Could 200 of Us Fill 100 Per Cent Of Your News Needs? Who'll Pay?

Paper money, extreme macro
Image by kevindooley via Flickr

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?

San Francisco philanthropist name Warren Hellman is ponying up $5 million for a new journalism venture out there. It’s a start, but the truth is that $5 million won’t go very far.

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 Guardian and 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.

Anyone interested?

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!”

Who’s Paying?

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?

Love The Borzoi. The Cape, Fur Gauntlets and Pointy Little Moustache, Not So Much

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OK, these images are not for me. If you’re male, they’re aimed at you — today’s New York Times Style Magazine, is all about men’s fall fashion. Are men, truly, into this sort of object fetishization?

The magazine’s editors, this issue, suggest you drop $27,350 for a rose gold Rolex chronometer (that’s a watch to most people) or — yessiree — $748 fur gauntlets by Philip Sparks, a 27-year-old Canadian whose bio website photo is appropriately moody, blurred and black and white. Fur gauntlets? Wearable where exactly? Frobisher Bay? Then there’s a gray flannel tux, $865 faux-leopard-fur sneakers and — I really do love this piece of clothing — a bright teal toggle coat at $600.

There’s a spread urging men to fashion themselves on patriot, poet, dandy and war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio. I sort of like that touchingly catholic menu — I know fairly few patriot-dandies — but the whole twirled, waxed moustache thing? Not so much. The borzois in that layout are magnificent, the breed trotted out every time someone wants to signal rareified esthetic taste. I thought women’s fashion magazines were slightly nuts in the mixed messages they keep sending us (recession fashion! $2,500 shoes!)

Good to know that men, and the magazine editors who love them, face just as many confusing choices.

Why I Read The Obits and You Should Too

The gravestone of Col. John Hart in the North ...
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Morbid? Not really. Deeply curious, ever seeking wisdom about what makes up a life, whenever it ends, I read obituaries. They’re the profiles written past deadline.

As someone forever seduced by others’ stories — whether covering Queen Elizabeth or interviewing convicted felons — I read the obituaries. Not just the official ones, which, if you read The New York Times, are almost always about men.  I also read many of the paid ones, the ones in a font so small it’s almost illegible. That’s where the heart-breaking stories appear.

The Globe and Mail, one of the papers for whom I’ve been a reporter, runs a regular column called Lives Lived, obits written by friends, family or colleagues, often about civilians, non-celebrities,  the kind of people we all take for granted and know only as a high-school teacher or next door neighbor. I find these tributes lovely, and often deeply moving in their detail. Here’s one about a woman whose husband ran a taxi company. More than anything, more so than taxes, death is the ultimate democracy.

Today there are two women, 47 and 48, whose death notices in The New York Times, my local paper, hit me hard.

Rebecca Lipkin, a fellow journo I never met but who clearly had a kick-ass career as a broadcast journalist and news producer for WABC, ABC World News Tonight and ABC Nightline, worked in the U.S. and London, where she died at 48 of breast cancer. She was not married and had no kids. She could be me. She could one of the many  ambitious, driven, talented women I know and have met along the way of my journalism career who perhaps kept postponing love or domesticity for the surer gains of work, who consider airports and international carriers the equivalent of the family minivan, whose life is spent chasing the next great story and making sure it’s told well.

Rynn Williams, 47, a poet, and mother of three, died at her home in Brooklyn “of accidental causes.” She could be any one of us. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, with 121,599 who died this way in 2006. (The top four, in order: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease.)

I read obits because so many strangers fascinate me. I read obits because I want to hear what others say about them and how they are remembered by those who knew and loved them best, not just those wealthy, powerful or famous enough to have a reporter call up and formally interview their colleagues or family. My favorite paid obit, so far, was of an older woman who died in Florida, clearly a woman of means who had not worked. “She’d shake the ice for anyone,” her family wrote. I can’t forget this detail, of a woman who so loved to entertain that a cocktail shaker helped define her sense of generosity and fun. I wish I’d known her. So often, I read an obit of a non-famous, non-wealthy person I’ve never heard of and think: “Wish I’d met you. What a cool life. How loved you were!”

Below Rynn Williams’ obit today is that of Molly Wolff, 89 who died only three months after her husband, Louis. “During the last years of his life, she never left his side, singing to him and holding his hand late into the night.”

That’s great writing, the kind of telling detail every would-be journo needs to read and remember. That’s a woman to celebrate.

What would your obit say about you? What would you want it to say? Who would you most like to write it?

Life After Stitches (or Staples)

Image by Andy G via Flickr

One of the best writers at The New York Times, I think, is Dana Jennings, an editor there, who has been writing about his brutal and exhausting battle with prostate cancer. Unlike much Times’ copy, which can be polite, accurate but bloodless, Jennings’ personal essays on this subject practically jump off the page and grab you by the throat. They’re not always fun, but they remind me, anyway, what great writing is about.

In today’s Times’ column, Cases, a weekly, long-running feature about the personal experience of illness or healthcare (open to all writers, I’ve written two of them), he writes eloquently about the many scars his body now carries, from childhood mishaps to major abdominal surgery to acne scars on his back. His honesty is extraordinary, and, I think refreshing.

“For all the potential tales of woe they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing…The scars remind me, too, that in this vain culture our vanity needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be scarred and living than a dead lion.”

As someone with coconut knees (tiny indentations on the top of each, like a coconut, from one arthroscopy apiece) and two scars on the inside of each wrist — one, a half-inch souvenir of a motorbike ride in Thailand gone awry and the other from scraping against a wet wire during a gale-force wind while sailboat racing off Long Island Sound — I value my scars as well. Like Jennings reminds us, they’re the roadmap of our lives, reminding us, and those who get close enough to see them, of some of the best, and worst, places we’ve been.

With Millions Unemployed, Why Job Loss Still Feels Personal

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
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These days, even dancers are getting the axe, with 11 members of the corps de ballet of New York City Ballet fired in recent months. Getting canned from a rarefied spot on the cultural food chain is no easier, especially when you started your career at 16.

“It was very painful,” former corps member Sophie Flack, 25, a nine-year NYCB veteran, recently told Time Out New York. “At first, I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and then I felt rage toward the administration that made the decision to terminate my contract…The whole experience, honestly, feels like a part of me is dying and is going to die. Ever since I was a little kid, this is all I wanted to do and the only place I wanted to dance, and it really feels like I’ve gone through an entire grieving process — as if I’m preparing for my own death…As I exited the stage for the last time, I looked at the audience and knew I would not ever experience the joy of performance again.” Continue reading “With Millions Unemployed, Why Job Loss Still Feels Personal”