Friday, February 05, 2010

Journos aren’t helpless against market forces

Without question, there never has been a bigger response to this blog than the one that greeted the piece the other day encouraging journalists to demand to be paid decently for their work.

The preponderance of comments – which apparently were authored (for free) by starving journalists – was quite favorable. Thanks, guys.

But the most interesting reaction came from people (here and here) who said journalists should quit bellyaching and continue working for free because they happened to be on the losing end of the supply-demand curve. Well, anti-bellyachers, I wholeheartedly disagree. And here’s why:

If journalists want themselves and their work to be respected, they are going to have to keep bellyaching – and withholding their services until they are properly compensated. It’s right to be paid a decent wage for your work. Walmart knows it. Starbuck’s knows it. And it’s high time that exploitive online publishers know it, too.

The nut of the anti-bellyacher argument is as follows:

It’s a shame that the old media can’t afford to retain many journalists. It’s a good thing that so many new media sites are emerging to showcase their work. Because there are more journalists available to work than dollars to pay them, journalists should accept the fact that the market is against them, quit bellyaching and get back to working for free — or something awfully close to it.

I readily stipulate that the traditional media businesses are hurting and that web start-ups provide a welcome outlet for latent journalistic expression. But I don’t accept the argument that journalists are powerless against the market forces arrayed against them.

The way to address the supply-demand imbalance is not to submit to ever-lower prices for your work, but, rather, not to work at all. If the supply of willing hands contracts, then publishers will have to pay up to fill their pages.

Empty pages mean diminished page views. Diminished page views mean reduced advertising revenue. Lagging traffic and sales will get the attention of the websites that exploit journalists.

It’s a tough call for anyone to balk at a too-small paycheck when the alternative is no pay at all. If selling your services at a discount is what you have to do to make ends meet, then by all means do it. And don’t give it a second thought.

But journalists have nothing to lose by not working for free. When you say no to exploitation, you have everything to gain in terms of enhanced self-respect.

33 Comments:

Blogger Southern Beale said...

Awesome!! And let me say this goes especially for us freelancers. Just say no to intellectual sweatshops like Demand Studios, who pay $15 a story and think you can pop out two or three an hour. Or Examiner.com, which expects you to promote your work and only pays based on how many hits you get and how much you produce. All of this devalues what we do.

It hurts every one of us. I blogged about this Craigslist ad I saw where I can earn a whopping $3 for a 300-word blog post. A penny a word, how awesome is that! And this clown says his writers earn $15 an hour? Um ... doubt it, dude. If anyone is churning out five of these things an hour I doubt they are accurate, use real sources, or even adhere to the basic rules of grammar.

Just say no, people!

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Keith Griffin said...

It's an excellent observation. We have to get beyond the mind set that we're practicing a literary skill and accept the fact that we're engaged in a profession that is highly skilled and deserves compensation. It's amazing how many people will sell themselves out for no compensation just to have their writings published.

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to write a very intelligent, insightful comment that will generate traffic on your site. What's your rate -- and do you buy just first rights?

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Andy Zipser said...

Alan,
Let's see: journalists should be paid a living wage for their work. But if they withhold their work in an attempt to get higher wages (or any wages at all!), they won't succeed because a surplus of journalists ensures there always will be someone else ready (translation: desperate enough) to do the same job for less pay.
Ironically, this vicious cycle is the flip side of the one faced by newspaper publishers, who are complaining (whining? belly-aching?) about aggregators and bloggers stealing "their" material. What to do? The leading idea at this point seems to be to put everything behind a pay-wall. But here the publishers face the same dilemma as the journalists: if only some publishers use a pay-wall while others don't, the ones who do will see their page views evaporate as fickle readers flock to the free sites instead.
Of course, publishers aren't dummies -- or if they are, they have enough money to hire people with brains. And what are those people doing? They're figuring out how to dodge the antitrust police while colluding on a concerted strategy so that all the publishers -- or at least a critical mass of them -- can jump behind the pay-wall at the same time. If only journalists could develop a mechanism for doing something similar. . . .
Like, perhaps, a union?

