The Vagenda, if you haven’t heard of it, is a blog written by a huge collection of people, and run by Rhiannon-Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter. It’s a varied mix of really heartfelt stories, funny articles, feminist ranting, and almost anything else you could care to think of that’d fall under the category of ‘popular feminism’. It’s naturally a mixed bag, but I want to say up front that I like some of the stuff that’s published there. I even wrote for it once.
However, something about it really frustrates me: when I find an article that I like, I usually want to find out more about the author. I want to view their personal blog if they have one, or read other articles they’ve written. But I can’t.
Not because these writers are all anonymous (although some of them choose to be), or even because they never link through to their own blogs (occasionally they do), but because the Vagenda has a policy of never naming their writers. Unless you’re a famous journalist like Hadley Freeman, they will only credit you with initials.
Who the hell is ‘JD’?
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
When I wrote for the Vagenda, I asked them to publish the post under my blog name – girlonthenet – they said they don’t do that, and instead published just the initials ‘GON’. They did include a link to my blog, though, so I still got referral traffic and probably picked up a few new readers, so it was a good thing for me to do.
But there are hundreds of writers who have blogged for Vagenda and seen no return whatsoever – no traffic to their blogs, no one googling their name and coming across their awesome piece then paying them to write something else, not the warm fuzzy feeling you inevitably get when you see your name on a popular website. If any of these people want to go into writing as a career, they can’t even use their Vagenda experience on a CV. Jane Doe has no way of proving that the article credited to ‘JD’ is hers, beyond pointing at it and saying “but it is! Honest!”
Pay versus promotion
There’s a huge debate about the ethics of not paying writers, and simply expecting them to write in order to gain ‘exposure’. I appreciate that if you’re not making money, you might not be able to pay people. I also think that if you are making money, not paying people is deeply unethical. If you expect writers to produce something of value for you, you have to give them something of value back. At the absolute least you should acknowledge that they’re a person with a name.
Recently The Vagenda began a Kickstarter with the aim of raising money to revamp their website and – if possible – pay their writers. This is a good aim – if their blog is making them money, paying their writers is the ethical thing to do.
But while they’re not paying cash, at the very least they can help talented writers gain the exposure that’s so important. On the Vagenda Kickstarter page they say:
“We already have a huge pool of awesome contributors from around the world and we’d really, really love to be able to pay them or shower them with gifts, even if it’s just a little, for their amazing work.”
Well, you can start by crediting them. You don’t even need a Kickstarter for that – it’s free. Offer your writers a byline, author bio, and link to their personal blog if they want it. If you don’t have any money yet, that’s an easy thing with which you can shower them.
Vagenda initials-only policy
I emailed Vagenda and put this issue to them (the full text of my email, and their reply, is below in the comments). Naïvely, I half expected them to reply by saying ‘blimey, you’re right. We should add credits.’ But instead they explained why they do this. I don’t think the explanation is good enough. Here are their reasons, and my thoughts:
Many of our writers would like to keep what they write separate from their work
Understandable, of course. But ‘many’ is not ‘all’. I’m 100% sure that some of their writers don’t want to keep their Vagenda articles separate from their other work. The choice to have your work properly acknowledged is being taken away from all writers because some writers might choose otherwise.
It also stops people pitching us puff pieces/PR stunts
Annoying though it is when people do this, it’s one of the hazards of running a popular blog. I suspect that the initials-only policy does little to stop people pitching anyway – I get emails from PRs all the time, despite never publishing the guest posts/sponsored links that they suggest.
It protects people when they’re writing personally/it prevents writers getting abused on Twitter
On the surface this seems like a nice reason – protecting the people who write for you from getting abuse. However, criticism is one of the potential hazards of writing, and it comes hand-in-hand with praise.
I fully understand why some writers might want to remain anonymous, but others might choose to take the rough with the smooth. The people who contribute to Vagenda are more than capable of making this choice for themselves. Warning writers that they might get abuse is one thing, refusing to credit them ‘for their own good’ is quite another.
It also sits at odds with this:
We link people when they ask
So they won’t add your name in case you get twitter abuse, but if you ask them nicely they’ll add a link to your blog. Vagenda – you’re either protecting people by keeping them all anonymous or you’re not. Which is it?
Moreover, do the authors know they have to ask for a link? Why aren’t they proactively offered the option? I think the right way to deal with guest blogs is to ask the author exactly how they want to be credited – what links they want included, which name they’d like to put to the piece, etc. Let’s not forget that the writer is doing more than being ‘given an amazing opportunity’, they are providing valuable content for free.
We also have an arrangement with the Guardian whereby, if they want to cross post anything from the Vagenda, the writer gets a byline and a picture on the Guardian website.
The Guardian credits its writers. It protects anonymity where people ask for it, but when they don’t, it will appropriately credit the person who wrote the piece. Which is exactly as it should be. The fact that Vagenda editors want to protect the women who write for them, except if their piece is popular enough to get picked up by the Guardian, seems odd. Presumably Vagenda writers can choose whether they want to be credited by the Guardian, so why can’t they choose to be credited on the article they wrote for Vagenda?
Finally, I should highlight – as Rhiannon did in the email she sent me on this issue – that neither of the editors claim author credit on the blogs they write. They’re only credited using their initials, like all the other Vagenda writers. This would be a good point if they were just as anonymous as the ‘RP’s and ‘JD’s of this world, but they’re not – they’re incredibly well known. And, ironically, they’re well known because their full names are credited on the articles they write for other publications – Guardian, New Statesman, etc. These other publications are acknowledging a truth that the editors themselves don’t seem to have grasped: that writers deserve credit for their work. They have names.
So what exactly is the point of this, GOTN?
I love some of the articles on the Vagenda, and I got a fair amount of blog traffic when I wrote for them. I know that the site itself invites mixed opinions, but I’m not in any way saying ‘Vagenda is awful oh God make it stop’. What I am very loudly and clearly saying is that it needs to rethink this ‘initials only’ crediting policy. Given that the blog wouldn’t exist without the army of writers who contribute to it, the very least the editors should offer them is the option to put a name to their work.
In the words of the Vagenda editors themselves, publishing just initials at the bottom of each article
“makes writers difficult to distinguish from one another”
So, a heartfelt plea: Vagenda, even if you can’t pay right now, could you at the very least give the talented, interesting and occasionally fucking superb people who write for you some credit? They have names.
Full text of the email exchange between me and Vagenda in the comments below. Feel free to tweet at The Vagenda editors (please keep it civil – they get a lot of shit on the internet and I’m hoping to persuade them to change their policy, rather than subject them to a torrent of unnecessary rage) and let them know if you think they should change the way they credit people.