It’s been a hell of a fall for anyone connected to the Times, staff or freelance. I earned one-third of my income from the paper in 2007 and 2008, writing for a suburban section since decimated, as well as covering business, real estate and other issues for them. My final story for them of 2009 runs tomorrow in the Business section, ironically enough, a piece about how small businesses around the country are dealing with slow, late or non-paying clients.
I rarely even pitch my editors there anymore, so few are the assignments and so long the wait to run a story — which is only when we freelancers get paid. Now, with so many other publications slashing their budgets, the line-up for the Times’ remaining assignments already stretches, for one section editor I know, into April.
My partner works there and we spent the fall discussing whether or not to take the buyout. He did not.
It’s hard to overstate, for those outside journalism, the allure for many staffers of working for the Times: decent pay, a union with clout, smart, tough colleagues, international prestige, interesting work, the chance to move around internally from one section to another, even from covering Queens to a posting in Africa. It’s a bit like joining the foreign service. The deal quickly becomes clear; you subsume your ego into the service of a large, slow-moving, politically liberal organization, a place where confrontation is often considered declasse, and in return for hard work, you received the assurance — often face to face in the biannual “throw things at Bill” all-staff meetings (that’s Bill Keller, the editor in chief) — that you had a place there.
The place has changed, deeply and for good, insiders say. Some foreign correspondents who could rely on the services of their own car and driver have lost this privilege. Last year, every union employee took a five percent pay cut to help the company stay afloat, in return for 10 furlough days. The mood this week, as might be imagined, is grim and scared. Even two or three years ago, a talented Times editor or writer could practically write their ticket to the next terrific gig. No longer; 24,000 print journalists were canned in 2008 and every week has thrust more unemployed competitors, many of them also in Manhattan, into a crowded and deeply competitive marketplace.
I’ll be competing with some of these people for freelance work and, as I send out my resume occasionally for a staff job, that as well.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal carried another long piece — some might deride it as one more thumb-sucker — asking how journalism as it has traditionally been defined, i.e. original reporting and analysis, will be paid for in the future. But no one yet has been able to answer the question. Who, next, will step up and take the financial risk? Anyone?
There are now 200 of us at True/Slant, and it’s a hell of a team to play on. I routinely tell colleagues and those I want to work with freelance what excellent work I find here every day. But…
As I write this, BBC World News is on the TV and today’s NYT and WSJ lie on the floor, almost all read, and I’ve not yet gotten through the weekend FT. I’ll typically listen to another 2-4 hours of NPR programming over the weekend as well, and 2-3 hours of it on weekdays, plus an hour of BBC World News. During a normal month, I’ll read another 20-30 magazines and probably 4-6 books. Someone paid every single one of those reporters and writers to give me the oxygen in my lungs — original reporting I trust. That’s not even including the many other sources, from Le Monde to The Globe and Mail, The Guardianand others whose hard, paid-for work, I, and others, comment on here. I consume trusted, reliable, sourced media both for personal pleasure and professional necessity. So do many, if not most, of my T/S contributors.
At True/Slant, most of us who bring you original reporting, (which some do), are here because someone else, somewhere, is paying the full costs of what it takes for each of us to survive — and continue to produce most, if not all, of our original work. For the journos among us, that’s usually some dead-tree publisher whose business model, somehow, still functions.
Only my ability to work in old media, right now, supports my ability to work in new media. Surely there is some irony in this?
“Entrepreneurial” sounds a little like what many out-of-staff-work veterans of print and broadcast journalism are now experiencing — penury — as we scrap for every inch of income-producing territory like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe.
This week I’m also applying (as are many tough competitors) for $30,000 in grants and fellowships. One of these fellowships is designed for people whose work is focused on print journalism. These days, that’s like asking a whaling ship captain to step up and commit to a few more circumnavigations.
An idea. If someone wanted to make True/Slant their only source of news, hiring every single one of us here, all 200 contributors, and pay us each a living wage — let’s call it a median of $60,000 (no benefits, no 401k, etc) per year, on a one-year renewable contract — that’s $12 million. For a 23-year-old fresh grad, (albeit burdened by student debt), maybe $25,000 would do it, while the veterans might command $100-120,000 — which is how traditional newsrooms, print and broadcast, now work.
Some might be fine with only $5,000- $10,000 a year, as they are already pulling in a good salary (with benefits) elsewhere, while others might need $80,000 or more to keep the bills paid as this became our only full-time work and we gave you — our readers — our undivided attention. Someone has to pay for the time (and travel and other expenses) it takes to produce original work. Right now, the current Internet model rewards those whose sites (the cutest? funniest? most insightful?) attract the most visitors.
All Ego, All The Time!
Blogging also offers old-school journos (like me, anyway) an additional hurdle to clamber over. It rewards behaviors so immodest as to be anathema. It demands several paradigm shifts in how we work, not technically, but in our values. For us, the damn story itself is it — not us and the fact we just produced it. Very few journalists I know chose this business because it’s all about them. We want to tell stories, not sell them. The shameless, relentless, self-aggrandizing financial necessity of funneling every possible social media-using eyeball toward every syllable we produce can make me feel like a five-year-old in the playground shrieking “Mommymommymommymommy, watch me. Watch me!”
Original reporting that appears on-line is most often heavily subsidized, if not completely paid for, by old-media organizations whose employees, staff or freelance, need or want Internet exposure. It’s rarely the other way around. ProPublica has its own staff and the Huffington Post is now paying freelancers to do investigative work, at rates competitive with national magazines, but 50 percent less than the majors.
Those who have been working as journalists doing original work (and the originality matters, not the medium in which that work appears) have spent years, maybe decades, perfecting their skills and sources and understanding of the world. Once we’ve lost our staff jobs and until we find another one, if we do, we monetize those skills when and where we can. In the past year, more than 35,000 journalists lost their jobs, 24,000 or so of them in print. I highly doubt there are 24,000+ on-line writing, reporting or editing jobs available, now or in the next 12-18 months, paying enough to sop us all up. Journalism schools report enormous interest in their offerings these days. Where exactly are all those eager, additional new grads going to work?
I can’t function, as a human being trying to make sense of my world, without original, sourced, factual work.
As more and more sources of original, reliable, factual news journalism slim down or disappear entirely, where and how will you learn about your world?