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Mutter, but I don't think following his advice will get many people what they want either. Not right now, at least. Photographers have been dealing with this issue for a number of years, particularly with photo agencies like U.S. Presswire that require most photographers to work for free -- unless their photo sells. Then the photog gets a piece of it. It's a little different obviously, but, in the past, photogs relied on day rates. Now most them cannot. And simply standing by the sidelines, demanding to be paid, hasn't gotten a great deal of them anywhere. There are simply too many decently talented freelancers willing to do the work for free -- for fun. Is the work as good as what paid professionals did? In some cases, no, but in many cases, yes. The majority of journalistic work out there is essentially mediocre -- from big to small newspapers. And, for the time being, I don't think most journalists are going to get anywhere demanding they paid from the sidelines. The truly valuable and talented will be able to get away with that. But most journalists are going to struggle and not work. Because if they're unwilling to work for free, there's 20 other people who will. I know. Half my friends who used to be journalists got desk jobs and write for blogs on the side. For free. Are they stupid? Not if they're happy. And even if they chose not to, there'd be a ton of people in line to take their place.

7:56 AM  
Blogger BnLProductions said...

Alan,

How about an effort to out companies that use Demand Media?

A public campaign pointing out that these companies are essentially driving these slave wages could be effective.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous The Daily DG said...

Hi Alan,

I agree 100% with the spirit of the argument, as a journalist who's worked freelance for many years.

However, I think the problem here is the individual against the collective: each freelancer needs to make a living so he or she won't do what's best for all freelancers. (Is there some freakonomist out there who can tell me the name for this classic dilemma?)

Of course, a union sounds like a great solution -- but that's Socialism!!! *wink wink*

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Jim Donnelly said...

Good pay for writers who can think analytically instead of re-write press releases or otherwise spew dreck is a lot like clean air and water: Everyone supports it. I certainly think it's a worthy objective, but reality tells me it's difficult. I worked through two unionization efforts, once as a newsroom supervisor. I came away with some fresh knowledge of that whole process: Grudges among the supposed union brothers will quickly come to the fore, thanks to management, which will tacitly exacerbate them no matter what the law provides. The organization effort therefore falls apart. The management I dealt with made it clear they were determined to stop a union at any cost. The only true hammer in this fight is an ability to completely halt production and distribution of the product. In this age, that's not going to happen until the providers themselves go under. I do think, however, that people who produce provocative journalism will find a paying outlet, and I don't mean $15 for a story. Most of the bloggers, etc., out there aren't at that level. Most never will be.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Alan on all points.

But, there's a wrinkle here. Journalists are taught, from day ONE of j-school and/or our careers, that we should accept low wages. I specifically remember my first j-school class and the professor specifically saying that we won't get paid a lot. And this was a top j-school.

That mind set was hammered home while in college, and the first several years of my career.

You're not in it for the money.
You're not in it for the money.
You're not in it for the money...

The result is that we have accepted low wages, and the idea that anyone making decent wages is "selling out."

Once I left newspapers, I was amazed to find that writing is a rare, specific skill set. Guys, most human beings can't write worth a damn. And I'm talking about high level vice presidents with six figure salaries.

So we have this rare skill set, yet we've been brainwashed to accept low wages.

That's a problem, and it's going to take quite a while for us to recover from that.

8:50 AM  
Blogger VirginiaO'Possum said...

For me the issue is the quality of the work. It's not just that I don't want to write three articles an hour for $15; I don't want to write three articles an hour. It seems to me that merely insisting we are worth more is not going to be persuasive; but providing work that clearly shows the value of adequate research and thoughtful writing might be -- at least eventually, if readers get tired of the thin gruel of about.com and examiner.com and their like. What we may have miscalculated is the tremendous appetite for superficial treatment of many questions. Somehow in addition to demanding to be paid what we are worth we must also promote the value to readers of better-quality work.
But then, I'm still waiting for people to recognize that they need proofreaders and editors again, too. The question for me is whether I'll live that long!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Southern Beale said...

How about an effort to out companies that use Demand Media?

