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.