For some reason, I’ve been mildly afraid to post here via e-mail, but
here I am giving it a go. Wheeeee! Aren’t I brave and amazing? No?
Fine. You’re not so great either by the way. Yeah, I said it.
Today it all started with this Poynter tidbit. But of course whatever “this” is has been going on for much longer. I imagine that ever since the first time someone said “It’ll help you gain visibility!” in regards to wrtiting online for free, there have been vicious debates.
On the other hand, we have situations like this local example. And of course overall, more anti-HuffPo stuff is being written and said online than I could possibly link to here.
Personally, I’m torn. I’ve never written for HuffPo, but I do write for free on Windy Citizen or the Daily Daley to be more exact. However, there is an ocean of difference between a lone local news entrepreneur and one of the wealthiest and most connected women in the world. The differences in resources and in access are astronomical. Ironic, isn’t it? One of the much-touted qualities of the Internet is supposedly its power to democratize, but we cannot escape glaring inequalities here.
Of course it doesn’t begin or end with HuffPo. They get so much flack because of their size and this is deserved, but they aren’t the only media property banking on free writing. I recall for instance someone posting a “job ad” on the AWJ-Chicago e-mail listserv. I’ve put it in quotes, because it was an ad for an unpaid position. Members’ angry reactions were swift and numerous.
Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of anger and frustration out there and no one quite knows what to do. Has anyone any idea how to sustain journalism as a paid profession? The question already been asked countless times, but I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer.
Everyone loves a great story. But they aren’t free. Whether it’s being crafted by a public relations person or a journalist, a story costs time and money. And these days, there isn’t nearly enough of the latter to ensure that every story worth telling gets told.
I remember one morning, not too long ago, hearing from an acquaintance who works at the Mercantile Exchange. He had been chatting up a Chicago cop who works security there and she had complained that the computer system for booking the bad guys had been down for 2-3 weeks. Thing were getting backed up, stuff was probably falling through the cracks, etc. She said neither of the town’s newspapers seemed to care. So I, sitting there at my day job having nothing to do with reporting or news gathering of any sort, got to work on running it down. Why? Because if I didn’t, it was plainly obvious that no one else would.
On another recent day, a commenter over at the Windy Citizen was concerned about a new initiative in a local school district. There was a meeting with parents that night and she was concerned that no one would be there to cover it, much less do a story on the thing and stick with it to see what would happen. She had tried to cover some of these issues herself a few years back, but being unpaid and unsupported in the task proved difficult and she couldn’t keep doing it. Having contacted paid reporters about these education issues in the past, she lamented that even they were too busy and overwhelmed to really do justice to all that needed to be covered and investigated.
Yet another time, another Windy Citizen regular posted a story about a local flophouse for the poor and indigent where a drug arrest had recently been made. Privately she told me that the living conditions in this “hotel” are apparently deplorable and the owner is, as is the custom in Chicago for many a slumlord, heavily connected. Would I want to maybe do some digging on this? I read her message and sighed sadly. Yes, I would love to do some digging. But see, I’ve got this part-time job and also a little paid freelance work and job listings to comb through and furthermore, would anyone even care?
Finally, as the founder and public face of the Daily Daley, I get people contacting me every so often with ideas on stories. You should look into this or that they advise. I smile ruefully and tell them that I’ll see what I can do when all the while I know very well that what I can do is nearly nothing. I used to feel terrible about it, but now I just shrug and think, if paid journalists are having trouble covering even the most high-profile shenanigans, why should I, an unpaid regurgitator of the news, feel badly about not covering them?
There’s no other way to put it: this is a crisis of epic proportions. Consider that for each of these untold stories, there are surely ten more that no one will ever hear about. Consider that it takes a foreign reporter to do a longer, more thoughtful piece about murdered children on Chicago’s very own south side. Consider that there are many people like me who yearn to report and to inform, but we cannot or will not do it for free even though that’s what some prominent people with book deals want.
I repeat: this is a crisis. Sadly, I don’t have the solution. Increasingly, it seems that no one else does either.
Someone tweeted this story and although it’s from a Candian publication, I’m sure I’m not the only American who will find that it describes my predicament. Of course it doesn’t quite describe me. First off, I’m not exactly young according to the story’s parameters. Turning 29 later this month, I might as well be a senior citizen. Second, I’m not exactly unemployed. I work part-time and do a tiny bit of freelancing for the Trib. Nevertheless, I completely relate to this sentiment from the young woman the Vancouver Sun quoted:
“I don’t think people care about young people. Young people are really undervalued,” Ms. Hoang said.
Except for me (and many others) you can replace “young people” with “journalists” or “writers.”
Once upon a time, I had a bit of a tiff with Neil Steinberg on Facebook. Actually, I’m sure there wasn’t just one tiff. Being, generally speaking, on opposite sides of the political spectrum and from very different generations, I believe he and I had more than a few disagreements. You can do the same of course. Unless things have changed, Neil is very likely to respond and, I must admit, respond thoughtfully.
The particular argument that I recall dealt with the topic that so many are enamored with now: mainstream media’s seeming inability to function in the new digital reality. Mind you, we were having this discussion even before the recession hit in earnest and took with it so many advertising dollars upon which newspapers and other printed publications depend.
I don’t recall anymore what sparked it, but somehow Neil and I started talking about bloggers stealing journalists’ work, the low newspaper readership among young people and other such things that signaled (or caused) the breakdown of mainstream media’s thought leadership. “But we don’t WANT to be told what to think and read!” I stubbornly insisted. Surely growing exasperated with me, Neil asked who or what I would turn to for reliable, fact-based information. YouTube videos my friends sent me?
Back then of course I was typical of my generation. In other words, I was righteous, angry, self-assured, eager to burn down the old world and hellbent on destroying anything resembling authority. Thus I fumed at the very suggestion that one of the roles professional journalists and the media organizations that employ them play is to be the arbiters of what is newsworthy or what deserves the public’s attention.
Back then I lacked the vocabulary to know that what we were talking about was whether media professionals should be gatekeepers or curators of information and news. I was then a proponent of the latter. Nowdays, I’m not so sure. Which side do you come down on? Are you with Chris Anderson, Jeff Jarvis and a huge legion of others? Or are you with the likes of the Telegraph’s Andrew Keen? Or is a compromise possible?