There has for some time been a debate about whether or not it is ‘right’ to be asking people to submit their work for free to online and/or print publications. Within the last couple of days that argument was re-energised by Nate Thayer who decided to publish on his blog an email exchange between himself and an editor at The Atlantic. The editor was asking Thayer whether he wanted to have a 1,200 word article published on the site without pay. Both sides expressed their positions thus:
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.
I enjoyed your post, and I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork. Some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure for whatever professional goals they might have.
This is a pretty neat summary of where both sides are coming from in an industry that is still coming to terms with the changes that the Internet has imposed upon it. Gone are the days where only a chosen few had managed to break their way into the industry and had the sole preserve over writing the words that the masses read, and gone are the days where the money to pay for such words was plentiful, if those days ever existed at all.
What we have now is a world that has more content than media outlets can print coming from a variety of sources that’s larger than ever. Whereas once upon a time if someone wanted to be a whistleblower they would call themselves Deepthroat and go to the Washington Post they can now simply start a blog called Deepthroat where they can post all of their secrets. They also have the option of emailing them to Wikileaks and seeing them spread around the world at the push of a virtual button. Either way, no one can argue that there are many ways for people to express their message without the help of professional journalists.
This brings me back to my original question, Journalist or Blogger? I’m a confirmed blogger who has most certainly dabbled in journalism in the past. After completing a journalism course several years ago in London, I worked briefly for the much-vaunted Jane’s Information Group, whose flagship title is Jane’s Defence Weekly. My job there was to re-write press releases from large arms companies looking to pimp out their latest gadgets. Not glamorous but hey you gotta start somewhere…or do you?
While having a conversation with an employee from a famous small arms manufacturer, I gleaned a juicy piece of gossip about the company. Naturally I went straight to my boss with the story. He said, “Hmmm we get about a million pounds a year in advertising from them, best not to go there.” Welcome to professional journalism!
The blogger has the opposite dilemma. Unencumbered by advertisers or even editors, each blogger has complete control over their own domain and can publish as they see fit. Of course the problem there is that no one notices their pieces because their blog gets about five hits a month and is lost in the general flotsam of the Internet. The blogger is unencumbered by a need to worry about sources, about their writing quality. A blogger can lie if he wants to and has the luxury of working only to his or her deadlines without having to pay attention to the whims of an editor that they don’t have. The blogger experiences complete freedom to publish with the only caveat being that if they consistently print nonsense they are unlikely to attract much of a readership although this isn’t always the case.
In early 2012, I went for a job at the Jerusalem Post paying between four and five thousand NIS per month, for which I was turned down. A month later I went for a job at another media outlet that paid a little more and was also turned down. For the former no reason was given and for the latter lack of experience was the issue. A month later I was accepted to the position of corporate copywriter in the world of online gaming for four times what the Jerusalem Post were offering me and I wanted more. When looking for a position as a full-time journalist, I wouldn’t have considered asking for more money.
The reason is simple. For those of us who have a passion to write, the role of journalist is the holy grail of jobs. When working as a journalist I felt connected to events happening around me in a way that I hadn’t felt before or since. I was invited into the corridors of power, gained access to press conferences and my phone calls were answered by politicians and company CEOs the world over. And I loved it. To have that feeling again, I was prepared to work for next to nothing alongside people a lot younger than me. I was prepared to cast aside the fact that I could earn far more elsewhere and work the night shifts that I would need to in order to wear that badge of honour, ‘journalist’ once more.
For a year up until that point I had been writing freelance copy and although I had a couple of notable articles published, my money came not from writing quality pieces for reputable publications but from pumping out low quality pieces for Search Engine Optimisation, most notably, affiliate sites connected with online gaming. My experience of pitching to more established publications left a bitter taste in my mouth. By and large I was made to feel as if publishing my work (even if it was for free) was a great honour to which I was hardly entitled. The truth is though, that having my work published was a great honour and it meant that I had been elevated above the thousands of others who were inundating that publication every day as worthy of seeing my name in print. The reality of freelancing is that your calls aren’t returned, emails ignored. I even had two different publications actually publish my work without even telling me that they had accepted the article. This left me in the awkward position of retroactively having to go back to them saying “I saw you published my piece, what’s the going rate for freelancers?”
So when Jeremy Duns points out that Thayer actually copied bits of his own piece from an earlier article, it’s pretty easy to understand why without condoning such practice. Thayer and all journalists, whether they are freelance or not, are under enormous pressure to produce content before their competitors can get in on the action, nd in a digital age, that ain’t easy. In fact it’s inevitable that freelancers are going to rip off work done by others in their never-ending quest to jump on top of the zeitgeist of the moment as they attempt to actually get paid for their work. When the Prisoner X story broke, I actually blogged it from my desk in order to get the first blog post off about it here at TOI (please don’t let my boss see this).
So with regards to the question journalist or blogger, ask yourself whether you would prefer to read about the war in Mali from a journalist embedded into the French army or from a French soldier who is doing the fighting day to day; whether you would prefer to hear about the fighting in Syria from a journalist there or from a Syrian civilian taking cover from the fighting. Who has the better network of sources, the person who has grown up there or the journalist who has never been there before and can neither speak the language nor find their way around? Of course the blogger’s news is biased but then, according to groups such as Honest Reporting, CifWatch and BBC Watch, few media outlets aren’t.
As a blogger I have the editorial freedom to write as I please. When I write on my own blog I am the complete master of my fate, writing about whatever I choose and saying whatever I like. And crucially I have no competition in that space. Anyone going to my blog is going there to hear what I have to say and won’t have to actively search to find my words. When I write here at the Times of Israel I have just as much editorial freedom (see the disclaimer at the bottom of the page) and I have the potential to reach a much larger audience than when I blog in my own space, but, I have to temper that with the knowledge that I am merely one of hundreds of bloggers all competing for recognition and the fame of making it to the top of the all important Most Popular Bloggers list.
When writing his piece on Gawker about the argument between publishing our stuff for free and being paid for it, Cord Jefferson argues that the industry favours those who have money from Mummy and Daddy since they can afford to work for less while getting started. I think he has a point but that he has neglected the way the industry is heading vis a vis free content and bloggers. I have a day job and I get paid well. Over and above the work I do I also blog and it’s people like me who are changing the industry. If I want to know what car to buy, I can go to the website of a famous car magazine or I can go to the personal blog of a car enthusiast. Bear in mind that the enthusiast doesn’t have to worry about corporate advertising when writing his opinion. If I want to know what’s happening in Iraq, I can read what CNN has to say or I can read the many personal accounts from soldiers who have served there and from civilians who live there.
In short, journalism in and of itself is no longer enough. It’s the people who are living their lives and writing on the side who are the ones who are proving to be the best source of info on any given topic and the media has yet to find a really good way of keeping up.
Sites such as the Times of Israel and Huffington Post have utilized the new digital world to their advantage. Here at TOI, professional journalists will tell people what’s happening in the world and their bloggers will give you their 10 cents on it. But those publications such as Ha’aretz and The Times of London are living in a fantasy land if they feel that locking their content behind a paywall is going to save them from the tidal wave of free content that is washing through the media world.
Personally I have given up on the idea of being a journalist. I am a blogger now and that’s more than enough for me. Hopefully one day I’ll have finished my book and someone will find that worthy of publishing. Until they do I’ll make my money by going into work every day and satisfy my writing cravings with this blog. There is certainly room for journalists in the digital age but not many of them. The future belongs to those of us who are blogging our thoughts for free whether that’s fair or not I couldn’t say, nor do I care
Vive Les Bloggers!