The future of journalism: Will journalists be paying out of their own pockets?

While talking to an editor at a newspaper that had made a splash with a crowdsourced investigative story a couple years ago, I remember the subject of payment coming up, to which she made an interesting point. The citizens who contribute their time and effort have a personal interest in the story and do it because they want to help the paper – this is a citizenry interacting with its hometown newspaper for the betterment of the community and for the good of democracy. It was a valid point. After all, if they paid their citizens, they wouldn’t just be citizens anymore, they’d be employees.

News organizations have long been excused from digital sharecropping, a label that has been attached to crowdsourced businesses that exploit free labor from the public without offering compensation. Perhaps, media entities benefit from the altruistic and democratic nature of information sharing. The millions of Internet users that voluntarily put content out for free are more than a testament to that.

But where should the line be drawn? When should news organizations and media conglomerates begin to have to start paying for utilizing the time and resources of their volunteer contributors while holding complete ownership of the product – or at the very least, making revenue off of an individual’s product?

When Lindsey Hoshaw, a California journalist keen to investigate the “great garbage patch,” a huge mass of plastic  flotsam circulating in the Pacific Ocean, pitched the idea to the New York Times, the paper’s Web site expressed interest in the story and agreed to potentially pay her $700 for pictures. The trip alone would cost Hoshaw 10,000$, however. So she approached the crowdfunding Web site Spot.Us (where readers pledge donations to fund stories of interest to them) in order to raise money to cover travel expenses. The organization is hoping to garner 60 percent of the entire amount, and Hoshaw plans to take out a loan for the remainder.

The paper – and Hoshaw herself – justify the partnership because it is “a story she has long dreamed of, and [it’s] a chance for a byline in The Times,” one that allowed her to use the stalwart organization’s name to raise funds. The Times is not doing anything different in this case than it would do in the case of any farfetched freelance pitch – outlining how much it would pay her for the story and leaving it up to her to figure out how to obtain the remainder of the funds.

Jeff Jarvis calls this a necessary  “collaboration” in the new media ecosystem. His argument is that this is not very different from the Times site picking up a story that someone may have posted on a blog, for instance. Legally speaking, it’s more than fair. The paper’s Web site doesn’t own the story unless it funds fifty percent or more of it.

As per Spot.Us’s terms, unless a news organization decides to contribute one hundred percent of the funding, it doesn’t get exclusive rights, and if that were to happen, donors get reimbursed.

In an age where newspapers are struggling to raise revenue, all options are on the table. “Whatever you call it, what’s happening spotlights an important step in how we’ll pay for the news: finding some workable alternatives to news organizations shelling out big bucks required to cover important news in far-away places,” writes Bill Mitchell in Poynter this week.

This is not the first time The Times has partnered with a nonprofit site. It also has an ongoing collaboration with the publicly funded investigative reporting site ProPublica, which routinely offers its stories to America’s most influential newspaper for greater impact.

While this “journalist as entrepreneur” model is fueling important stories that might not otherwise get covered, it is also dangerously shifting the costs of reporting on to the shoulders of young, enthusiastic reporters.

Over the past couple of years, American journalist Jason Motlagh has reported on everything from the Maoist rebels in India to civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but doesn’t get much more than a travel stipend for his stories.

Motlagh is part of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis reporting, which I wrote about in a previous post; the nonprofit is covering stories that traditional American media are not covering for want of international bureaus that were shut down during the start of the industry’s crisis over two years ago.

The Center helps its reporters market their stories to other news organizations to “maximize impact.” In partnership with the organization, Motlagh’s work has appeared in the public broadcasting show, Foreign Exchange, the Frontline’s iWitness webcam program, and the Virginia Quarterly. But it is unlikely that this concept of “reporting first, money maybe later” will continue to allow journalists to make a career out of reporting.

This has, perhaps, been the plight of freelancers for decades, but what is scary is that veteran newsmen and stalwart news organizations are hailing these projects as exemplars of the new journalism model. Motlagh “is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget,” writes David Westphal in the Online Journalism Review.

If the news industry plans to rely on young, ambitious journalists eager enough to make a career so as to pay for their own breakthrough stories, where will subsequent stories come from? While journalists like Motlagh and Hoshaw should rightly be lauded for their determination and passion, this is simply not a sustainable model. Media scholars should be talking about workable ways to fund these projects and urging mainstream news organizations to get behind them, instead of making the case that this is the future of journalism.

14 thoughts on “The future of journalism: Will journalists be paying out of their own pockets?

  1. paulbradshaw

    This is a concern that has nagged me more and more recently, although I think it’s one that pre-dates the web: journalism has been so poorly paid recently that most journalists have to leave the industry when they need to support a family (the much better terms of employment in the growing PR industry help).

    But perhaps to reduce this to its purest terms, the issue is ‘How do we ensure that the experience and wisdom built through journalistic work is spread beyond the person who did it?’ For Help Me Investigate, that’s a knowledge base that sits alongside investigations and builds with them, feeding into new ones; that’s just one attempt.

  2. Simon Clarke

    I suspect journalism as we have known it is not a sustainable model. It has existed for decades thanks to cross-subsidy from advertising and a market with high enough barriers to entry (printing/distribution) that it was somewhat protected.

