Journalists: Create your own career

Richard Gingras, head of news products for Google, was talking about the disruption in the journalism industry at a recent seminar for Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford and made this observation:

Perhaps in journalism it will be like it was in music for a long time: there are a lot of people doing great stuff, but only a handful, the stars, will be able to make a good living out of it. Most will be doing it for a nickel and a dime, out of passion instead of profession.

There is no doubt that newsrooms will be much, much smaller in the future. At a future of news event at NESTA (National Endowment for Society, Technology and the Arts – an innovation NGO here) in London a couple of years ago, I threw out the figure that I thought there would be 40% fewer jobs in journalism than in the past. Charlie Beckett of the POLIS think tank at LSE disagreed. His figure? 80% fewer.

Low pay isn’t a huge change for local journalists, especially journalists just starting out. I made $2000 less than a first year teacher when I started as a journalist in a small town in Kansas. (Sadly, a first year teacher is a benchmark for low pay in the US.) Of course, my pay at the newspaper was high compared to some of the junior producers at local TV stations. A differential in pay isn’t new either, especially in TV, but increasingly in newspapers and other news organisations. People all assume that journalists make huge salaries, but that has always been only for a few – star columnists, television anchors and executive editors.

I won’t take issue with Gingras. I think he’s simply making an observation, and I made the same observation a couple of years back, around the time that I took a buyout from the Guardian. Furthermore, the star system is a fickle game. It’s media fashion, not journalism. I don’t want to pin my livelihood to being the media flavour of the month. I know how the media love to build up stars only to take equal zeal in destroying them in short order. I’ve seen the media eat its own over and over, and I have no interest in it.

Also, my primary interest in journalism is public service, and the media star system is built on totally different values with totally different priorities. Having said that, I’m honest enough to know that money isn’t made in offering a public service, just ask teachers. The real money is made by the media not public service journalism, and the media is about framing debates and entertaining readers with comment on the events of the day. Twas ever thus.

However, as my journalism professor Bob Reid told us:

Know what your price is.

A precious few get rich from journalism, especially public service journalism. At the end of the day, we all have bills to pay and personal goals, like a home and time with friends and family. You have to balance what the profession will provide and what you want from life. As 2012 starts, I’m asking myself a lot of questions about career-life balance.

Moreover beginning in the boom and continuing to this day, my digital skills have always been more valuable economically than my journalism skills. However, if there is one thing that I have learned since I took a buyout: I’m a journalist. I love it. My passion is still journalism, and not only journalism, but practically exploring the new opportunities created by digital journalism. I still get up every day excited about creating a new medium for journalism.

Gringas is right on two counts. Journalism is fuelled by passion, and an increasing number of journalists will struggle to make their living solely based on journalism. In the future, I think more people will do what I have done the past two years. Former colleagues don’t read our blog and don’t follow me on Twitter ask what I’m doing these days. My standard response is:

I’m doing things to support my journalism habit.

I’m frequently asked to write for free on someone else’s site, and I respond, when I write to write for free, I write on my blog. They say that it will be good exposure for me, and I can understand why it might be for some. However, most of these sites are comment sites. Their interest isn’t in public service journalism, and therefore, it’s not in my interest.

More broadly though, I realised years ago that I didn’t need someone to make me a star for me to have a career in journalism. When I was researching for the BBC how we could use blogs for journalism, I started to realise that not only could I take responsibility for my own profile and my own career, I should. I’m not naturally self-promotional, but I’ve never seen what I do here as promoting me. I’ve always seen my blogging as allowing me to talk about my passion for digital journalism.

It has meant that our blog is the centre of our business. As Suw often says, we don’t make money with out blog, we make money because of it. However, in the new world of post-industrial journalism, we’re going to be more responsible for our own careers, and we can rely less on the organisations that we work for to create opportunities for us. I say post-industrial journalism because we’re just suffering the same displacement that so many in the West have gone through in the post-industrial age. The news factories of yore are down-sizing, and mini-mills are taking their place. We’re going to have to take responsibility for our retooling and for nurturing our own profile. If that seems unseemly, I see my blog not so much as a single-minded exercise in career building. It has been really important in network building, and as I’ve navigated the wrenching changes, it’s been a lot easier with the friends and professional contacts I’ve made here.

This is all to say: Carpe diem! Some digital models rely on free content, and it might seem like a way to get exposure and build your profile. I’d still argue, set up your own site, a blog works very well, and take ownership of your own career. It’s hard work, just as hard as trying to stand out on the comment for free sites, but in the end, it can be a lot more satisfying and rewarding.

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