Where Is Journalism Going? (And Will We Know When We Get There?)

I feel like I’ve been reading an uptick in ‘what is the future of journalism’ articles these days, complete with all kinds of speculations. Undeniably, the Internet has fundamentally changed the nature of journalism, in a lot of ways, and we are very much in a transition period. As we talk about the directions journalism is taking, there’s one aspect of the current model I am particularly interested in: How (and when) people are paid. If they are paid. Because this, I think, is a huge problem and it’s one that is going to increase in seriousness as journalism shifts.

I’ve discussed this before, but, put bluntly, one of the serious consequences of the explosion of Internet journalism has been that people are not getting paid for their work. A lot of media outlets rely on what is basically volunteer reporting from members of the public, relying on people who are unpaid to do their legwork and in some cases to write, film, and photograph reports. This is called crowdsourcing and people talk about the democracy of journalism by the people, for the people, but what it leaves out is people who would like to actually make a living on journalism, something that is becoming increasingly hard.

Because, here’s the thing: I think we need paid journalists. And I say this not just as a writer who does some journalism work and likes to get paid for it, but as a media consumer, as a member of society, and as someone interested in how people interact with and access news. There is a certain value in paid journalism that seems to be getting elided by some discussions about the future of journalism, although it’s certainly high in the minds of many people working in the industry.

This was really highlighted by Mayhill Fowler’s very public exit from the Huffington Post. HuffPo, for those who don’t know, doesn’t pay the majority of its journalists[1. Many people seem very surprised to learn about the very low and sometimes nonexistent payscale for online-only journalism; think about how much you think people are getting paid for the things you read, and then scale that estimate down. And down again. Ok, you might be close to reality.]. Fowler protested, arguing that it was difficult to conduct investigative reporting and to be an impartial journalist when she wasn’t getting paid for her work; if you aren’t being paid for what you write, you have to find other ways of supporting yourself, and some of those ways can compromise your ability to be a good journalist. When you aren’t being provided with editorial support like fact checking (I love my fact checkers!), your work as a journalist suffers and so does the integrity of the organisation you write for.

Fowler is a good journalist. She will continue to be a good journalist and I hope her career expands and she finds work where people will pay her what she’s worth, because she is worth it. But she, like so many journalists right now, is struggling with where she fits in this new model. Giving content away, to a certain extent, can have some advantages and there are definitely times when it is a strategic move. There are other cases when it’s not, where being forced to hand out content for free results in taking a loss and being unable to support yourself in the long term; if you’re constantly hustling for the limited paid work, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.

Obviously people newer to the profession and people without professional training at a J-school are going to be paid less, and will be obliged to give away more free content as they work their way up in the ranks, especially working as freelancers rather than as members of a fixed staff. I don’t believe all journalists should be paid equally, but there has to be a tipping point somewhere, and I think we’ve crossed it.

It’s not that I think people giving away free content should stop, or that they are doing something wrong. I think there really is a place for crowdsourcing, for reporting from people on issues that aren’t being covered by the mainstream media, and I don’t want to deny that. But there also needs to be room for paid journalism, for journalism careers, in this model, and I don’t know quite how to make that work. As people give content away, people also expect free content, making it hard for media outlets to manage to pay their personnel, forcing them to turn to people giving away content, and creating a vicious cycle.

In the realm of paid content, pay for work in many areas is going down, which is another problem. You might be getting paid, but not as much as before, unless you are a journalism rockstar or a well known columnist. You don’t get to rockstar status without an established career in the industry, and it’s hard to do that when you can’t have a career because you’re not being paid for your work and you’re being forced to do journalism on the side. It’s hard to pay off those student loans from J-school when you’re having difficulty getting a job because you expect to be paid for your work.

Journalism is not a side job. It’s an occupation that requires focus, tenacity, and limited ties so you have the ability to investigate as freely and fully as possible. There’s a certain point where we have to stop asking people to give away content, and we have to start telling people that supporting independent and thorough journalism requires paying for it.