    Now we have a publishing model that is much more fragmented and, via the web, trackable so that advertising money is much more diluted. And, though heaven knows why given the pitiful wages, a glut of practitioners coming from journalism colleges.

    In combination, this makes for the situation you outline. I read and posted recently of a Seattle neighbourhood blog [] that runs on essentially a volunteer basis, subsidised by the owner/journalist’s part time job. Watch out for this more in the future.

  3. Mark

    In the blog post, the author writes, “The millions of Internet users that voluntarily put content out for free are more than a testament to that.”

    The author is absolutely right in the sense that a solid financial structure must be set up by news organizations in order to pay reporters. While David Westphal’s vision of the “prototype for the journalist of the future” may be realistic, it appears to be hardly sustainable.

    However, and back to the point about the millions who voluntarily produce free content, the reason that newspapers may not have the money to pay their reporters adequately is that their revenues are shrinking because audiences can go elsewhere to get free content. One possible solution could be to market better the differences between professional vs. amateur journalism.

    In the meantime, sorting through the plethora of information on the Net is nearly a full time job. Perhaps professional news organizations could forge contracts with news analyzers such as, which analyzes various media perspectives in order to present the core truth of the story, in order to have their work seen by more people.

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  5. karthikaswamy

    Absolutely. The inability to monetize the product of journalism is making it more and more of a side profession, and that’s why it’s scary because hardcore “slow-brewed” journalism (as you’ve rightly called it) can only be done right with experience and training. Also, it’s a full time job. Projects like HMI are good because they tap into this expertise while still allowing the nonexperts to do the less specialized stuff, and hopefully make it cheaper to do serious journalism. Yeah, the exodus of journalists to the PR and consultancy industries is not good for journalism, but perhaps unavoidable till the news industry figures out a way to pay its employees.

  6. karthikaswamy

    Yes, unless the news industry figures out a way to tap into online revenue it is not going to have a sustainable business model (they should perhaps learn from Google but they’re not really being helped by precise Web metrics).
    The sad thing is that sites like the Seattle blog you mention are left to do much-needed journalism without any sort of revenue stream because no media entity has the money to invest in it. It’s perhaps fun and interesting to do it on a “good cause” basis for a while but it remains to be seen how long such projects can go on.

    Much as I believe in the distributed nature of content and contributors on the Internet, I agree that there needs to be some sort of demarcation between in-depth journalism that is borne out of time and resources spent on a story and mere reproduction of content. There was the recently proposed system of “kitemarks” that would authorize some form of certification of content depending on sourcing and analysis but then again the question becomes who do you trust to do that, and would that make new media much too hierarchical. But regardless of those questions, if journalists need to be paid, their content needs to be valued, and there is no better determinant of that factor than money!

  7. Amir

    I am writing as one of the young, future journalists this post is concerned about. I know there are no jobs, so I’m not under any illusions of getting a nice salary when I finish College. I know I’ll probably be a broke freelancer for a while. For the right story I would even be willing to spend my own money to get it published.

    There is, however, a limit to everything. If I cannot make enough money in journalism to have a nice life, I will make that money somewhere else. The news industry will go through an incredible brain-drain over the next couple of years if they think that freelancers will take jobs that pay no money simply for the honor of getting a by-line.

  8. karthikaswamy

    Amir, yes, unfortunately this can’t last very long. Its not a very sustainable profession, one that doesn’t pay! Let’s hope its a transitory phase though, since the news industry is still just experimenting with new media monetization. One thing’s certain – media is indispensable, so we’ll have to come up with some creative solution to save it!

  9. Teach_J

    I am wondering if we don’t end up seeing history repeat itself. Back in the 1800s nearly every town had not one, but two newspapers a Democrat one and a Republican one. Maybe we will see political parties sponsor newspapers again in order to get their opinion messages out with the news.

    I think another possibility is philanthropy. News organizations could be run entirely online from the proceeds of a generous non-profit trust. They could continue to take donations too in order to build the trust in the hopes of employing more journalists.

    And I think that news organizations could be built as non-profits with community support in the same manner as PBS/NPR, especially if, like many PBS stations they were affiliated with a college or university.

    Finally, we may not even yet be able to imagine how journalism will work in the future because it may be radically different.

  10. karthikaswamy

    That’s a really interesting – albeit slightly scary – estimate of where journalism might be headed. It’s very possible of course – there have already been reports on MSM outsourcing science stories to research labs, and PR professionals taking up the slack in the case of news about their firms and employers. So, why not with respect to political parties as well?
    I guess the onus is then on the reader to separate bias from fact, but in the world of blogging and social media the audience is already sufficiently trained to do that.
    My personal pick would be nonprofit/publicly-owned journalism – yeah, there is a reason why the best news comes from places like the BBC and NPR. Perhaps, philanthropists and organizations that crowdfund could be part of it as well, contributing to the “pool” if you will of funds available for journalism.
    I see your point about the media heading to some place radically different, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued on this way – to use Jeff Jarvis’ term – as an ecosystem of news; the main difference would be that the players contributing to it would continue to change.

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