Beating Joel Stein

The main difference between me and the average blogger is that I get paid. How long I can continue to earn a living off of something people do just as well for free is a question I occasionally ask myself, and one I frequently am asked by people who send me hate mail.

It's also the topic of the Carr-Benkler wager. Business writer Nicholas Carr bet Yale Law School professor Yochai Benkler that, by 2011, people will be paid for the content they submit to sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg and Flickr -- currently all the domain of unpaid amateurs. This is not to be confused with Carr-Benkler II, in which they simplify things and just bet on which one of them is the bigger dork.

Unfortunately, I can't wait until 2011 to find out whether I need to acquire practical skills that will get me work in Los Angeles, such as life coaching, home tweaking or personal shopping within your existing closet.

To find out exactly how threatening my unpaid competition is, I posted a request for columns vaguely in my style on latimes.com. Readers then voted on whether any of them were better than my column. I made it abundantly clear that no money would change hands, other than, of course, into mine.

To my dismay, I quickly got 89 submissions -- three of which arrived as hard copies. People want to be read so badly that they're willing to figure out how to use the U.S. Postal Service.

I felt better after I started reading the essays. A huge number of people, apparently unable to discern social cues indicating boredom, decided to share their genealogy. A fair number of submissions were online dating stories in which everyone but the author was a total loser. An absurd amount of applicants did not understand the irony in writing about how stupid the media is for paying attention to Paris Hilton. One guy included a bar graph to explain his Iraq military strategy. And one woman gave me 3,400 words -- that's five columns long -- about Richard Gere kissing that Indian actress and how it relates to Apu from "The Simpsons." This writer happened to be Indian.

I started feeling worse, however, when I realized how long it was going to take me to slog through all this reading. And I felt worse yet when I found a dozen columns that were pretty good. I narrowed those down to four finalists and posted them online alongside my deep, paradigm-changing column about how I hate Elmo from "Sesame Street."

I was shocked by the results of the voting. Not because I got crushed, but because nearly 500 people read these things and voted. I think that's 110% of the people who visit latimes.com.

The winner, Sam Apple, wrote about his son's circumcision. It was hard to compete with, since it contains the line, "In 2004, three New York babies contracted herpes from a mohel, who, in keeping with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish tradition, used his mouth to draw blood from the wound." This was news you could use.

When I called Apple to congratulate him, he modestly explained that he won because "I had a big advantage -- the Jewish vote." Apple, I quickly discovered, didn't have finely honed reporting skills, such as reading my byline.

I found out that Apple works as a writer and editor for nerve.com, an online literary magazine, and reviews baby gadgets at babble.com. He also wrote a well-received book, "Schlepping Through the Alps," and has an advance on a second book about parenting classes.

He's got a master of fine arts in nonfiction from Columbia University and has written for ESPN magazine and the New York Times Magazine. In fact, the circumcision piece had been accepted by an editor at the New York Times before getting rejected by a higher-up. I wrote a piece once for them and it didn't make it past that first editor. Who is a friend of mine. Or, more accurately, was.

All of this was incredibly thrilling. I'm totally prepared to compete against professional, trained writers using nothing but my raw skills: going on TV and schmoozing editors at parties. The important thing is that it's Apple and me against the uncopy-edited masses, and, according to the votes, combined we have a 76.6% approval rating from readers. The specific breakdown is irrelevant.

jstein@latimescolumnists.com. To chat with Joel Stein about the contest at noon today, or to read the winning entry, go to: latimes.com/bejoelstein.

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