LOVE that idea. I was very disappointed to learn that LiveStrong was using Demand Media.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This must be how the hookers felt at the beginning of the sexual revolution. Why are they giving it away for free?

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We can decline to provide services, but plenty of people out there will work for nearly free. You get what you pay for, but news outlets seem to have no problem printing and broadcasting absolute rubbish. Unfortunately, principles don't pay the bills. I'm a freelancer who will not write a detailed analysis of Iran for $200, as I was recently offered, and giving up all rights in the process. But I'm also working for a government contractor on a ridiculous project in order to have an income and I haven't worked in journalism in months. When are editors and managers going to realize that quality reporting will bring traffic and thus credibility and then generate income? Freelancers are the best deal - we bring more value dollar for dollar than anyone else in the news chain. We don't want a desk, we'll take care of our health insurance, we're more than happy to compete with staffers in the realm of story ideas, we just want a fair wage. WAKE UP, EDITORS -

9:33 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this low-pay scenario is not going to be changing anytime soon. Not only are journalists facing a decline in the value of the industry and massive changes to its economics, we are also facing the same economic conditions as everyone else.

I've worked in construction for 10 years. Trying to hold the line on prices, let alone increasing them, is not working. Newer, less skilled, workers continue to flow in and work for less in order to take the work. We have not seen an increase in residential subcontracting prices in 10 years- even though the prices of homes continued to increase. 10 years!

Journalism seems to be becoming much the same monster. Professional journalists are competing with amateurs on the web now that the traditional gate-keeping media outlets are losing value. Even if everyone who comes to this site agrees to hold the line on prices, even if all professional journalist hold the line, new people will flow in to write those articles.

There will absolutely be a difference in quality. But just like with quality in construction, the defects won't be so apparent until much later, after its too late.

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a great idea in theory, but in practice you'd need a lot of organization and outreach to convince every journalist, freelancer, citizen-journalist, etc., not to work below a minimum pay.

I am compensated for my freelance work (fairly for the most part, but who wouldn't want a pay raise?) but it's clear there are many publications - especially, but not limited to online media - that expect and receive work for free or next to nothing.

Now, I won't work for free or for pennies a word, but there is always somebody who will. Those are the people undercutting the rest of us.

Two solutions come to mind: unionizing (ridiculous, I know) or focusing on crafting high quality work. In my opinion, somebody banging out 300 word posts/articles/whatever for a cent a word isn't going to do a good job of it. Readers can see that and they'll drift away with advertisers following. We just have to wait for the market to shift back in our favor.

That all being said, I think there's real credibility to the assertion I keep hearing that journalism will return to its blue-collar, working class roots in the near future.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, your argument is silly. Riddle me this: what is the next employer willing to pay someone with journalist credentials and experience? In my observation of what has happened to my colleagues at a large southern paper -- very little. Sadly, that's their objective value to the marketplace (not the journalists' sentimental value to themselves). There is little or no professional equity in journalism experience or a degree. They've all struggled to find work as journalists or carry their cred and experience to other professions. Why would a publisher pay these people more than the next employer would? I'd say the publishers, too, have the most information on the value of that labor. If they're paying nothing, most likely that's a close estimate to its worth. Writing well is not worth as much as you think. Employers pay for knowledge and journalists think they know a lot more than they actually do.

The relatively high salaries that journos once enjoyed (my God, and I knew a 60-something reporter making six figures who did nothing but complain all day about how miserable his job was) resulted from the monopolistic industry structure. The publishers were making fat profits and could pay talent accordingly. This internet thing has eroded the barriers to entry and now it's hyper-competitive, driving down all production costs -- and profit margins -- including labor. Which now, apparently, is close to zero.

Parenthetically, I think most J-schools are commiting academic fraud, printing university degrees that have no value in the marketplace. And what is their intellectual rigor? I mean, wouldn't most of these folks been better off in English, pre-law, history or political science (definitely science or math). But I guess as long as there are students dumb enough to pay for a J-degree, well, keep cashing those checks. Go State! That's America. Jeez, even social workers get paid.

