“Journalists should be paid for their work!”

It’s not the public that doesn’t want to pay journalists to do journalism, it’s management

For the past week or so, Journalism Twitter has dug into the regularly occurring theme of how poorly people who work in journalism are paid. It is an extremely important conversation and they are entirely right. The deal for journalists, — and I’m including everyone who does the work, not just capital-R Reporters — is a bad deal. Low pay, horrible conditions, little power, career paths more built on social network than skill and employers with unreasonable expectations and in many, if not most cases, absolutely shit management. These circumstances are what has created the field’s dramatic and damaging class problem.

Most journalists are doing the work with honest intentions and sincere belief in the value and importance of journalism but the waning fortunes of media have made far too many into shills for their wealthy employers or the wealthy subsection of workers at the very top.

If your newsroom is owned by a big company, dynastic family, hedge fund or your boss’s boss has millions, and you’re out here lobbying the general public, most of whom make as little or less than you do, that they need to part with some of their money so you can have a job while your boss’s bosses get to keep their millions and billions, please stop doing your boss’s dirty work for them.

Because when Journalism Twitter isn’t talking about how bad it is for journalists, it is talking about how people need to pay for journalism. Not wealthy people specifically, mind you, just people. On a regular basis, I log into that damn bird app to find an employee whose company’s owners are actual millionaires and billionaires admonishing people to go without coffee or to cancel their Netflix and instead buy a subscription because “journalists can’t work for free.”

Think for one minute who it is that’s actually asking you to work for less than what it takes to live.

No member of the public participating in good faith is actually asking for you to work for less pay than what it takes to survive or what your skills are worth. If you engaged in anything more than a superficial back and forth with someone (who isn’t a troll) about it, they aren’t asking you to donate your labor. They understand that just as they need a job to survive, so do you.

The people who are actually asking you to donate your labor, your health, your emotional bandwidth, your safety, your everything and be paid less than your worth are the people further up the company food chain than you. It’s your manager, your manager’s boss, their boss and/or the person/company/death star that owns your place of employment.

What has happened is that those at the top of the payrolls and mastheads and the journalism and philanthropy plenary panels have successfully recreated, inside the field of journalism, the broader American experiment of getting poorer people to blame each other for their struggle rather than holding those with power and wealth accountable.

If journalists making less than $60k a year want to blame non-journalists making less than $60k a year for the industry’s financial problems, that’s a choice, or we could instead turn our attentions a little higher up the ladder.

There are indeed, many news organizations that are struggling to operate with the thinnest of margins. But it’s a mistake to conclude that the destitution of individual organizations and a greatly underpaid workforce means that the industry of journalism is broke and there’s no money coming in.

There are billions flowing through this industry every year and far less transparency and accountability for where that money goes. With fewer than 100,000 people in newsrooms, not being able to compensate them fairly is either a matter of gross ethics or gross mismanagement.

To go on about how individuals need to donate and buy subscriptions so that journalists can be paid is akin to lecturing individuals to recycle so that climate change can be stopped. It is asking those with the least power and impact to take responsibility for what industry has and continues to break.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Is there a need for people to support journalism financially? Absolutely.
Should we start fixing journalism’s financial problems by asking people for money before we’ve fixed the mismanagement of that money in our newsrooms? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, there is money within the field of journalism. But much of it is in the hands of people who have never had to make money stretch. It is spent recklessly and foolishly, on whims and moods, and has been for decades. Now that the world has changed, those who burned through it are looking for new sources rather than fixing their approach and adjusting their expectations. It’s time for ownership to tighten up their belts because this is the world now and they had a hand in making it.

The appetite for fixing and saving newsrooms is waning. We’re building new ones, better ones, smarter more nimble ones and we’re not looking to recreate media barons and playthings for rich families. We’re making newsrooms in the image of the communities and people they are in service of. Newsrooms that deliver value to people are invested in by people.

Three years ago, we had a session at ONA about Journalism’s Poverty Problem. It is a multifaceted challenge:

  • People who are struggling economically are not receiving from journalism, the news and information that could help them navigate their circumstances.
  • Journalists themselves are struggling economically and cannot afford the wages that journalists are paid.
  • Income inequality has and continues to increase dramatically. The number of people struggling economically is extremely high. Many people do not have the financial means to support their selves and/or families.
  • The field of journalism is attempting to pivot largely to being supported by revenue from individuals.

If the work published by journalists does not help people navigate their circumstances such that they might actually have means, they will not spend what means they do have on journalism.

And sure, you can complain that people still manage to afford Netflix and coffee, but if you’re asking people to go without any basic pleasures in life to foot the bill for your employment, you’re not the good guy in that conversation. Not while your employer still has millions and some of your bosses make 3x, 4x, 5x, 10x, 100x+ the median household income in the United States while approving fundraising appeals and subscription marketing to the general public about how “we can’t do this work” without people parting with what little money they have. It’s no better than the prosperity gospel preachers telling their congregations to send in everything they have in order to be saved while those same preachers are rolling in it.

Let’s keep having the conversations that insists on paying people in journalism what they need to survive. But let us also have conversations about the many, many people in journalism who are paid vastly more and the people who decide who has to scrape by and who doesn’t.

Journalism either exposes power or it enables it. The work of accountability journalism must start in our own houses.

This is the first of what will likely be several posts on the topic of who pays for journalism. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Karen K. Ho for her insight on industry financials.

Deputy Director of Product @NewsCatalyst. Founder of @ProjectFacet, supporting effective, meaningful collaboration. The future of journalism is collaborative.