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May 21, 2009

Do journalists deserve to get paid?

In a recent op/ed, media economist Robert G. Picard argues that journalists deserve low wages until they can elevate their output above that of a random person with a flip-cam: "Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days."

Picard posits that journalists deserve low wages because technological interventions have rendered their profession largely obsolete. He doesn't think journalists add much now that anyone can report the news on a blog.

Op/ed writers are in direct competition with blogs, but reporters aren't.

A professional reporter working a beat with institutional support and editorial supervision can generate a lot of value that a shifting cast of volunteer bloggers can't match. Sure, we can all think of examples where the media have been ineffectual or even destructive--but consider the sheer volume of reported information about the world around us that we consume like oxygen.

That's not to to denigrate bloggers, it's just that most of them contribute something different--typically, analysis and synthesis of published reporting. There are plenty of blogs that report the news, like TPM and the Center for Independent Media blogs--but these sites are staffed by paid reporters who work their beats as like any other journo.

Picard simply has his facts wrong. User-generated content hasn't eclipsed professional reporting or even presented serious competition. Occasionally, you'll see a viewer-submitted photo of a tornado or a forest fire on CNN, but the overwhelming majority of the visuals are still professionally produced.

He claims that journalism has become deskilled. If anything the opposite is true: The internet has enabled many non-journalists to hone reporting skills they might never have cultivated otherwise (cf. Marcy Wheeler). The supply of skilled journalists currently exceeds the demand, which drives down wages--but that's not the same as saying that the supply is excessive because anyone can now do the job.

News is a volume business. It simply takes time and money to generate the steady stream of content that we've become accustomed to from our newspapers. There are no shortcuts. We can't expect volunteers to pick up the slack by covering stories in their spare time. Reporting as we know it requires a certain amount of command and control. The reporters don't just decide what to cover based on their whims at the moment, they get assigned stories by an editor who has some larger vision of what the daily mix should look like. There's no way a distributed armies of volunteers will reliably attain that kind of coordination. If you want someone to reliably cover boring school board meetings you have to do it the old fashioned way: Paying them to do the job.

Just try to get your all your news from blogs. Pick any subject you like, crime, courts, the state house, Congress and try to piece together the events of today using only original reporting from independent, unpaid bloggers. I bet you can't do it. You'll find extensive discussion of the events of the day and probably come away much better informed than if you just sat down with a couple newspapers--but you'll find the professional reporting provides the raw material for the vast majority of news-oriented blogging. Newspapers also provide raw material for a lot of TV and magazine journalism, not to mention fodder for congressional investigations, open source intelligence, and more.

Obviously, the professional press is nowhere near as good as it could be. Part of the problem is that papers don't have the resources to underwrite ambitious investigations or employ experienced reporters with deep knowledge of their beats. As jouro-turned-TV-producer David Simon likes to say, you can't keep doing more with less.

For the most part, people aren't declining to pay for the news because it's not good enough. They're just hoping that someone else will pay for them.

It's not print journalists who are obsolete, its the business model that supports them. Newspapers used to be able to subsidize hard news-gathering with classified ads and color advertising supplements, but those revenue streams have dried up. Blame the killer Craigslist. 

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Some critics of newspapers (e.g. Brad DeLong) will tell you that most of what's in the newspapers is just rewritten press releases from various governments, businesses, and organizations. I'm pretty sure these critics are grossly exaggerating, but in some cases, they are right. To take your four examples - "crime, courts, the state house, Congress" - in the first two always and in the last two sometimes, journalists just process the newsfeeds and press releases generated by the local police, the courts, and the major players in politics.

And all due respect to David Simon, but doing more with less is precisely what economic growth is about. I don't think Simon would apply the same principle that you can't do more with less to agriculture and then recommend that the US ruralize and have 90% of its population live on farms.

Brad's criticism is valid. There is too much press release rewriting going on and not enough real reporting. But ask yourself why there's less real reporting. Cutbacks and layoffs are a big part of the reason. Experienced reporters are getting bought out or switched from narrow beats where they have deep expertise to general assignment duty. It used to be commonplace for a mid-sized newspaper to have specialist reporters who did nothing but cover the state legislature or the municipal courts or a government agency.

Generally speaking, reporters rewrite press releases when they don't know what else to write, or because they don't have time to go out and investigate for themselves. It's safe. You're not going to get pushback from the subject because you're working from their script.

Some people are just lazy, but you'll find those in every profession. There are also deep structural reasons why the news isn't better.

Sure, you can do more with less--say, by improving technology, or managing the newsroom more efficiently--but there's a point of diminishing returns. Ultimately, good reporting is time consuming. You need boots on the ground. You need time to build relationships and cultivate sources. There's no technological or management fix that can substitute for that.

Test. (TypePad seems to be screwing with me.)

Most newspapers did relatively little investigative reporting even before Craigslist. Hell, some of the most successful ones, like the Times, never even made money - British aristocrats and now Murdoch would keep pouring money into it for the prestige. Conversely, even profitable papers don't do much investigation - by the estimate of one media critic DeLong links to, 80% of the stuff in the Wall Street Journal consists of rewritten press releases from large corporations. The remaining 20% is precious, but only takes 20% of the space of a newspaper. The rest subsidizes it.