But if you are dumb enough to get a graduate degree in journalism, you should be rendered unto science for them to conduct dangerous, painful, fatal experiments on you in an attempt to rid the world of stupidity.

By the way, I went to grad school for business and mathematics and make much more money now than I did at the paper (did OK there, too). My 10 years in the bigs are completely wasted and useless. Face it, it's a crappy business that should go down the tubes.

11:44 AM  
Blogger KE said...

Hi, Alan --

We're in a painful transition, I think the more dialog the better. That said, "journalists" as a group are not threatened -- public issue journalism, stuff that doesn't appeal to the masses like celebrity and sports news, is what is threatened. The lack of a viable business model for what we think of as the modern U.S. news organization is a real concern -- the ad revenue simply ain't there.

In that light, this argument, which I'm deducing to be directed towards the class (public issue) of threatened journalists ...

"The way to address the supply-demand imbalance is not to submit to ever-lower prices for your work, but, rather, not to work at all. If the supply of willing hands contracts, then publishers will have to pay up to fill their pages."

... seems to willfully ignore the freeloader effect. See ag marketing cooperatives and unions for elaboration.

Your call to action ain't gonna happen with 100% buy in (via "law"?), because there is /always/ someone willing (or able) to jump into the work pool at a rate lower than others are. It's the same reason that publishers aren't going to succeed at paywalling generally-available content until all of them agree (which would arguably be collusion and, thus, illegal).

Moreover, the public issue journalist is a minority in the newsroom, and I believe (without an ounce of data) that the subject matter (city hall, corruption, etc) is of minority interest in the general public.

What worries me, a lot, in this period of transition is that news organizations continue to cut budgets associated with content but don't seem to do much to dent salaries and bodies in upper management (aka overhead). I wish someone had an analysis of how much public interest journalism newspapers have done, historically, so we could see if our concerns are valid.

The shrinking newsroom in any given market is not new, although it may be that the rate of shrinkage is greater today than 10 years ago. In the aggregate, the newsroom (ie, reporters - not editors and columnists) has shrunk due to consolidation (reduced number of papers in any given market) as well as due to (IMO) a bean-counter approach profitability. (I call it the "save ourselves into profitability" mindset.)

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When someone works at a craft regularly for little or no money, there is a name for that: A hobby. With no barrier to entry -- no need to buy ink by the barrel -- journalism may changing from a profession to a hobby. At its best, turning out quality nonfiction writing is satisfying enough that some people, perhaps many people, will do it for free. Some of them will likely be very good. After all, serious poets have reconciled themselves to writing exquisite poems without expecting poetry alone to support them. This is sad for those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed journalism as a profession. But as much as I'm a union gal - a shop steward - I suspect unions aren't going to fix this one. So here is my line in the sand: I refuse to do bad journalism for low wages. There are other worthwhile jobs in the world.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

Totally agree. I'm an Australian writer and I'm to blame as much as anyone for being in the predicament that I'm in, of not ever being paid for one word I've written, and I've over 20 published articles.

Well no more. Suite 101 tells me that a top writer (for them) can earn $1000.00 a month, well big efing deal; I can make three times as much working at McDonalds.

Time for payment for everything I write. Fight the power.

Rob

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Randolph T. Holhut said...

A grand attempt by freelancers to get paid a decent wage has already been tried -- the National Writers Union

It started in 1981, affiliated with the United Auto Workers in 1987 and probably did more to advance the rights of freelancers than any writing group before or since.

The NWU Standard Journalism Contract was a model that a few enlightened publications adopted and it helped to set a baseline for freelancer pay. It also provides contract advice and a grievance process.

Unfortunately, the NWU met its Waterloo fighting the New York Times Co. when it was among the first to require freelancers to sign all rights contracts and refused to compensate writers for repurposing stories for the Web.

The case, Tasini v. New York Times Co., went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2001 and the NWU won. Unfortunately, most writers never saw the $18 million settlement that the Times was to pay to writers who work was posted without compensation was never paid, as the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals voided it in 2007.

