Joshua Foust has a great retrospective about the implications of journalism’s decline, inspired by a Pew study that shows public relations professionals making around $20,000 more than journalists on average.
This should be thoroughly unsurprising — in fact, the downward salary pressure on reporters is what ultimately pushed me out of the field. When august publications like The Atlantic build their runaway successful websites on the backs of freelancers literally working for free, it seems churlish for the field of journalism as a whole to wring its hands that so many writers are decamping for a field that has vastly more salaried jobs, where the salaries are vastly higher.
Self-serving public service myths aside, journalism is an industry just like any other, and if the industry as a whole declines to pay its employees competitive wages (when it pays them at all) then there should be no surprise when there is a labor flight from the market. But a lot of this pain is entirely self-imposed.
Foust calls out the madness of expecting things to be free, although to be fair, that Kool-Aid was pretty delicious in its utopian awesomeness. I myself may have drank a little free content purple sugar beverage at the time. But then, so didn’t the New York Times.
That is precisely what made it so impossible for me to continue working as a freelance journalist — all of the incentives cut wrong, and in a marginal field like “foreign policy” where clicks are always low and the overwhelming pressure it toward tabloidism, I couldn’t make it work.
But it didn’t have to be this way. For decades, as online spaces like BBS, Craigslist, and the like, stole fistfuls of advertising and classifieds income from newspapers and other services, they stayed relatively stagnant. It was a big deal when the New York Times decided to charge people money for reading the copy that they spent enormous sums of money to produce — why? Because the New York Times Company persisted for so long in the myth, well past any rational reason to do so, that things online can or should be free, while things “in the real world” (as if there is a meaningful difference anymore) should not be. You can leaf through a paper copy of the New York Times in a Starbucks or whatever, but you can’t just take it home with you for free — yet that is precisely how they operated online for several decades.
It was madness, almost like they wanted to face bankruptcy.
It seems to me that real journalism is a public service, not a business model. We should treat it and fund it as such.
As an Australian, “I love my ABC” (and SBS).
When I emerged from journalism school in the mid 1980s (because Lou Grant), PR already paid better than journalism. A few of us — facing newsrooms that were attempting to diversify, and doing it from the bottom up — ended up on the marketing side (mostly to escape the bleak prospect of years of toil on small-market and weekly papers).
Most of those jobs don’t even exist today.
The slide in freelance salaries has been even more pronounced. I know of exactly one writer in the fly fishing space who is making a decent living, though only because he’s a deceptively brilliant writer, he started selling articles in the 70s when magazines still paid for them, and every one of his 16 books has remained in print (including those published in the 80s).
He doesn’t think he’d make it today, noting that magazines (in this admittedly lifestyle/hobbyist space) are paying less in real dollars today than they did in the 70s and 80s. In most cases, a lot less.
The results are predictable. Today we see a lot of fawning, uncritical coverage of outfitters, manufacturers and others. In a hobbyist space, chickenshit journalism is merely irritating.
In the larger political scene, chickenshit journalism will see the demise of democracy.