What Kind of Journalist Works for Free?

In a recent Folio article, Dan Blank makes a list of concepts he’s gleaned from attending three recent “Future of…” panels. The list looks like this:

  • Broadcast media is dead.
  • Print revenue is supporting online strategies.
  • Media companies need to rethink their roles and make hard choices.
  • There is a huge opportunity for journalists.
  • The advertising model is not dead, but it is fragmented.

Some of these continue to beat a dead horse, but I’d like to think for a moment about the “opportunity for journalists.” Blank goes on to say, “The opportunity might not have as much financial value as it once did—but in terms of pure reporting—of serving the public and reaching niche audiences—the tools and reach are now available to all.”

On the heels of this article comes a post today on D/All Things Digital by Peter Kafka suggesting that the “online-only newspaper of tomorrow, for a decent-sized city, will have a staff of 20 people. That’s 20 people, period. Perhaps six of them will be ‘news gatherers.'” (This estimate comes from Mark Josephson, CEO of Outside.in.) Ignoring the issues raised by the pro-forma P&L in the post, let’s focus on the idea posited there that much of what the news organization will do is aggregate “a river of extra content created by local bloggers, Twitterers and lots of people who don’t even think of themselves as content creators, like people who post real estate listings.”

The third part of this little trilogy is an article in The Guardian today by Charles Arthur stating that “The long tail of blogging is dying.” Arthur sees fewer and fewer blog posts linking back to Guardian articles because, he believes, “blogging isn’t easy. More precisely, other things are easier – and it’s to easier things that people are turning.”

Now, if I put all of these things together, I discover that there is a great, low paying opportunity for journalists in the news organization of the future which in large part consists of aggregating local blogs that are quickly dying out. Gee, I’ll bet media companies are salivating over that prospect. Seriously, who’s going to write all of this citizen journalism for free? How long will professional journalists stay with jobs that are low paying?

I’m not arguing that no one can report the news but “journalists,” or that media companies will ever be able to support big newsrooms again. I’m saying that we haven’t found the answer yet. Producing valuable writing every day is hard work and something that few amateurs (meaning they’re not getting paid for it) have the time or determination to do for long. Sure, people will always produce news bursts dealing with specific events, but that is far different than investing a great deal of time investigating a city council or a police department. It’s not whether someone is “qualified” to do it, it’s whether they have the time. And if they consistently have the time, don’t you find yourself wondering why? People will only do so much for free, and then they have to move on and get a job.

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