My thoughts on journalism, and me.
Here is another “what does the future hold for journalism and journalists” post. It is one of thousands out there. The only thing novel about this post that separates it from other posts, is that it is mine. Therefore it is based in my thoughts, experience, fears and hopes.
I spent the entire Thanksgiving holiday offline, save for my iPhone and setting my fantasy football lineup. (I got crushed in both leagues I am in.) I spent a total of 10.5 hours in transit between Philadelphia and Albany.
I had two bags with me. The one with books and magazines I wanted to catch up on was almost as heavy as five days worth of clothing.
There was one book, the December Vanity Fair, and a slew of CJRs, AJRs and Folios. I read VF cover to cover, to bridge the gap between monitor and paper and ease my way and my brain back into the world of the printed page.
I was aware (because of the online chatter) of the Reconstruction of American Journalism report in the November / December issue of the CJR so I thought I would start there. The project was an exhaustive analysis of the current state of journalism. I won’t rehash it here, but it was an interesting read. But, what were as equally good to read were the responses and rebuttals that received space in the issue.
It should come as no surprise that a journalistic publication would not simply give space to those who concurred with the report, it’s analysis and it’s suggestions, but to those with various points who opposed the report’s conclusions and (possible, partial) solutions. These pieces raised a variety of good points. Again, this will not be dissected here.
So, what will be dissected here? My personal roller coaster ride of thoughts, emotions, experiences and state of mind in regards to the current state of affairs and atmosphere and how it is all affecting me. Who cares about me? Well, for starters, I do. A lot. I don’t expect anyone else to, but I also have a suspicion that my experiences and fears are not unique.
I decided to go back to school about 2 years ago for journalism. It was the classic case of not being able to see the forest through the trees when picking my major. Trying to figure out what to study as I ran a magazine, three people in one week’s time suggested journalism. (One was my mom and I can’t remember the other two.) Having a few years of editor-in-chief of my own magazine experience, but no other journalistic, writing or publishing experience under my belt, it made sense. It was around ’06 and the economy and the industry were just on the beginning cusp of, but not yet in, complete freefall.
So I plug away, taking classes, and the bottom falls out. The magazine is alive, but struggling, like almost all magazines are. (R.I.P. Giant which passed this week from the print world.)
As my magazine struggled, I reached out to various national magazines, local magazines, as well as local weeklies and my community newspaper looking to test the waters for freelance opportunities. Save for a four month courtship process of finally agreeing to work for free for my community newspaper, I couldn’t even get a response from any other outlet. I’ve documented those experiences here before. (Interestingly or ironically enough, now that the editor of the SPR has added me to her list of freelancers and is open to pitches, I am not sure where I can find the time as I am juggling a lot…)
On a macro level, everyone has their two cents about the root of the problem and well as what the solution, or part of the solution, is. And in reality, they are probably all right to a certain degree. 20/20 hindsight is fine, but what about looking forward?
Journalism finds itself in a precarious situation, independent of economic climate. Independent of the internet. Independent of almost anything save for the fact that we are a capitalistic society. Now, once again, I am not going to digress into a debate about political systems. Clearly journalism is busy trying to save itself and the notion of taking on the country’s 200+ year economic and social system might be a little grandiose and beyond its capabilities. Maybe for a place to start we can all agree on that.
So within that framework, journalists at their most basic level, are conveyors of information. There is, or typically has been, a supply and demand of information. For a period of time that information was centralized. From newspapers, to radio, to the first few decades of television. People were forced to turn to these outlets to get their information. These pillars helped deliver the information in return for access to a captive audience. But between cable television and more recently the internet, audiences have become fragmented as well as is where to get the specific information they crave.
Now, where the information industry has become dependent on for financing, and therefore distribution, is no longer a valuable commodity to those with money because media outlets no longer have the same depth of a captive audience. So even if there was no economic crisis and considering the technological and societal developments alone, those with money that enabled delivery and dissemination of information, take their money elsewhere.
You can even factor in societal short attention span, celebrity culture and fascination with self. (Did I mention this is MY blog…?)
Media is like a car with engine problems and no gas. Money is the the fuel and if poured in will solve one issue, but not the problem. There is now suddenly seemingly no means to deliver meaningful content for the providers, and no reason to for the distributors from a business perspective of supply, or the audience’s perspective of demand. Is there a sustainable demand for the supply? Is there a way to sustainably supply the demand?
Is it all over? Throw in the towel?
