Saturday, January 9, 2010

Real journalism costs money.

When I moved back to D.C. this fall, I subscribed to the Washington Post. It had been a while since I subscribed to a paper, since I never fully integrated into Baltimore and before that worked at the Post and read the paper in the office. I was happy to subscribe, to do my part to support the product and my friends. But by the time I get the paper in the morning, I have usually read everything I want to read online.

In most things I am flush with nostalgia. I am trying to recreate my Playskool puzzle collection for my son (if you have any you want to get rid of, let me know), and I cook with my grandmother’s orange enamel saucepan, using her cookbook. But about this pile of paper that lands on—or at least near—my doorstep each morning I am simply indifferent. If I could, I would pay the Post, tell them to refrain from printing my paper and continue reading it online.

When people ask me about the future of journalism, I tell them what a lot of other people are saying too: it doesn’t matter what format the news takes, as long as the journalism persists. I am worried, though, about whether that can happen, when publications expect people to write for free or very close to it, and plenty of people are willing to answer that call.  People who will give away their labor over the long term are not usually the kind of expert journalists we need to be doing the work. Today’s downer comes from James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, who writes about the race to the bottom in the freelancing industry.

For years I have been asked to write online for free and always, always say no; sorry, Huffington Post, “a platform for ideas,” as you once offered me, won’t pay for reporting trips, long-distance bills, document fees, gas to get to interviews or potatoes for that orange saucepan.


  1. I don't often say this about anying, but this is an IMPORTANT post.

  2. I fervently agree that this is an important post. As I've posted here, my husband is a 33-year San Francisco Chronicle reporter displaced last March by the collapse of the newspaper industry. (He took a voluntary buyout that we couldn't afford to refuse, just after bargaining unit members voted to eliminate their own seniority rights, at a dismal union meeting with many members weeping as they voted.)

    It's startling to me how many intelligent newspaper readers don't grasp what has been happening. I routinely hear "...if the Chronicle weren't so conservative..." and, from my few conservative associates here in liberal San Francisco, "...if the Chronicle weren't so liberal..." A friend just said to me that if the Chronicle would cover more local issues such as school news, she believed it would get many new subscribers.

    No, the underlying reason is that industry leadership decided it was fine to give away the news for free.

    On the topic of education, I do have contacts in college journalism departments -- students and teachers. Astoundingly, this is just not discussed much there. It seems to me that Journalism 101 today should consist of a class studying the current crisis and brainstorming for a way to save our nation's free press.

    My own son is a college freshman (at Oberlin Conservatory) majoring in jazz trumpet. It is an unstoppable passion, but I appreciate that some more hardheaded parents would have said: "Absolutely not; you must major in something that will earn you a living." Yet there are hordes of bright-eyed college students in J-classes who appear oblivious to the fact that there will be no paid jobs for them.

    What this crisis means for democracy, though, far outweighs what it means to deluded students who think they might pursue journalism careers.

    Meanwhile, I would like to remind those of my and my husband's former colleagues who are still working journalists that you still have your professional standards, your credibility and your ethics. Please value and protect them rather than sacrificing them to the "education reform" PR machinery.

  3. This is a serious problem that we all should be concerned about. I've become more and more cynical about the possibility of the problem resolving itself through new technologies/funding schemes that might allow real journalism to make the money it deserves in a well-oiled democracy. Nothing aside from education is more fundamental to the maintenance of our society.

  4. I agree that this is an important post, but also think it can be very difficult, if you're trying to get exposure/experience, not to write for free. This isn't only true when you're starting out either. If you want to make a name for yourself, you have to get "out there" and sometimes that means penning something for no financial gain.
    It is really hard though. I get paid less for freelance pieces now than I used to and am very negative when I meet students who say they want to become journalists. It's all changed since I started and sounds as if the UK is similar to the US in this.