“Why journalists deserve low pay.”

Economics professor Robert G. Picard argues that many journalists deserve low pay in an article in the Christian Science Monitor and, to my surprise, I agree with him. Picard’s thesis is:

To create economic value, journalists and news organizations historically relied on the exclusivity of their access to information and sources, and their ability to provide immediacy in conveying information. The value of those elements has been stripped away by contemporary communication developments. Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay.

Until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.

I’m not slamming the media or reporters. In fact, if I were looking to start a business now, or start a new career, I’d be looking at journalism. Precisely because I think that this is a great opportunity to redefine the value of the labor of journalists, for all of the reasons that Picard outlines.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

11 replies on ““Why journalists deserve low pay.””

  1. I can agree, but only to an extent.

    There are two areas that I see journalists adding value:

    1. Yes, there is a wealth of information available on the ‘Net. In fact, there is TOO much. Someone needs to sift through it, find the relevant pieces, vouch for their reliability, and assemble them into a coherent, concise picture.

    2. Where there is NOT a wealth of information available is in local coverage. Who’s going to write up tonight’s high school football game? Sure, you can get 15 seconds of video from NBC29, but football fans crave more. There are lots of local events, stories, etc. that are much more immediate to readers that need accurate, unbiased (well, as unbiased as humans can get) coverage in a post-Daily Progress world.

  2. The “value” of journalism declines with the participation of the citizenry in a democracy.

    U-Hoo is right to a point. The “value” of most of these “dying” newspapers came from their coverage of local politics and events. It did not come from running AP stories which were also available for “free” on the network news.

    I think the decline of newspapers can be traced to the absolute ignorance at all levels of society about individuals and their communities.

    I recently spoke with a constitutional officer in Virginia. The individual has been in office for two terms. They are from a fairly sophisticated jurisdiction. They made the following comment, “If you asked 100 random people in this county to name one of the five constitutional officers, I would say about 15 people could name one and perhaps 2 or 3 would be able to name all 5.” That’s a pretty sad statement about our democracy. When people do not care about local affairs or gov’t, these newsrooms are going to die because that’s always been their bread and butter. I think the cause of the decline in local papers is only partly due to the internet. I think the loss of interest in local communities is just as culpable if not more so.

  3. But which came first, Ghost, the lack of interest or the lack of coverage? Our local paper has so few reporters left that not only do they not cover the local issues, they haven’t done much on the gubernatorial race. With daily circulation of about 200,000 households, if they covered these things, perhaps the public would be better informed and would care.

  4. I think the article fails to understand the business model of newspapers during the first 200+ years of this nation. Journalists didn’t have “exclusive access to information.” Their employers had exclusive access to the means of communication.

    Through the economy of scale in printing, newspapers generated value and profit margins that (at least in the second half of the last century) were the envy of most industries. Journalism was a hobby that newspaper owners could afford. It’s not an exaggeration to say that journalists and editorial writers filled up the empty spaces between very lucrative advertisements.

    The nation’s democratic system was richer for this arrangement. Newspapers published the first cries of independence from Great Britain. (You can look it up.) When the journalism side of the newspaper business worked well, citizens had the information necessary to hold business and government accountable. Newspapers had sufficient revenue to afford to employ college-educated professionals who eventually became experts in their field of coverage.

    What has changed is that technological changes have stripped newspapers of their publishing monopoly. While it may be exciting to hear new voices, the day may be fast approaching when people want to know about the actions of their school board or the state legislature will have no trusted source of information. A passerby uploading photo from their cell phone or a partisan hack texting their thoughts is a no substitute for old fashioned gumshoe reporting.

    I don’t want to romanticize things. Newspaper reporters could be sloppy, lazy and biased. Some publishers threw their weight around. It wasn’t perfect, but it now looks a whole lot better than what the future seems to hold.

  5. Sy Hersh?

    Hersh is a great example of a journalist who doesn’t deserve low pay. What he’s doing can’t be Googled. No matter how many software gee-gaws that I build, I will never be able to get the information that he has, and I will never produce anything as useful as what he digs up with a few months’ hard work.

    The thesis here isn’t that journalists deserve low pay. It’s that journalists’ pay should be commensurate with the value of their product. If we don’t need reporters to show up at City Council meetings to act as a stenographer, because bloggers are doing that work for free, that’s great. Hopefully that means that there’s space in the market for reporters who will skip the who, what, when, where, and how, and move onto the why. That’s really valuable stuff. That’s what Sy Hersh does, and that’s what every journalist worth their salt does. The trick is teaching average citizens that there are journalists doing that work, and that we can’t let them go.

    Very interesting discussion here folks—I’m learning a lot.

  6. Waldo, it sounds like you have an almost mystical view of the “market.”

    Sy Hersh got his start as a correspondent for news organizations. He didn’t break the My Lai Massacre because he was a blogger who happened on the scene. He was in Vietnam because the “market” enabled a news organization to generate enough revenue to afford to put a team of reporters on the ground. The experience he gained as a journalist launched his career as a book author and freelance journalist. Such a career arch could not happen today, because the “market” says the newspaper model is broken. Newspapers can hardly afford to staff places like Richmond. And as long as people expect content on the Internet to be free, I don’t see a “market” that can pay a journalist a living wage, much less a middle-class wage.

    Maybe someone smarter than me will figure out a new model. But for now it looks like the best the “market” can afford is a network of social misfits who report from their parents’ basement.

  7. Vivian J. Paige,

    That is a good question. Perhaps the lack of coverage led to the lack of awareness. Regardless of the answer, I am very dismayed at the citizenry and can only hope that solutions can be found to engage individuals in their communities.

    Also, great blog!

    Waldo Jaquith,

    I agree with the idea that the why is valuable. However, I’m more concerned that the who, what, when, and where are not being communicated to others.

    If you are really interested in this question, I think an interesting angle would be to know about the training in journalism school. I wonder what has been taught in the past few years.

    I will say that I talked to a former sports reporter at WSET 13 in Lynchburg. He told me that the station news team was obsessed with weather b/c “that’s what the viewers wanted.” An interesting statement….

  8. The weather report is very cheap for WSET to produce. I suspect that’s why they (or C’ville stations, anyway) waste so much time telling us what the temperatures were in various localities during the day we just experienced. Like anyone gives a damn.

    They’re running out the clock, filling the spaces between the commercials.

    I used to watch the 11 p.m. news every night. I can’t stand it anymore, so now I check for local and national news on the ‘Net, check in at Wonder Weather, and call it a night.

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