Apocalypse 18: Is journalism a real job?

By , 28 February, 2009, 9 Comments

There was much talk during the stimulus debate about what constituted a real job, and therefore, how many jobs the Obama folks could take credit for “creating or saving.” Journalists, who may have their own bailout bill on the Hill soon, have been grappling with this question for some time.

It’s the core of the debate about what form news-gathering and distributing should take in the future. Those who believe that news-gathering should be done by people who can give that activity the majority of their time and attention, that they should do it as a job, are debating the relative merits of subscriptions and advertising to make that possible. Those who believe that news-gathering should be done by “regular” people [what does that distinction make professional reporters out to be?], that it should be done by teachers and lawyers and doctors and parents in their spare time as a hobby speak blithely about the end of for-profit media.

I fall squarely in the first camp: there is better coverage to be had from people who spend all their time walking a given beat, who have subject expertise and the skills of the reporting trade, than from armchair quarterbacks. Before you crow that I’m biased, look at the readership statistics: readers still want that informed, professional commentary, even as they migrate to consuming it online. That’s why the new New York Times venture into hyper-specialized local blogging, with help from graduate students studying to be professional journalists, is bound to be a hit.

Unfortunately, readers won’t pay for such content. And while the Times is big enough that it is bleeding slowly, other solid outlets are biting the dust left and right. Some deserve it, because they poured their resources into content outside their area of expertise, but some very focused local brands are taking the hit too. The Rocky Mountain News, which folded this week, is one tragic example: its reporters have focused on local Colorado news, while aggregating national coverage from other sites, for some time. The collapse of the Rocky and the expansion of the NYT’s blogging empire remind us that the issue is not content (what readers want is digital distribution of expert, professional, commentary), but financing.

What to do? A non-profit model, by itself, will never suffice. When individual donors support nonprofits, they usually ante up the cost of the goods the nonprofit doles out–NGOs are always touting their efficiency, the percentage of their fundraising that goes directly to starving children or struggling schools. They are usually taken to task for every dollar that goes to keeping their own lights on. That is why the most efficient NGOs are often staffed by parttimers and volunteers and retirees from other fields, people who can afford to do it as a hobby. NGOs with large full time staffs can be very effective but they are less financially “efficient.”

In the case of reporting, a nonprofit model can fund the cost of the story–traveling to the scene of the crime, renting a tape recorder or a video camera. I have yet to see a wholly community-funded site where individual citizens contribute to the income of the reporter themselves. And, I fear, if reporters have to devote some hours to other trades to pay their bills, it will eventually dilute their expertise and thus the quality of their coverage.

Many self-proclaimed journalists who have adopted the day-job path would disagree with me. Writers on a new media listserv I follow have been angsting over the shield bill now on the House floor, designed to protect anonymous sourcing. It defines journalists as regular for-profit reporters. The new media listservers prefer the Senate version, which gives the right of anonymous sourcing to anybody who occasionally gathers or disseminates content about current events.

I find the latter definition far too broad on several counts [does that allow political candidates with campaign blogs to cite “unnamed” economists endorsing their budget proposals?], but my biggest problem is with the implication that journalism is just the content, the end-result, something you produce on the side, and not a “real job” or an industry at all. It’s journalism without journalists, and in the long run, that’s not journalism at all.

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9 Responses {+}
  • Megan

    You wrote that “what readers want is digital distribution of expert, professional, commentary.” Is that what they want? Or are they drawn to online news because what they really wantis “the amount of print you would find on a cereal box” –as a Rocky Mountain News reporter and editor belives?

    (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/02/business/media/02denver.html)

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    See above, the link to the readership stats themselves–people choose to read the websites of established news organizations, ie places with 800 word, sourced, reported articles OVER the citizen media.

  • Damian

    Given the paucity of new journalism training positions it seems that many journalists starting out will end up being part time.

    This could help a profession which in the UK at least has mostly relied on people whose families are wealthy enough for them to work for free for at least a few months.

    Should part time hacks seeking to show their worth through blogs etc not be allowed to quote sources anonymously? That would seem a very harsh restriction on a basic of reporting.

    As for your question. Increasingly even full time reporters are working freelance or on short term contracts with few benefits and no security. Would Democrat lawmakers call that a “real” job? Its more like a Mc-Job surely. Not a complaint, merely an observation.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Hmm…as I believe I point out in the post, the House bill doesn’t exclude freelancers and news bloggers per se, but there are two kinds of freelancers. There are people who do journalism 60 hours a week but never give more than 10 hours or get more than 1/6 of a salary from one organization, who are always stringing together checks from various gigs. As you say, that’s the direction the industry is headed; which might work if we had a functioning social safety net. Those kind of freelancers are covered in the House bill.

    What I am referring to/what the Senate bill addresses is someone whose full time job is something else entirely, who just occasionally submits an Op-Ed here or there and has a personal blog, but no aspiration to become a fulltime reporter. For that person to have the same shield protections as the freelancer outlined above is to say that every single person walking the streets is, just by virtue of being a citizen, also a journalist. There are many people who believe this in good faith; I’m just not one of them.

    It’s the equivalent of saying I’m a doctor because I self-diagnosed a head cold and took some DayQuill this morning.

  • Damian

    I agree that anonymity should not be protected regardless of situation and context.

    We’re probably talking from different perspectives as in the UK there is very little protection for journalists so the issue of who is and is not a journalist doesn’t come up.

    That said i would argue that the protection should be story dependent not dependent on hours worked. A Fox reporter is a “full time journalist”, most contributors to “comment is free” on The Guardian are not.

    What they are though is experts in their field. Indeed one of The Guardians strongest reporters, Ben Goldacre, started out as simply a blogging doctor and still is a full time doctor.

    So, perhaps idealistically, i’d argue that protection of anonymity should depend on the merits of the story – particularly if a strong public interest defence can be made for it and if certain tests are met regarding right to reply etc. This defense already exists in British law relating to defamation.

    Naturally this would tend to discriminate in favour of those who learn the law and carry out proper reporting. But thats no bad thing, “citizen” reporters are capable of this – many will be better than their Fox counterparts.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Damian, you are defining journalism as a particular form and quality of content–the stories themselves–and arguing that we protect anyone who happens to have produced THAT.

    I am defining journalism as a set of people, institutions and practices that, when properly working, produce such content. I would protect content produced by some staffers–freelance or not, online or not–of a news organization (even one as subpar as Fox) but NOT the same content produced by individual citizens. I have a certain value bias towards the existence of “the press” as an entity. That’s really what I’m ranting about.

    What you have rightly forced me to admit is that at the end of the day, I am making a value judgment, that in some abstract moral code I have set up for myself, social institutions carry an intrinstic value and should have some privileges individuals do not.

    I’ve blogged about this value system before: http://instantcappuccino.blogspot.com/2009/02/partisanship-changes-but-it-doesnt-go.html

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