E-Writing for Free: Is Journalism becoming Volunteer Work?

Are the Internet and the blogosphere turning journalism into volunteer work, an avocation instead of a vocation?

Recently I’ve been contributing posts and comments to Universal Hub (http://www.universalhub.com/), a popular and spirited blog for news and opinion about life in Greater Boston.  Universal Hub has been the site of some lively and informed discussions (links below) about the future of the city’s two daily newspapers, the Boston Globe (http://www.boston.com/) and the Boston Herald (http://www.bostonherald.com/).

Like many large dailies, both papers have been struggling with losses of advertising revenue and subscribers.  This has led to the downsizing of newsrooms, with dozens of reporters and columnists being let go or bought out.  Although the consensus emerging from the discussions on Universal Hub is that the city needs its daily newspapers, I cannot recall any poster seeing a viable future for them in their current forms.

When I was growing up, I received advice on more than one occasion along the lines of, “if you can write well, you’ll never go hungry.”  I think back to those words when I assess the state of news coverage & commentary.  The shrinking of newsrooms translates into fewer full-time jobs for professional journalists, ranging from veteran reporters and columnists to folks right out of journalism school.  In the meantime, bloggers everywhere — practicing what the folks at Universal Hub aptly call community journalism — are contributing useful news items and informed commentary, but most are not receiving any compensation for their work.

As the Information Age continues to go digital, we now expect online content to be freely accessible without charge.  But we rarely think of this as a labor issue, failing to consider, say, that free online access may be depressing reporters’ salaries and eliminating paid positions in newsrooms.  The digital highway certainly has created a lot of jobs, but ironically it may be contributing to the demise of journalism as vocation.

Newspapers, like so many other institutions, are very slow to change, and it’s clear there is no agreement on a sustainable path as a larger and larger share of the public gets its news from online sources.  For well over a century, the daily newspaper has played a vital role in shining a light on matters of public concern, spearheaded by professional journalists who know their craft and dig for the story.  Blogs like Universal Hub are a wonderful complement to, but hardly a substitute for, our daily press and those who report on and investigate the world around us.

For those who want to check out some of the Universal Hub discussion threads about newspapers, see  http://universalhub.com/node/22751, http://www.universalhub.com/node/22682, and http://www.universalhub.com/node/22501.

7 responses

  1. I found this blog via Universal Hub, which I read on a regular basis. I hardly ever miss a post. But the majority of my news comes from paid journalists – at the Globe, Herald, and elsewhere – for a reason. They uncover and break the stories that would otherwise go unnoticed.
    So count me out of the journalism-can-exist-as-a-hobby crowd. I guess that’s the same conclusion you came to, and I guess we are in agreement then. But I think you give to much credence to the idea that the journalism we need could be accomplished by bloggers.
    I’m all for open discussion, but that idea is ludicrous. Maybe we could do the same with medical practitioners, because we all know how expensive and unsustainable our health care system is. Hell, I could swab a wound. And maybe we could do the same for education, because you know what? Schools cost a lot. And you know what else? I’m a safe driver, so to hell with the DMV, the RMV, and the police on traffic duty.
    I know how badly newspapers have been hurt by the Internet, bad investments, and the poor economy, and I know that newspapers don’t have any sound plans for bailing themselves out. Obviously something has to change, and I think it’s more likely that print operations move to the Web in the form of sites such as Slate.com.
    I’m not personally offended, but I think it’s insulting to suggest that the work of professional journalists could be accomplished by hobbyists. Sure blogs like Adam Gaffin’s are a treasure, and a great source of news and information. But could we count on bloggers to tell us about President Bush’s signing statements, warrant-less wiretapping, or the recent wars in Sudan? No, absolutely not.
    I appreciate that you seem to have arrived at the same conclusion, and I’m glad that you raised the issue of a entirely volunteer press corps, but that is a nightmare scenario. I would rather see all my medical ailments handled by well-meaning friends, and our roadways turned into a free-for-all than see professional journalists supplanted by volunteers. (I cannot weigh the work of paid educators against the work of paid journalists.)
    Again, I’m glad you brought it up, and I don’t fault you for it. It’s a question that needs to be raised, I think, because of the drastic cuts to newspapers’ staffs. Also, I have a vested interest in the survival of professional journalism beyond my desire to read well reported articles. But c’mon. The idea of an entirely volunteer press corps is just a bad idea, and one that should only be raised so that it can be shot down.

  2. Interesting post although it didn’t go where I thoguht it would. I loved BostonNOW. It solicited writing, photography and video from readers… as partners of the newspaper.

    Yes, we contributed for free, but with the understanding that there’d be some type of compensation at some point. It could have been tickets, access, money…

    It did not matter. The paper became OURS instead of theirs.

    The local papers need help. We’re here.

    Let’s see some outreach.

    The Globe is doing some good work with their RAW photo blog and getting photos in the new G section.

    I’d love to hear from either major daily on how we can help.

    I’ll be teaching another semester at BU College of Communication, School of Journalism and would love to have an outlet where the students could get published.

    Same message goes out to the TV stations on Greater Boston too. Say hi

  3. Thank you to both Steve and our anonymous commentator (for reasons I understand) for their comments.

    I reread my post to make sure that I didn’t unintentionally suggest that I was endorsing the idea that bloggers can replace reporters. And while I understand anon commentator’s personal stake in this milieu, I don’t think it’s over the top to raise this topic — the blogosphere is exploding, but newsrooms are shrinking.

    Steve refers to BostonNOW, which for you non-Bostonians was a short-lived free daily that integrated the Greater Boston blogosphere into its print pages, giving rise to a greater diversity of voices reporting and commenting on the news of the day. I confess that I was not all that into the blogosphere during its run (I’m still a Web 1.5 guy in a Web 2.0 world). The BostonNOW experiment may have been a year or two before its time: The Globe and Herald would be well advised to incorporate its more community-inclusive features.

    As the news business goes increasingly online, I agree with both of you that we must find a way to preserve and build the role of the professional journalist. My deep concern is that I don’t see a viable business strategy emerging from our daily papers to do so.


  4. I hope no one has forgotten that blogs originally came into existence simply as a personal venue where an individual could post their opinions to the public, more or less an online diary. I think the trend to look at blogs as a news sources has crept up on society in such a subtle way that we might not be giving it the proper skepticism to evolve properly. There’s also been some interesting online chatter about print vs. online media when it comes to the digital divide. Unlike a country like Japan where they’re running fiber-based networking into peoples’ homes, here in America we still have large sectors of the population with little or no online access. Online journalism is just one more aspect increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

  5. The digital divide is an ongoing issue, though the broad trend is clearly that the gap is shrinking. Digital divide notwithstanding, more and more people are getting their news from the Web instead of print media, which is why we have this unacknowledged tension between paid professional journalists and amateur bloggers.

  6. Pingback: “I’ll write for free!” « Minding the Workplace

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