Who paid the town crier?

I heard the death knells three years ago. I was a regular features contributor to The Scotsman, the Scottish daily newspaper. I’d written an original colour feature which they’d splashed across the front cover, and I wanted to claim £50 for a train ticket. They told me it was no longer their policy to pay expenses for freelancers. In short: they could no longer afford it.

The nuclear explosion of free news content, classifieds and jobs adverts on the internet had lured newspaper’s traditional readers online and left newspapers and their economic backbone -advertising – without an audience.

The advertisers withdrew. The fat-cat shareholders still demanded their dividends. Somebody had to pay. The journalists drew the short straw.

Things are getting worse…

I left journalism then. I got a job as an investigative researcher for an investment firm. I got a gold card and business-class flights. It was fun for a while, but it wasn’t journalism. It didn’t have any heart. My boots didn’t get muddy.

And so, three years later, with the aid of a journalism fellowship from the Open Society Foundation, I foolishly trotted back – only to find that things had got much, much worse.

Here are three recent responses to pitches I’ve made to editors:

“Does she want payment, and if so, how much? And would she be willing to submit the pieces on the understanding that they very possibly won’t make it? There’s immense pressure to reduce the cost of contributors, so we tend to confine freelance contributions to the ones we absolutely have to have.” Deputy Editor, Mail & Guardian.

“I only wish there were more of us left so we could produce all the good stuff there is out there to produce,” Senior Editor, TIME magazine.

And the most common response: Silence. Absolute bone-chilling silence.

The bottom line is, the non-pay model of the internet has undermined the media’s business model and has led to the total devaluation of journalism. Freelancers used to be valued as people who would bring alternative voices and off-agenda stories. Now they’re both a nuisance to an overworked editor who has seen half his budget and staff cut and a chilling reminder that next week, that out-of-work person could be him.

Journalism has become a hobby

A friend who works at the Guardian in London told me: “The film site had its budget cut again last week, for the third time in two years. Aside from its regular stuff, they can only commission two blogs a week now, which kind of makes the whole idea of blogging a joke. In general, so many people are leaving, it’s starting to get eerie.”

The flip side of this move to the internet is that it’s created a long tail of voices, so readers no longer have to rely on “official” channels from which to construct their worldview. Nice  for the readers perhaps, but a long tail is a thin tail and it’s reduced journalism to a hobby job, something you do when you’re not flipping burgers or running a guesthouse to pay the rent. After all, you can’t eat a byline.

A South African colleague was recently offered a measly $50 (R366) by a website to write 4 000 words. In South Africa, most domestic workers wouldn’t get out of bed for that. Other colleagues are offered to write for free for the exposure. I’d rather run naked down Clifton beach.

It’s a scandal for the profession that in this so-called information age, the people who have the skills – and it takes skills – to gather information, and interpret it for the world in a digestible, entertaining and objective manner, have been shunted to the lowest rung on the ladder. Journalists are supposed to be in the business of writing about exploitation, not exploiting each other. Until we find a new, sustainable economic model, the world is in danger of drowning in celebrity gossip while the fat cats rape and pillage the earth – and no one can afford to report about it.

Maybe it’s time we organised a world strike. But who would report on it? Oh yes, the bloggers and tweeters and oompa-loompas. It makes me think that perhaps journalism is a vocation after all. Like monks and priests, we’ll end up dependent on the charity of strangers.



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