Writing in The New York Times, Timothy Egan invokes the spirit of Thomas Jefferson in an impassioned plea for continuation of the status quo in the newspaper business. His argument is more eloquent than most, but it’s predicated on two shaky assumptions.
The first is that newspaper readership is higher today than ever. Egan calls this the great paradox, and it would be if the numbers existed in a vacuum. It’s true that newspapers’ total audience is growing, but the real question is relative to what? This blog gets a lot more readers online than it would if it were copied and distributed on street corners, but is that an inherent measure of value? The growth of the Web and the emergence of high-quality search engines are a tide that lifts all boats, but that doesn’t make the boats themselves any more valuable. You can turn around this logic: There are some 20 million active blogs today that didn’t exist five years ago. Facebook traffic drawfs that of all major newspapers combined. Does that make blogs and Facebook a more useful resource than The New York Times?
Fewer Jobs, But Not Fewer Journalists
The second assumption is that journalism jobs are going away and with them, professional journalism. Egan cites Huffington Post, a favorite mainstream media whipping post because it pays its contributors so little. We could be left with a national snark brigade, sniping at the remaining dailies in their pajamas, never rubbing shoulders with a cop, a defense attorney or a distressed family in a Red Cross shelter after a flood, he moans.
Well, he’s got one thing right: in the future there will be fewer salaried staff positions at big media institutions. But it’s stretch to say there will be fewer professional journalists.
Huffington Post lists 30 editors on its masthead. We can assume that some of those people are getting paid. While it’s true that staff jobs are declining, there is a model for the future of journalism careers. It’s called freelancing. Lots of professional journalists make a perfectly good living today writing for multiple clients. Some of those clients are businesses and others are media organizations. The corporate work generally pays better, and that supplements the more interesting pure journalism work. Many of the best journalists in the US long ago left their staff positions in order to go solo. Most freelancers I know prefer the flexibility and freedom that the lifestyle provides. And most magazines couldn’t survive without their services.
Lots of industries work this way. The accounting profession has a few mega-firms and thousands of individual practitioners. Doctors can choose to work for a medical group or hang out their own shingle. Many independent consultants provide specialized services that their clients can’t get from big organizations. These people make good livings without working a staff job. Freelancers create good journalism without working for media organizations.
A Cleansing Process
The Internet is in the process of cleaning inefficiency out of the media business. To demonstrate the waste of the current media model, search for coverage of any major news story on Google News. Chances are you’ll find more than 100 stories about the same topic, each reported by a different organization. Every day across the US, hundreds of reporters, editors, copy editors and layout artists duplicate each other’s efforts producing the same stories about the same topics. This duplication of effort was necessary when the only way to reach readers was on a printed page. It isn’t necessary any more.
Why are there over 100 journalists at every Presidential press conference, political convention, World Series game and Olympic event when five could report the facts equally well? Is it conceivable that a smaller number of national media organizations could do the work more efficiently by pooling resources for the big events and farming out the color stories and sidebars to a network of freelancers? Could journalists make a decent living selling these services? I think so.
The destruction of newspapers is creating pain and heartbreak for the people who are losing their jobs. Our heart goes out to them. But this process is part of a necessary cleansing process, one that will force many journalists to re-evaluate their strengths and seek new sources of income. This will ultimately bring efficiency to a market that is shedding a legacy of waste and duplicated effort. Read Chris Jennewein’s upbeat piece on SensibleTalk.com about why it’s a great time to be a journalist for inspiration.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 4th, 2008 at 10:05 am and is filed under BusinessModel, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, NewMedia, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.