The NWU (www.nwu.org) still exists today, and claims about 1,400 members, but it has never fully recovered from the Tasini case and the freelance market is far worse today than it was in the late 1990s years ago when many veteran freelancers refused to sign the all-rights deals and were dismissed by the Times and its sister paper, The Boston Globe.

Solidarity is great, but the corporations that control the media today are tough to fight unless there was truly a united, concerted effort to withhold content from the sweatshops like Demand Studios and Examiner.com as well as a consumer boycott of these outfits.

And, by way of disclosure, I was an NWU member in the 1990s and my wife was one of the freelancers who refused to sign the Boston Globe contract.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous John Fox said...

Well, L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction for just a penny a word, and look at the quality of what he ended up producing!

6:47 PM  
Anonymous gearfreak@comcast.net said...

Even at the "new media" training institutions whose growth is exploding like so many mushrooms in spring cow$hlT, exploitation continues, and characterizes how business is conducted, and gives us some insight into the future. Mediabistro.com, who likes to describe themselves as the "premier career, community, and content resource for media professionals" was looking for photographic coverage of their recent two-day conference on "Web 3.0" in Santa Clara. $100 a day was offered on Craiglist for coverage of an event that not too long ago would have commanded $125 an hour. Needless to say, it was a day that promised to be much much longer than eight hours, based on their shot list and caption needs and deadlines, and event organizers raised the pay to $125 per diem. No surprise, their contract was an all-rights buy-out, and failed to factor in basic, usual and customary fees like travel, media rental, parking, meals -- never mind cameras, lenses, lighting (and back-up) and a laptop. My interviewers assured me, what *great* exposure this event would be for me (which I declined to pursue). Lest *anyone* think this was a meeting pulled together on the cheap, one could attend the two-day event for $595 (!!) or be a sponsor for $12,000. As a reminder and call-to-action, we as journalists need to push back and educate these so-called educators about what appropriate fees might be, and how they are arrived at.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Radio Ann said...

Today I heard an interesting comment by a career counselor. She pointed out that the job seekers who were least successful finding a job were the ones who were looking for something exactly the same. I see this a lot with the bought out and laid off reporters in my adopted state of Minnesota. At the Daily Planet, a participatory journalism website, we get so many photographers, reporters, writers scrounging for work - such as this evening as I was fielding questions from a gentleman wanting to learn more about the organization. He seemed puzzled, and I'll grant, what we're doing is experimental...but I remember thinking, this guy is going nowhere because he's always going to be looking for what he's done before.

Baby, what came before is long gone.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Carl Hall said...

Despite the air of hopelessness wafting around some of the comments to the Newsosaur’s blog post, this is one of the most heartening discussions I've seen in some time about our craft.

I'm a Guild representative in SF trying to help some of our members get a freelance unit going. We want to concentrate on solutions. The problem stems from a loss of market power for journalists. You all know the reasons -- low to zero barrier to entry, drop of asset values, clumsy pricing mechanism, rampant theft of product, technology shifts, bad decisions etc etc.

I believe some of these problems will be self-correcting. For instance, the idea that journalism has become a "hobby" may be tested the first time a publisher gets whacked with a lawsuit because a hobbyist distorted critical facts just for fun.

Merely shining a spotlight, the way Alan did, on the sordid reality of today's journalism market also may help. Even a few top talents who insist on decent terms can make a difference. People really don't enjoy being exploited.

Clearly, that's not enough. Creative effort also are needed to set a higher standard. That's why my own union, the California Media Workers Guild, has been trying for the past year to help get the Bay Area News Project get going. We have no formal role now, but we hope to gain bargaining rights for the staff. We want to help this experiment succeed. For me, that means helping it develop into a quality nonprofit that will never tolerate cheap exploitation and low standards. Perhaps this will force others to raise their standards in the bargain. I recognize that some kinds of journalism may be a public good that will have to be subsidized, kind of like the opera or pollution control. So be it.

