Some needed talk about the costs of journalism

As the debate continued last week over how to (or even whether to) pay for general interest news online, there were a few insights from bloggers and commenters who had the audacity to bring the subject of journalists — and especially how to pay them — squarely back into the matter.

I highlight a few below because I hope this conversation will latch on in a Journosphere that’s so heavily obsessed with business models right now.

Of course, it’s necessary to discuss business models. On Sunday the Los Angeles Times, which has been ransacked by staff cuts lately, profiled a southern California online news startup, explaining not only how it covers its costs but what the costs of doing journalism entail:

“Because it doesn’t have to print newspapers, Voice of San Diego puts the majority of its $825,000 annual budget into salaries for its 11 journalists, who make from $35,000 to roughly $70,000 and focus on government, education, law enforcement, real estate and science.”

Now that’s quite useful information to this displaced journalist, especially the salary ranges. This is the sort of detail that needs to be factored in when discussing business models, payment options and other ways news startups are operating. It’s understandable that for now the costs of journalism are being severely constricted by how much funding the outlets can round up. But it’s not an ideal method to foster quality journalism over the long term.

Nick Carr argues that eventually we’ll have to pay for journalism online in some fashion. Among other reasons, those who do the work simply cannot be expected to volunteer their labors, or provide it for next to nothing:

"Journalists of the world, you have nothing to lose but . . . uh you've all lost your jobs? Er, health care! Er, bylines! Er, do you have anything left?"
"Journalists of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your . . . jobs? Uh, health care? Uh, bylines? Uh, anything?"

“Reporters, editors, photographers, and other newspaper production workers are skilled professionals who require good and fair pay and benefits and, often, substantial travel allowances. It’s a fantasy to believe that the production of all the kinds of news that people value, particularly hard news, can be shifted over to amateurs or journeymen working for peanuts or some newfangled journo-syndicalist communes.”

As a member of a relatively new journo-syndicalist group I can say it ain’t no commune! Thank goodness! Seriously, these points are good to keep in mind as business models are tried and as revenue streams start flowing. The latter may seem far from immediate, and far from enough to pay for the journalism that many startups have in mind. But they’ve got to be a significant part of the equation.

Yes, the link is the thing in online journalism, in online anything. But far too often the work of creating content — the material that forms the link — and those who craft it are glossed over.

John Zhu chimes in along a similar vein:

“Information of any kind doesn’t just come into existence on its own. Cell mitosis occurs every moment of our lives, but the information about its occurence didn’t come into existence until a scientist observed it and recorded the observation, and that scientist, most likely, is paid for his work.”

In responding to yet another “future of journalism” meditation, a commenter offers a reminder that doing the news isn’t a process for just anyone:

“One of my frustrations is the emerging idea that journalism is easy, that any citizen can (or will want) to do it. Many ‘new’ models seem to assume this. Professionals journalists make it look easy, just as a professional musician makes playing an instrument look easy. I would not want a citizen-engineer building my bridges. I do not want a citizen-journalist keeping an eye on my government.


“A good journalist can sit through a four-hour planning commission meeting attended by 2 citizens, boil down the often wandering discussion into a coherent piece that is distributed to the rest of the citizens who were at home watching American Idol. Are there bad, agenda-pushing journalists? Sure. There are unethical and careless people in any profession. . . I don’t think amateur journalists (and let’s call them that, rather than citizen-journalists) have that same sense of accountability and responsibility, and any business model that relies exclusively on their judgment, to me, is ill-conceived.”




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