Do bloggers devalue journalism?

Science journalist Angela Saini has written an interesting post on ‘devaluing journalism’ that I felt I had to respond to. “The profession [of journalism] is being devalued,” she argues.

“Firstly, by magazines and newspapers that are turning to bloggers for content instead of experienced journalists. And secondly, by people who are willing to work for free or for very little (interns, bloggers, cut-price freelancers). Now this is fine if you’re just running your own site in your spare time, but the media is always going to suffer if journalists don’t demand fair pay for doing real stories. Editors will get away with undercutting their writers. Plus, they’ll be much keener to employ legions of churnalists on the cheap. In the long-run, the quality of stories will fall.”

Firstly let me say that I broadly agree with most of what Angela is saying: that full time journalists offer something that other participants in journalism do not; and that publishers and editors see interns and bloggers as sources of cheap content. I also strongly support interns being paid.

But I think Angela mixes economic value with editorial value, and that undermines the general thrust of the argument.

What reduces the value of something economically? Angela’s argument seems to rest on the idea of increased supply. And indeed, entry-level journalism wages have been consistently depressed partly as a result of increasing numbers of people who want to be journalists and who will work for free, or for low wages – but also partly because of the demands of and pressures on the industry itself.

UPDATE: Ben Mazzotta fleshes out the subtleties of the economics above  nicely, although I think he misinterprets the point I’m trying to make.

“Although entry-level journalists are badly paid, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the economics of Nicholas Kristof’s salary. Kristof’s pay goes up or down based on what the papers can afford, which is driven by subscriptions and advertising. In fact, the more liars and bad writers are out there with healthy audiences, the bigger is the pie for the best journalists to fight over. Effectively, that’s just a few million more hacks that Kristof is better than. The best columns in journalism are a classic positional good: their worth is determined by how much better they are than their competitors.”

Editorial value, not economic

Angela’s point, however, is not about the economic value of professional journalism but the editorial value – the quality, not the quantity.

There’s an obvious link between the two. Pay people very little, and they won’t stick around to become better reporters (witness how many journalists leave the profession for PR as soon as they have families to feed). Rely on interns and you not only have a more unskilled workforce but the skilled part of your workforce has to spend part of its time doing informal ‘training’ of those interns.

So where do bloggers come in? Angela mentions them in two senses: firstly as being chosen over experienced journalists, and second as part of a list of people willing to work for little or for free.

‘Blogger’ is meaningless

But, unlike the labels ‘intern’ and ‘freelance journalist’, ‘blogger’ is a definition by platform not by occupation, and takes in a vast range of people, some of whom are very experienced journalists themselves (with high rates), and some of whom have more specialist expertise than journalists. It also includes aspiring journalists and “cut price freelancers”.

Does their existence ‘devalue’ journalism? Economically, you might argue that it increases the supply of journalism and so drives down its price (I wouldn’t, but you might. That’s not my point).

But editorially? Well, here we have to take in a new factor: bloggers don’t have to write about what publishers tell them to. And most of them don’t. So while the increase in bloggers has expanded the potential market for contributors – it’s also expanded the content competing with your own. Competition – in strictly economic terms – is supposed to drive quality up. But I’m not going to argue that that’s happening, because this is not a market economy we’re looking at, but a mixed one.

I guess my point is that this isn’t a simple either/or calculation any more. The drive to reduce costs and increase profits has always led to the ‘devaluing of journalism’ as a profession. Blogging and the broader ability for anyone to publish does little to change that. What it does do, however, is introduce different dynamics into the picture. When you divorce ‘journalism’ from its commercial face, ‘publishing’, as the internet has done, then you also break down the relationship between economic devaluation and editorial devaluation when it comes to journalism in aggregate.

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12 thoughts on “Do bloggers devalue journalism?

  1. Pingback: Os blogs são bichos maus? : Ponto Media

  2. simon gray

    Does the legion of ‘bunches of lads’ who get together to form a band to do the occasional gig in a pub devalue professional musicianship?