On the other hand, with any discipline involving writing, there is so much more supply than demand that the product can be made for free. That's the point Robert Picard tried to make. Consider novels: a fiction writer will not see a dime from his writing until he sells his novel to a publisher. This requires the novel to be finished and not need too much editing, and even then there's no guarantee of success - in the US, about one book in fifty is published, and most people who send in manuscripts know that. There are still people who complain that fiction writers are no longer subsidized by magazines the way they used to, but still people write novels, many of which are good. I don't see why investigative reporting can't be made along similar lines, buttressed by some reporters who get paid regularly by CNN or the New York Times covering issues of national significance.

It depends.

What does it depend on?

My NPR station had their weekly airing (free!) of Alternative Radio, which presented Bob McChesney addressing this issue (writ a wee bit larger, perhaps). it was worth my attention.AR provides All their shows free to broadcasters, and makes its money from transcripts, tapes & CDs of the shows... apparently a model that, like NPR, works well enough.
One thing he pointed out was that the introduction of "press release" reporting (which had both political & economic roots) from around the end of the VietNam War on, had the effect of taking away the interest of the audience. ( I remember a book "On Bended Knee:..." that dealt with the press & Reagan White House.) Another biggie was corporate takeovers of newspapers, which eliminated any "partisan" expression in the competing papers. syndicates. When news acquires a bland flavor, it ceases to provoke interest. The end of "serious" radio/TV news coverage (& the 'specialty' beats, mentioned above) also has affected readers' response to journalism, in general.

It's interesting to see that the Seattle Int'l Film Festival (that opens today) has 59 documentaries scheduled this season. In some sense, this is the "replacement" for the investigative reporting of old. There has been a quantum leap, of sorts, ever since the Rodney King incident. A better-educated, & better-equipped general public is capable of providing some 'investigative' (or "right place/right time") info that's picked up by the media... if they choose to do so. It's a lot cheaper than a reporter... and, in general, that shows.

What gets done by "duelling foundations" these days is likely to be the best quality investigative work that we can expect... and I'd agree with Lindsay that the training is critical, if "quality" (rather than the sensational, etc) reporting is to continue to be available. Comparing reporting to 'writing a novel' is like comparing Calder to the people riveting skins on a Boeing jet. (And, as an aside, having something like 20% or more of Americans raising families while operating farms for a living is a far healthier & sustainable model, economically & culturally, than the "less than 2% miracle" of modern agribusiness. Been there... & doin' that.)
^..^

What the hell does "Healthier" even mean? The countries of the developed world, where 0-5% of the population engages in agriculture, are far healthier than those of the developing world, where it's anywhere between 10% and 90%. I know some rich idealists romanticize the peasant lifestyle, but the 80% of the world that isn't so rich moves away from it whenever it can.

Also, the fascination with the partisan newspapers of yore has to stop. There still exist remnants of that kind of reporting today - most successfully, the New York Post, whose business model of slander and innuendo has remained the same for about two hundred years. The same model has been reinvented by bloggers - if you want news with a partisan flavor, read Daily Kos. Even David Simon knows better than to idealize partisan papers: his commentary on the decline of the media is that it's worst in mid-tier newspapers (i.e. the Baltimore Sun), which try to provide real news to people rather than political hatchet jobs.

Hard to have sympathy for out of work journalists. What presumption... they feel entitled to a decent paying job in the field for which they have devoted years of study and development, a job that they may actually be good at. Ha!

Government policy that provides for mass and unending immigration and workforce outsourcing (legally sanctioned and otherwise) holds that no American should feel entitled to a job qua American. This policy, going on for close to 25 years (from Bush 1 through Obama), has undermined any sense of economic security for tens of millions of Americans in fields as varied as agriculture, healthcare, software engineering, meatpacking, construction, etc. By and large, journalists have not raised a word of criticism to call into question the basic assumption of this policy. In fact they have been cheerleading it. They swallow entirely the corporate/government/multi-culturalist line of bull that there are jobs that American will just not do, that the American economy would “collapse” without an unending flow of immigrant workers. And to add insult, journalists will be the first to impugn racist motives to those who oppose these policies that have been so destructive to the American worker

Now journalists jobs are threatened not by government directed policy but by interest neutral technological evolution and these journalists – again, generally speaking, who have never shown the least bit of skepticism of the government/business/multi-culturalist alliance – want our attention and concern? Cry me a river.

If I ran a newspaper I would fire the entire business/copywriting/editorial staff and outsource the work to India. For those critical jobs that require an on-site presence (reporters, gofers) I would import a staff of H1Bs. Hey, they are just doing work that Americans won’t do (And Americans wouldn’t want to do them at the wages I would pay). If I ran a law firm or university I would pursue similar policies.

You got a problem with this? You’re a racist. Case closed.

All news is marked with a source. If the source is for example UP, or a staff writer of the local paper it is more valuable then an anonymous blogger. Credibility is the main factor that determines the value of reporting.

Daniel, journalists aren't threatened by immigrants who do a better jobs. They're threatened by lower demand for newspapers. Outside the world of hate-filled Know Nothings, these are two completely different things.

>>Daniel, journalists aren't threatened by immigrants who do a better jobs.

They would be threatened if their corporate masters did to them what has been done to so many other American workers by exploiting immigration to drive down wages. And I hope it is done to them and to other smug elites - eg. lawyers, wall streeters, teachers, etc.... When the privileged themselves are hurt by the very polices they have endorsed and shaped, then we will see positive change.

But that they are displaced by technology? Oh too bad. Let them go wait tables, bar tend or train to be IT engineers or some other useless occupation.

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