Existing high-quality commercial publishers -- and yes there are some -- may find a way to hang on. I hope they benefit from the competition and contributions of the new nonprofit sector springing up. For sure, a lot of creative management will be needed -- that's something we've not seen much in these dark times for newspapers. But some managements have toughened up, and smartened up, and are facing their challenges. We journalists, organized or not, must work collaboratively with these managements every chance we get. We have to skip some outdated ideology and find new strategies. We need to help our industry adapt to new technology and find new markets.

It's absurd, by the way, to be condemning innovative journalism schools like UC Berkeley and Columbia, which are needed now more than ever, to shape the transition and maybe help us all figure things out. It’s even sillier to be fearful of students. We need to welcome students and all the newcomers to journalism. We want to organize them, too. One thing journalism always needs is fresh talent. For one thing, they aren’t big on kowtowing, and would like to be paid, too.

We are discussing all kinds of tactics and strategies. Some will fail, but maybe some won’t. The point is to try to work it out, and never give up. Actors, barbers, baseball players – all kinds of trades have fought against rank expoloitaton and lived to tell. So can we.

If I sound like a chump, sorry, but I’m no kid. I have the scars you might expect on a newspaper guy who’s also a union guy. Talk about obsolete! But I've never understood why people think you don't have to fight for what you deserve. Maybe some people think they have no RIGHT to fight. Sometimes it’s hard to swim against the torrent of hopelessness, anti-union biliousness and tea party nonsense. It can be fun, though. And we can make it pay.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strike out on your own with a niche content site and do your best to find a business model. And get a side job to pay the bills. What's your niche? I do hope you have one. Let's also hope the field isn't too saturated with web sites in that niche.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Southern Beale said...

This must be how the hookers felt at the beginning of the sexual revolution. Why are they giving it away for free?

Meh. Prostitution is still a booming business, at least if my local daily fishwrap can be believed ...

11:57 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Unions? When Bill Serrin retired at the NYT, his labor beat was retired as well. In New York!

4:06 PM  
Blogger Patricia of Trakai said...

Carl Hall wrote: "For instance, the idea that journalism has become a 'hobby' may be tested the first time a publisher gets whacked with a lawsuit because a hobbyist distorted critical facts just for fun."

Um, in the case of freelancer/contractors/whatever, wouldn't it be the writer who gets whacked with a lawsuit and faces personal ruin? I'll bet the Web 2.0 publishers are writing it into their contracts/terms that the writer bears all responsibility for accuracy, potential libel, etc.

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not working for free is admirable and I refuse some insultingly low offers. But the problem is there will be 10 people who believe they can write, can cobble together some kind of crap and a site like Examiner or Demand will publish it. Those sites aren't looking for journalists; they're looking for "content providers" and that is lowering the standard for everyone.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Editor said...

I'm the editor of a trade magazine and our circulation has risen by 20% in the past year, which I put down to the unbeatable quality of our content. I am approached all the time by writers willing to work for free and I have never taken any of them on. Never. The reason? If they're willing to work for free, they're a hobbyist and I want and need professionals.

Unfortunately, we don't pay very well, but still within the bounds of professional rates.

The media has gone into a death spiral, driven by too many owners who don't understand the media - people still want good content and they will pay for it if they can't get it for free (we don't give away our articles on the web). The better the content, the more readers you get. Simple.

I have not come across one professional freelance journalist of any calibre who will work for free, which is as it should be. Anybody who accepts work for pennies writing blog posts of internet articles is not a professional and such work will not lead to anything more substantial.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Kitty said...

My goal as a freelancer is to reach a point where I have enough steady work coming in that I am able to say no to pay-on-publication commissions. It's bad enough that I'm expected to sell 1500 finely-crafted words for A$100, without having to wait six months for my glorious reward.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous alex said...

yes, the world will miss good writing once it's gone. and then maybe, just maybe, good writing/reporting will come back. but good writing is going away whether journalists withhold or not. the tiny fraction of people producing good content for free is like flea standing up to the internet tsunami.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a lovely theory, but it'll never work in practice. The reality is that many of us did articles for free while working for magazines as copy editors or editorial assistants as a way of getting published clips. This simplifies that process.

1:50 PM  

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