Double Your Money and Make a Stack

Why do journalists hate money?

This is an alternate interpretation of the part-facetious, part-disgustingly true question Michael Rosenblum poses in this month’s Carnival of Journalism: Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?

I think the question itself—and this is not meant as a knock on Mr. Rosenblum—is a farce to begin with.* We need to explode the premise, so to speak, because what it belies is the central nature of journalism itself: the sale of a product.

What journalists sell is information. Acting as arbiters between the public and various worlds to which the public either doesn’t have access or doesn’t have adequate time to access, journalists’ main responsibility is to fight myriad forces aligned for preventing our getting the information, and then packaging that information—articles, photos, videos, tweets—for wide-scale dissemination.

Many journalists, then, are already capitalists. I receive a paycheck for my work at Urbanite. I control the means to my own production. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid.

Really, then, this month’s question is another, slightly revised iteration of the problematic issue plaguing twenty-first century journalism since the stock market crashed in 2008: In a digital-first world, where information is created and transmitted almost instantaneously, how does journalism remain relevant to the point of commanding readers’ respect in the form of payment?

To quote Dave Chappelle: I want them greenbacks.

Firstly, we should note that “traditional” journalism (quotation marks used because, well, what the hell is traditional journalism—print journalism?) isn’t going away. In 2010, The Atlantic turned a profit for the first time in a number of years; Esquire magazine, which many in the publishing world had left for dead in 2009, is doing well. Traditional journalism is recalibrating and reconfiguring—paywalls, digital-first, expansion of the business model into festivals and events—but it isn’t evaporating.

Secondly, we should note that Mr. Rosenblum’s initial question seems to be asking how journalists can get a bigger cut for what we do. There have been models of entrepreneurial journalism, to be sure: Spot.Us and CoPress, now defunct, are two that come to my mind readily. The Baltimore Brew is another, although I can’t speak to their money-making model outside of a Kickstarter campaign they completed recently.

But entrepreneurship is hard, and always has been. Noticing that entrepreneurial journalism is difficult—Hard work? At a start-up?! Bunk!—isn’t all that compelling a revelation.

No, what I think we’re really talking about is how journalists can sufficiently leverage their collective power to create economies of scale that are similarly powerful to the big guys. You know: Hearst, Gannett, Tribune, Conde Nast.

I don’t really have an answer. Mr. Rosenblum gets at one, and upon cursory inspection, it appears quite clever. But I don’t think we’ll arrive at any semblance of an answer if we’re fooling ourselves about the original premise.

Journalists, of course, can be good capitalists. We always have been.**

*Michael Rosenblum’s post came off a tad satirical. I could be wrong—my 23 years might be showing—but I think Mr. Rosenblum is aware of the tenuous nature of his own question.

**I should note that what we’re not debating is the value of journalism on some esoteric or intrinsic scale. I could talk until I’m blue in the face about why I think journalism is necessary for any successful democratic republic. But seeing as how WE’RE ALL A BUNCH OF DAMN LEFTIES, I don’t know how many people would listen.

http://www.copress.org/

Discussion

  1. Dani says:

    You say that what journalists sell is information. This might be true of a freelance writer who is essentially running a personal business. Journalism, instead, is selling an audience. Profits come from advertising. When readers buy a subscription or pay for cable, they are just paying for distribution. What’s interesting about this “old” model is that reporters were walled off from the business side and could imagine the public was buying their information, just like we can pretend Google is free, while we’re apparently paying for it with our personal information that the service transforms into advertising dollars.

  2. Andrew Zaleski says:

    Dani,

    Thanks for the comment. And, indeed, readers are paying for distribution when they purchase a subscription. But as you noted, it’s the “old” model, where journalists working largely independently of the advertising team could think readers were buying the paper for the information presented by journalists.

    I might add, though, that a product is still being sold, and that audiences of publications are shaped by the nature of the product. (For instance, people who read the New York Times might not be reading High Times magazine, and vice versa.) What is valuable to one reader–the stuff presented in articles–might not be valuable to other readers.

    In any event, new media has turned all of this on its head. Distribution, and even publishing, are no longer as costly as they once were. And my audience, these days, can be anyone. But if my product–what I’m writing about; the quality of the reporting; the artfulness of the writing–is lackluster, then there’s no way I’m making any money. Not that money, necessarily, is the primary focus here. But it seems that being a good journalist is intertwined with being a good capitalist, whether or whether not the ultimate goal is money-making for the sake thereof.

  1. [... Why do journalists hate money? This is an alternate interpretation of the part-facetious, part-disgustingly true question Michael Rosenblum poses in this month’s Carnival of Journalism: Can a good journalist also be ...]

  2. [... Why do journalists hate money? This is an alternate interpretation of the part-facetious, part-disgustingly true question Michael Rosenblum poses in this month’s Carnival of Journalism: Can a good journalist also be ...]

  3. [... Why do journalists hate money? This is an alternate interpretation of the part-facetious, part-disgustingly true question Michael Rosenblum poses in this month’s Carnival of Journalism: Can a good journalist also be ...]

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