Let's Talk Money

By RJI on May 12, 2009 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

Let’s talk money.

Yeah, the gig here is Talking Journalism. But it’s hard to deny the connection the week after hundreds of journalists at the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere took a big pay cut, apparently necessary because the companies they work for aren’t makingmoney.

A state of affairs recognized last week by the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which convened a hearing on “The future of journalism.”

The hearing stoked the already simmering debate—or more accurately complex of debates: Does journalism have a future? Should it? Assuming both those questions are answered in the affirmative, does that future lie in shoring up traditional news organizations? Or by letting these relics die, making room for their Internet-based replacements?

Either way, the surviving entities will have to be able to pay their employees, or—in the case of one-person operations—at least pay their way. So we’re talking money.

Alas, the debate has grown more tribal than economic, and the squabbling tribes are largely generational. Now and then a young person will side with the traditionalists, an older one make common cause with the “new media” faction. Mostly, though, it’s the old guys against the young guys (‘guys’ of both genders) with all the civility and restraint of so many parent-child squabbles.

Convinced that nothing is more foolish than trying to seem younger than one is (often attempted, usually in quite another context, and not pretty to watch) let’s fully disclose at the outset that this assessment comes from someone who can remember where he was not only when John F. Kennedy was killed, but when Bobby Thompson hit the home run.

But also the proprietor/operator of a news web site, so perhaps with a foot in both camps.

And at least for today, let’s avoid unnecessary squabbles by not taking sides on some of the specific proposals banged around that Senate committee room—an anti-trust loophole empowering newspapers to conspire to charge for reading them on line, or transforming the newspaper world into a collection of non-profits. We’ll let the technical experts debate the ins and outs of that stuff and concentrate on two basic questions or journalistic economics: (1)What is the ‘business model’ for the news-gathering organization of the future? (2) What kind of salary will those organizations have to pay their news-gatherers?

Though it was the financial decline of newspapers that inspired the Senate hearing, Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the committee, wisely described it as an exploration of “the future of journalism,” not of newspapers. Even we ink-stained old fogies have to concede that the world and democracy can get along just fine without newspapers. What they can’t get along without very well is news coverage.

Which costs money. The wording here is precise; not just journalism in general, but news gathering in particular, is what costs money. It isn’t that movie reviews, opinion columns, or even the crossword puzzles are free. Somebody has to pay the critic, the columnist, the puzzle syndicator. But lots of companies can earn enough to meet these payments. Furthermore, it really doesn’t matter if news organizations provide those services. Individuals can do them.

Wanna start reviewing movies, venting your political spleen or creating puzzles? Go right ahead. The web is your transmission device. You need neither newsprint nor a support staff. If you can attract enough ads or donations to make a living—or if you don’t have to make a living—you’re good to go.

Not so with the Baghdad Bureau. There you’ll need an office in a secure location, a car, someone to drive it and keep you safe, probably an interpreter. That adds up. Without as many security concerns, Moscow, Beijing and Nairobi bureaus aren’t as bad. But they, too, cost more than the average person has in his or her bank account. If Americans are to keep up with what’s going on in the world, it will be because some entity with money (company, university, foundation, person) invests in the coverage, and earns money or at least breaks even in return.

The same is true with Washington coverage, though here we have at least preliminary evidence that the business model has been discovered. Both Salon and Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo employ real reporters who have done real reporting. Talking Points Memo exposed the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal in 2007. Led by Mark Benjamin, Salon reporters have revealed problems with the treatment of U.S. soldiers who have returned from combat in Iraq.

Obviously, Marshall and the folks who run Salon have figured out a way through advertising, donations, and (for Salon) a premium subscription plan (pay enough and you get the site without any ads) to pay these real reporters.

But Washington is glitzy. What happens in Palookaville? When blogging impresario Arianna Huffington told the committee about some of the innovative national coverage on-line, former Baltimore Sun reporter and Wired creator David Simon, apparently an ink-stained old fogy despite being born long after Thompson’s home run, said, "The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”

Cue the tribal/generational war. On the Gawker web site, Ryan Tate replies that “citizen journalist” bloggers are in fact flooding city councils, zoning hearings, school board meetings and the like, “and the best of the crop are doing so individually, on their own and, somehow, basically for free.”

And worth every penny?

Or is that just the fogy talking? There’s nothing wrong with citizen journalism. There may be something wrong with nothing but citizen journalism. In Huffington Post, one Rob Fishman, apparently a young fogy (he’s a student at Columbia J-school) points out that “citizen policemen we call vigilantes; citizen doctors we call quacks; citizen bankers we call Ponzi schemers; and citizen musicians sing karaoke.”

Clever if overstated. Let’s be honest. Journalism is not really a profession as are most of Fisher’s examples. We need neither specialized training nor an official license. Still, there is something to be said for knowing what to do.

And perhaps for doing it with some detachment. To Ryan Tate, another advantage of citizen journalism is that “so many of the writers are deeply invested residents, rather than…superficially-engaged, careerist professional journalists…”

Point taken. But “deeply invested” is impediment as well as inspiration for good journalism, and “superficially-engaged” a pejorative for “disinterested.” Nothing said on either side in this debate refutes the wisdom of the classicist Edith Hamilton that “truth is a jealous mistress, and will reveal herself not a whit except to the disinterested observer.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for the devoted, or even obsessed, advocate. But let’s save a place at the press table for the professional journalists, careerist though they may be (and those ‘citizens are not? Gimme a break). Not the worst trait, careerism. Wanting to get ahead by doing the job right helps one…do the job right.

And it is a job. Jobs in our society do and should come with paychecks, bringing us back to our basic questions: How big should the paychecks be? Who or what will finance them?

It isn’t hard to answer the first question. Just use what the economists call ‘opportunity costs,’ a fancy way of saying, “How much would this cost you if you didn’t do it? Or, ‘what else could I earn if I didn’t do this?’

If a reporter didn’t become a reporter, he or she could probably become a lawyer and make really big bucks. But let’s be both more modest and more realistic and say that the person who becomes a journalists gives up a career in academia. To attract and hold smart and energetic reporters and editors, somebody is going to have to pay them roughly what they could earn on the faculty of a modestly prestigious college or university: $75,000 a year or so by age 40; six figures by the 50th birthday. Otherwise, they’ll go elsewhere. Even some of those “deeply invested” citizen reporters will, as they approach 30 or so, want health care and maybe the down payment on a decent house. Children happen.

And who or what will pay those salaries? A much harder question to answer, requiring the skills and experience of the entrepreneur as well as the journalist. The newsie of yore was not expected to acquire those skills, or even be interested in the business side of the business. Perhaps that’s a luxury we can no longer afford.

Neither, by the way, is approaching the issue as a tribal/generational debate. If you have a problem with your old man, take care of it at home. The future of journalism, if it is to have one, will require all participants to keep their cool.