I, personally, find myself going into debt with school, to learn more about a field I already have more experience in then all my classmates (and sometimes the faculty “teaching” me), to emerge in a bottleneck competing for the same non-existent positions as my classmates, peers and the previous generation. And by non-existent, I mean non-paying. (Blogs? Sure. But my landlord as of yet doesn’t accept unique website impressions for rent. ) So why am I even there?
Look, I never had any illusion of becoming some rock star journalist. But after not hearing back from all the places I had contacted to freelance for free and not hearing back from any, I was shocked. So starting and running my own nationally distributed magazine from the ground up with no money, no contacts and no experience can’t even get me in the door to be told “no”? My experience doesn’t speak for itself? Doesn’t display initiative, responsibility? My writing doesn’t hold up? I’m fucked. Might as well finish school to try and give myself the smallest margin of distancing myself from the pack. Not to be able to pull down a 6 digit income, but I would take enough to pay the bills. I really don’t do it because of some altruistic reasons either. I do it because I really enjoy it.
One of the suggestions being made about “the future” is that journalism will become a hobby. It will not be done for financial motivations but a combination of passion and other inclinations. Maybe for writing, maybe for investigating, maybe for those altruistic motivations. Regardless of the second part of that equation, passion will always be a part of journalistic hobbying. No one will selflessly commit that much time and energy unless it is fueled by passion. And sometimes, I wonder how bad that might be.
The magazine I still own, is a music magazine. At times I feel like we are getting hit with a perfect storm of trifecta whammies. Economic meltdown + industry implosion + technological shortsightedness of the industry I cover, as well as the vehicle used to cover said industry. Ugh. And despite our accomplishments, I still have not made any money off my own publication. For a time did it pay my bills? Sure. But I have nothing material as a result of owning the magazine. We put all the money back into the magazine. Why? Passion. For what we cover, what we do and how we do it. That passion has given us the ability to survive though, not prosper on a personal level.
The genre we cover is rap. A corner of the music world going through its own crisis. The past years spent pushing a hollow, superficial illusion of a world that few can afford or relate to, especially in these times. When Biggie Smalls rapped about the two ways of getting out of the hood being selling crack or basketball, he was in fact on the leading edge of an emerging third possibility of escaping the urban deathtrap: music.
But again, with that perfect storm, the option Biggie had may also be on its way out. And when I talk to people in the music industry, we are not all convinced this is a bad thing. What if this all leads back to a purity of an artist’s intent? To be creative. To do it because you love it. To do it as a form of expression. To tell a story. Because one has that passion.
I see certain parallels between the two. The rap world mirroring the world of journalism. Who would have thought it?
I spend silly amounts of time online. Some days I feel like I am drowning with all the social media and places to keep track of. On top of. At times my mood and perspective is directly related to the last article I have read about the future of journalism. It effects how I feel not solely about my possible profession but all areas of my life. Will I ever be able to afford an engagement ring? A mortgage? Pampers? Right now I work at my day job (necessary to cover the bills), go to school (see above), and am the EIC of my own magazine. And I do it why? Passion? To pay bills? Both? George is extremely helpful when it comes to practical needs as well as being a moral booster. He is making it happen and adapting. But he also was all in at the tail end of the old journalism model and through his own hard work is fortunate enough to be positioned with a foot in both old and new worlds. I am willing to do whatever it takes to eke out my meager existence, but is that meager existence even possible as a journalist? Again, sadly, it depends on what I read each day.
It is difficult at times to feel like I am at the mercy of a blogger. What media talking head decides to bang out on their keyboard that day. It is not my identity or worth that is tied up in this but what I feel are real, life issues. With online being the future it only makes sense to turn there. Where else would I go? The New York Times? I read it online or my iPhone. The six o’clock news? They aren’t exactly known as being a bastion of relevant information. So I look on the internet.
A few weeks ago I posted this by Jeff Jarvis. Suddenly I am eternally hopeful and optimistic.
Today I read this by Alan Mutter. Suddenly I am sullen and despondent.
The responses were lively, smart and offered various perspectives and insights. But as with unique visitors falling short in keeping the electric company off my back, it is doing little to help with bills or the mounting debt and stress that result.
It is not all doom and gloom for me though. At times I do feel as if I, or we, are in the middle of an exciting time of creativity, innovation, experimentation. I wonder when, not if, we will look back at this time in journalistic history and cerebrally know it was a period of strife and difficulty, but the success of what was born as a result will anesthetize us from really being able to remember how palpable the stinging desperation, panic and fear that we are feeling as we tumble though this period, really was.