The Decline of Journalism

There is a fascinating Pew study about the growing pay gap between PR flacks and reporters. As a current flack of some sort (though I work for a non-profit), and as a former journalist, I have some thoughts on the matter. But first, the meat:

The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade – to almost $20,000 a year, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.)

In 2013, according to BLS data, public relations specialists earned a median annual income of $54,940 compared with $35,600 for reporters. In other words, journalists on average earn just 65% of what those in public relations earn. That is a greater income gap than in 2004 when journalists were paid 71 cents of every dollar earned by those in public relations ($43,830 versus $31,320).

This should be thoroughly unsurprising — in fact, the downward salary pressure on reporters is what ultimately pushed me out of the field. When august publications like The Atlantic build their runaway successful websites on the backs of freelancers literally working for free, it seems churlish for the field of journalism as a whole to wring its hands that so many writers are decamping for a field that has vastly more salaried jobs, where the salaries are vastly higher.

Self-serving public service myths aside, journalism is an industry just like any other, and if the industry as a whole declines to pay its employees competitive wages (when it pays them at all) then there should be no surprise when there is a labor flight from the market. But a lot of this pain is entirely self-imposed. Consider the following.

Though bright spots exist, there is almost universal agreement that the “clickbait” model of web journalism — its most prominent form — has had a dramatically negative effect on quality. In 2008, Pew found that:

In today’s newspapers, stories tend to be gathered faster and under greater pressure by a smaller, less experienced staff of reporters, then are passed more quickly through fewer, less experienced, editing hands on their way to publication.

In 2010, Dean Starkman wrote a searing analysis of what all of this downward pressure means for Journalism, as a proper noun representing a craft:

The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics… But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?

Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic. “You’re constantly looking for the next story like that,” says Zachary Roth, a former reporter for Talking Points Memo (and before that a CJR staff member). “The posts you end up pitching and writing are less likely to be investigative.”

That is precisely what made it so impossible for me to continue working as a freelance journalist — all of the incentives cut wrong, and in a marginal field like “foreign policy” where clicks are always low and the overwhelming pressure is toward tabloidism, I couldn’t make it work.

But it didn’t have to be this way. For decades, as online spaces like BBS, Craigslist, and the like, stole fistfuls of advertising and classifieds income from newspapers and other services, they stayed relatively stagnant. It was a big deal when the New York Times decided to charge people money for reading the copy that they spent enormous sums of money to produce — why? Because the New York Times Company persisted for so long in the myth, well past any rational reason to do so, that things online can or should be free, while things “in the real world” (as if there is a meaningful difference anymore) should not be. You can leaf through a paper copy of the New York Times in a Starbucks or whatever, but you can’t just take it home with you for free — yet that is precisely how they operated online for several decades.

It was madness, almost like they wanted to face bankruptcy.

In the meantime, in the absence of other revenue models, Silicon Valley types have tried to fill in the gaps. I briefly tried crowd-sourcing my writing with Beacon. They’re great guys who deserve a lot of praise for trying to create a new funding model, but as presented to me it needed a lot of work to be successful for the freelancer — the price up front to the reader was too high, and the ultimate income delivered to the writer was far too low for it to be sustainable for the writer.

The more successful model is Buzzfeed. I have had my problems with their editorial decisions (like Benny Johnson, who was a dreadful infantilizer of “news” long before he was fired for his rampant plagiarism), but they also have hired truly talented journalists and regularly publish detailed, deeply reported, and important stories. They generate enormous revenue — $100m this year, it seems — on quizzes, listicles, and adorable puppies, and use that income to subsidize their news. In a way, it’s a refresh of the model that used to exist, especially on TV: the silly sitcoms would produce revenue used to support the news, which media companies considered a public service.

But that’s not enough anymore. Loss-leading journalism is almost extinct at this point. And Buzzfeed can’t generate enough income based solely on pageviews and sponsored content (“Native advertising,” the trend of dressing up advertisements to look like normal site posts, is one of their innovations).Instead, they ruthlessly strip mine their users’ data, creating a frighteningly detailed portrait of the hundreds of millions of people who take their quizzes and read their literally-cannot-even-handle-this-kitteh posts.

Selling Buzzfeed’s vast, hyper-detailed demographic research on you to a data broker — for yet more advertising money — is enormously profitable. We don’t know the exact breakdown because Buzzfeed hasn’t broken down their revenue sources as near as I can tell, but it is pretty obviously an enormous source of income.

That’s one model for building revenue to support reporting — the Buzzfeed model, if you will. It is a far cry from simply selling ad space and counting circulation, and takes a lot less effort to do, so from their perspective they win. But is that the future of journalism? Buzzfeed pays their writers well, I’d guess well above average given the huge amounts of venture investing they attract. Not every local, or even national paper can assemble the enormous datasets on their readers that Buzzfeed does, or if they do, then the entire internet will have substantially infantilized the very idea of generating reportage.

Meanwhile, those big evil PR firms build messaging campaigns on the data websites like Buzzfeed collect, and pay their employees accordingly from the higher sales revenue their clients generate as a result. And reporters working for the wires, for local papers, and at most non-tier 1 outlets, see their income stagnate while they lose benefits and have more and more burdens placed on them for constant content generation. In the absence of a better way to create income, there’s simply no other way for the industry to go but further down: more cuts, more layoffs, lower income, and so on.

Should this state of affairs surprise anyone?

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