May 21, 2009

Rubbing Salt in the Wound

AS A WRITER, I know perfectly well the importance of a good lead. Properly executed, it can draw in readers to a story they would otherwise ignore. It can soften the heart, it can inspire the imagination, and in some cases, it can cause one's blood to boil and prompt a frantic search for one's nitroglycerin.

With his incendiary introduction to an otherwise sedate essay on the economics of journalism, Robert Picard could not have succeeded any better in drawing that last reaction out of his targeted readership.

You see, in the pages of the Christian Science Monitor, Prof Picard has argued that journalists deserve low pay for their work, arguing it has little economic value. He could not have garnered more attention if he had walked into a newsroom, pulled a fire alarm, stripped off his clothing and preached his gospel whilst standing on the police reporter's desk. Prof Picard writes:

Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.

Actually, journalists deserve low pay.

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days.

Until they come to grips with that issue, no amount of blogging, twittering, or micropayments is going to solve their failing business models.

Gee. Thanks for the tip, Mr Helpful.

Of course, if one was cynical -- and I am certainly not -- one might point out that Prof Picard is a professor of media economics at something called Jonkoping University in Sweden. As such, he is rather ballsy to suggest that journalists are deserving of low pay, as most academics produce little to nothing in the way of economic value. 90 pc of their research is published in obscure journals and forgotten; 90 pc of their insights are so specialized as to be meaningless to the general public or even educated laymen; 90 pc of their work does nothing to advance the human condition. True, there is value in their teaching; but even then, most of the work is fobbed off on starving graduate students, whilst the tenured professor spends his days ruminating on the modern-day relevance of Marx and Fanon.

Prof Picard tries to weasel out of this; he argues journalists do not have specialized knowledge, such as "professors" and "electricians" do. But comparing academics to electricians is an insult to electricians. Besides, there is no denying whose labor is more valuable when one's electricity fails and you have a refrigerator full of perishables.

Also, I would take issue with Prof Picard's characterization of how journalists view their work. My view may be different than most in the field, as I'm a now-underemployed business journalist, but I've never considered my work a holy calling. Certainly I don't value it enough to take a vow of poverty along with the job. When I covered business, my job was simple: present facts and useful information to my readers so they could then make informed decisions about their finances or business operations. For that matter, that's how I approached every other topic about which I wrote.

Still, I don't mean to slight Prof Picard's argument too much. When it comes to the larger points, he is right: media companies and the journalists who work for them must provide economic value to their readers. Otherwise, the readers won't buy what they're selling. As Prof Picard writes:

Well-paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities, and knowledge. It also requires that the labor must be non-commoditized. Unfortunately, journalistic labor has become commoditized. Most journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special expertise (such as finance reporters) get higher wages.

Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation ...

... If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences.

One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in a thousand other papers today. Providing a food section that pales by comparison to the content of food magazines or television cooking shows is not likely to create much value for readers. Neither are scores of disjointed, undigested short news stories about events in far off places.

In other words, media firms must make use of their comparative advantages if they want to succeed. A newspaper in Poughkeepsie, for instance, ought focus on Poughkeepsie -- because that's what's important to its readers: not, as Prof Picard points out, day-old wire copy repeating what they've already seen on-line or on television.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 21, 2009 08:41 AM | TrackBack
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