    Does the relatively modern practice at weddings of disposable cameras being placed on tables at the reception devalue professional photography?

    Does the existence of WordPress devalue professional website design?

    Does YouTube devalue professional film-making?

    These are, of course, all silly questions – the part-time blogger who writes about the interesting stuff going on in their street is no more devaluing the professional journalism of the local paper (which stopped covering interesting stories on peoples’ streets long before bloggers came along anyway) than the existence of amateur choirs are devaluing the City of Birmingham choir.

    Reply
  3. Annette Rubery

    Very interesting points, Paul. I have to say (as both a journalist and a blogger) that the problems arise when two separate worlds collide. Journalism is a hard-nosed commercial undertaking; blogging is very often focused on helping the community or sharing ideas and making links between like-minded individuals. It’s when the latter content (often created as a labour of love) is made available to an organisation who will then sell it commercially (usually with the empty promise of ‘great exposure’) that the problems start. The blogger is often given little or nothing in return (in some cases not even a byline) and journalists find themselves replaced by free content. This is a no-win situation for everybody except the commercial organisation; we won’t solve this problem until bloggers stop being impressed by ‘the media’ and learn to value their own content and the environment in which it was created.

    Reply
  4. Mark

    There’s a problem with this sentence…

    “Now this is fine if you’re just running your own site in your spare time, but the media is always going to suffer if journalists don’t demand fair pay for doing real stories”

    I’m not sure if all journalists are doing ‘real stories’ anymore. Oftentimes the newspapers I read are a day or two behind blogs, or completely miss [important] stories I see on niche blogs.

    Loads of journalist are doing stories on the latest government/official press release or straight stories on the new local council ‘initiative’, not ‘real stories’.

    While the journalist will do the straight story, the blogger will post on why it’s stupid, a waste of money and link to evidence of where it has been tried previously.

    And I say this as a journalist.

    Reply
  5. The Worst of Perth

    And how quaintly touching it is that “baffled” journalists are still bleating about this literally years after everyone else concerned has moved on. I have to respond to Simon Gray’s “Does the relatively modern practice at weddings of disposable cameras being placed on tables at the reception devalue professional photography?” with Yes. It does devalue the monetary return of wedding photography, but photographers aren’t still whining about it in the way that journalists are. It’s how it is, so they have found different ways to make it pay. Jounalists complaining about bloggers is as pointless as pro photographers complaing about digital cameras, something they stopped doing more than a decade ago.
    And to Ben Mazzotta’s “The best columns in journalism are a classic positional good: their worth is determined by how much better they are than their competitors.” I’d say, well yes, but that’s the whole problem. The paid ones aren’t any better than too many of the unpaid. Worse in too many cases.

    Reply
  6. Paul Bradshaw

    It annoys me as well – but I can’t change it sadly, as the blog switched to WordPress MU with Journal Local a few months back and that’s one of the cons to go with the pros. I could change the theme, though, so will keep looking for one that suits.

    Reply
  7. Matt Wardman

    I think that the basic error is in trying to define “journalism” as a “profession”. The p word is being used as an alternative to “people who make a living from writing”.

    J never has been a profession. There is nothing absolutely distinctive in the skillset, and qualifications for professions (even pseudo professions) are regulated legally.

    God help us if Government approval was ever needed to be a journalist.

    It sounds far too much like the NUJ “circle the wagons around the money” approach from a couple of years from the NUJ.

    Having said that, Angela makes a lot of good points.

    Reply
  8. Stephen

    Blogging isn’t even a medium – it’s a format. That’s just a way to get information to people. Reporters gather information and report it. It doesn’t matter if it’s on paper, in a long-form narrative or in three paragraphs on a blog.

    There are people blogging for very healthy salaries at the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and more, as well as bloggers doing great work such as those at the various Village Voice publications.

    Reply
  9. Tony

    Everyone is taught to write and we’re all allowed to express our views. It should be easy to tell what’s written by a journalist because it will be professionally written (we hope).

    Reply

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