranger’s official logo and a Stranger email address for contestants to contact. It promises that “an associate editor at The Stranger will select the best entry and the lucky winner will receive” an array of prizes including a refurbished Polaroid camera, film for the camera, and a prize pack from Freakout Records. Perhaps more importantly, the winner’s “photo gallery and experience reviews” will be “featured in The Official Stranger’s Bumbershoot Guide and thestranger.com.”
I have an email out to The Stranger to confirm, but the ad doesn’t mention any compensation besides the aforementioned prizes. If this position is unpaid, it marks a departure for editorial content in The Stranger. When I worked at the paper — I started there as an intern and freelancer in 2005, went full-time in 2008, and resigned in 2015 — Bumbershoot coverage was provided by salaried staffers and paid freelancers. If The Stranger is now enticing a “lucky winner” to provide free Bumbershoot-related content in exchange for an armload of swag, that represents a significant shift in the paper’s arts coverage.
Could you imagine a distribution firm throwing a contest to select one “lucky” person to work as an accountant during tax season, with the “winner” to be paid in free donuts? Or a convenience store offering to pay a temporary cashier in coupons and branded merch? Then why would it possibly be okay for a newspaper to do this with writers?
Here’s the thing: writers deserve to be paid, and not just paid in amorphous “exposure.” When an organization like The Stranger — a publication which publisher Tim Keck assured readers as recently as last week is “profitable” and has “been growing financially for years” — reduces its arts coverage to a contest for some eager young dupe to win, it devalues the rest of the paper’s arts coverage. Seattle’s vibrant arts community deserves the attention (and, yes, the criticism) of professional, paid writers, and The Stranger — a newspaper which made its name on intelligent, opinionated arts criticism — should prioritize its arts writing as more than just an add-on to a swag pack.
But there’s more than just the question of payment. The ad promises that the Official Stranger Correspondent at Bumbershoot 2017 will “Join the Bumbershoot Marketing Team with [sic] telling the Bumbershoot story with an insider’s perspective.” Though the ad claims to appeal to “budding journalists,” it sounds more like a co-branded marketing opportunity.
How closely will the “contest winner” work with the Bumbershoot Marketing Team? If Bumbershoot has some control over the direction of the pieces, will the published work be clearly marked as sponsored content? Will The Stranger’s “partnering up” with the Vera Project and Bumbershoot to provide this coverage be clearly disclosed in the Bumbershoot guide and in coverage on the site? If not, how can we trust The Stranger’s Bumbershoot arts coverage to be anything more than a glorified advertisement? Where does the line between editorial content and advertising content begin and end?
Back in 2014, Keck famously told the Capitol Hill Seattle blog that “Loud, brash opinions are a dime a dozen.” Many Stranger staffers at the time took that quote as a sign that Keck was moving the paper away from its fiercely independent arts coverage and toward something less opinionated and more advertiser-friendly. If The Stranger is in fact enlisting free labor to cover the city’s largest arts festival, and if that coverage is closely coordinated with the festival’s marketing team, it looks like our worst fears have been vindicated.
I sent an email to the address in the above advertisement asking if the paper will pay the Bumbershoot Correspondent, and asking them to clarify the position’s relationship with Bumbershoot’s marketing team. They haven’t gotten back to me. If they do respond, I’ll let you know.
UPDATE 11:14 AM: Just got an email back from Diana Katz, an Account Executive at The Stranger Here it is, in its entirety:
Thanks for reaching out. Happy to help clarify as best as possible -
1. The position is unpaid. The winner receives a high value swag bag (valued at over $1,700) along with promotion of the winner’s work on TheStranger.com.
2. The winner will be working independently at the festival in regards to conducting interviews, taking press photos, etc. The Stranger team and the Bumbershoot Marketing team will be assisting the winner with an introduction to music artists to conduct this work as well as providing an access pass to go behind-the-scenes at the festival. Any write-ups/editorial reviews by the correspondent winner will be reviewed by a Stranger Associate Writer before this work is published on TheStranger.com. This work will be presented on our site’s page along with the winner’s full name and title as Stranger’s official Bumbershoot Correspondent 2017.