As ABC News Lays Off 300 to 400, Who Are 'Journalists' Now? Do You Care?

Journalists in the Radio-Canada/CBC newsroom i...
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As ABC News today announces the layoffs of 300 to 400 members of their news staff, the question — begged almost daily these days — is who’s bringing us/you the news and information you value and trust?

Writes Jeff Bercovici in The New York Observer:

In the latter half of the last century, journalism mutated from a relatively prestige-free trade into a hoity-toity profession that, like medicine and law, involves graduate degrees and six-figure salaries. But journalism is not a profession, or even a trade, really. It’s an act. And anyone who performs that act is, at that moment, a journalist.

This recognition comes as the journalistic establishment slides beneath the water line, taking with it the six-figure jobs necessary to pay off all those J-school loans.

As fellow True/Slant contributor Paul Smalera recently told The New York Times, it’s pretty unclear who’s going to be able to make a living producing journalism without the back-up of a major media organization like ABC News, no matter how cool or edgy or interesting readers find information from less-traditional outlets:

Dozens of Web sites have correspondingly sprouted up, posting articles written for free or for a fraction of what a traditional magazine would have paid. Into this gaping maw have rushed enough authors to fill a hundred Roman Colosseums, all eager to write in exchange for “exposure.” Paul Smalera, a 29-year-old who was laid off from a magazine job in November 2008, is now competing with every one of them. And after months of furious blogging, tweeting and writing for Web sites, Paul has made a career of Internet journalism, sort of.

In the process, he’s had to redefine success. While he is doing work that he finds satisfying, he is earning around half of the $63,000 he made as a full-time employee, and he doesn’t have health insurance — or prospects for getting any. He has very little in savings and a mountain of credit-card and student-loan debt. “I think the economics are bleak right now, but in the long run, the opportunities are going to be online, and that’s why I’m willing to make the investment,” he told me over coffee.

Bercovici has it half-right. Very few well-paid J-jobs remain available and the pool of veterans competing for them is becoming even more Darwinian than ever, and it was crazy to begin with.

But this notion that anyone with a cellphone or Twitter account is offering “journalism” doesn’t work for me — any more than a lumberjack who cuts down a tree has created a dining room table or set of chairs. Beginning the chain of news production with a tweet or cellphone image snapped and sent within seconds by someone who gets what’s happening in front of them and feels the urgency to share it is inarguably potentially valuable — but not without subsequent checks, balances, fact-checking, analysis and the primary tool of anyone with experience — skepticism.

Remember, please, the names Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair — rising young stars initially sheltered and lionized within serious newsrooms producing thoughtful, reliable material.

As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Amateurs, civilians, citizen journalists — whatever you want to call them — have a place, and a growing one, at our shrinking table. They are not, and must not become the only place to which we gravitate for the information we use to make important decisions about our lives. Publishers thrived for years on profits of 15 percent or more — orders of magnitude higher than those of many other industries. Now everyone’s scrambling to get the cheapest work possible out of the journalists still hoping to do the work they/we love and value.

Our challenge, as those trying to do good work and pay bills and pay off student loans and save for retirement — call that an annual income of $45,000+ in most parts of the United States — is becoming a tough(er) row to hoe with every passing day. It’s not just random whining about losing a profession we love(d) or incomes that allowed us a life, not a scrabble for survival.

Driving costs into the ground means driving many smart, talented veterans out of the business. This affects the quality of information available to readers, listeners and viewers.