As the ranks of volunteer journalists grow

MSNBC cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who’s dutifully been chronicling the diminishing numbers of his fellow political sketchers, lets a Huffington Post contributor have it for carrying on Queen Arianna’s Newspapers Are Dead drumbeat:

. . . they crow about how they are the next new big thing in journalism – although they operate on round after round of venture financing, without a sustainable business model, stocked with content from volunteers.”

Cagle’s passionate defense of his tribe, however, didn’t get much sympathy in the comments section — of his own blog!

His point about HuffPost’s venture capital-backed business model is a salient one. Huffington is pledging to spend some of the new money on an investigative reporting fund and has hired a top Washington Post editor to direct the project.

Which is all very well and good. She still doesn’t know what business models will work for online journalism, but is convinced it won’t be via subscriptions, which she claims are ideal for “weird porn” and little else.

I do believe Queen Arianna is serious about bolstering journalism in the digital age, though the recognition she’s getting is causing more than a few stomachs to churn. She’s been willing to entertain prospects that few old media entities will touch, including, most notoriously, requiring an intern to pay for the privilege of working for free.

What will she do when this pile of money runs out? Will she link to some “weird porn” on HuffPost to generate real revenues? Talk about page views!

It’s easy for her to sit on the high-profile pedestal she enjoys, with some of the precious few venture capital dollars that are being dispensed these days, and make her typical sound-bite remarks. She’s got the indefinite ability to keep buying time and spend money to find something that will work. Many other journalists freshly ejected from newsrooms don’t have that luxury.

A large group of bought-out journalists from the Newark Star-Ledger is forging ahead with a local news site that has done well with page views, but is unlikely to provide a living wage for the forseeable future:

“Not only is no one getting rich, but also no one has come close to cracking the code on a sustainable business model. Even absent trucks, newsrooms and administrative costs, making the calls and reporting is an arduous, expensive endeavor.”

I would love for this storyline to play out happily and heroically, but I know better, having been involved in a similar startup that is on hiatus because of a lack of funds. How much time do you give some of these folks before they’ve got to start looking for gainful employment? When they have to curtail or end their volunteer journalism is when a venture like this collapses, and I truly hope that doesn’t happen.

While the treatment in the New York Times is nice, that’s not going to pay the bills, either. All the new media gurus who flap on and on about this being a wonderful time to experiment with the future of journalism are in the same exalted spot as Queen Arianna. With their consulting gigs and academic tenure they’re not under the gun to decide whether they can afford to be part of that future. The bad economy is only a temporary cover for what remain speculative ideas that have yet to be truly tested.

I don’t mean to sound impatient; we’re still at a very early stage of a huge transformation in media. And not just in journalism, as other media professionals are experiencing the fallout even more harshly.

So we’re the “Lost Generation” then? That’s rather a self-absorbed phrase. It is sinking in about what we’re losing (aside from our jobs), and the gap between the journalism that’s vanishing from newspapers and what might fairly replace it online may be deeper and take longer to bridge than first imagined.

It’s a sobering time for reflection as well as preparation for the future, whatever it may hold for many of us who thought journalism was going to be a lifetime pursuit. Yet I can’t imagine what freshly minted j-school graduates are going through.

Their task might be even more Sisyphean than those of us Boomers who’ve at least had a couple or three good decades in the profession.

Which is about the time it might take for journalism to reach the Digital Promised Land.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s