Free Journalism Has its Costs

When I was in high school I had a bunch of money-earning jobs. I raked yards in the Fall (leaf bags galore!), shoveled driveways in the winter, and delivered newspapers year-round. (I really hated those thick Sunday papers back then.) This meant I had cash on hand to feed my record-buying habit and enough to spare for other typical American teenager indulgences. The important thing to keep in mind here is that people paid me to rake the leaves off their lawns, shovel snow from their driveways, and deliver their newspapers everyday.

I had one more gig as a 16-year old: I worked as a sportswriter for my town newspaper. You might be surprised to learn that I was also financially rewarded (per article) for this work. My first bylines were thrilling, but being edited and paid to cover high school sports made it feel like I had joined the ranks of professional journalism. Looking back, I’m sure I would have done it for nothing. I didn’t think the editor would hire me, much less pay me. But he did both. And in doing so, he served as my first mentor and instilled in me this crazy idea that writers get paid for their output. Those were the pre-internet days.

Today, things aren’t so cut and dry. Professional writers compete with hobbyists and experts from other fields in a digital media landscape that is flush with content. On the plus side, this has leveled the playing field and created opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. The downside is that this surplus quantity has diluted quality and created separate editorial standards for the print and online product at newspapers and magazines.

The problem with this is that most readers no longer distinguish between what is online and in print, or between an article that was professionally vetted and that which was thrown online with minimal scrutiny. Some publications, it seems, don’t bother to make these distinctions clear.

Consider, for example, The Atlantic, an influential thought leader and prestige publication in the United States. I challenge anyone to scroll around its website and be able to distinguish between the professionally vetted articles (those that were fact-checked and underwent numerous edits and revisions) and those that received glancing attention.

Why is this important? Look at the article The Atlantic published online earlier this week, which was widely read and shared. It also contained many significant errors, which the writer (to his credit) owned up to after knowledgeable critics tore it apart. (I have discussed the article here, here, and here.) If you look at the editor’s note at the article, acknowledging its inaccuracies, you’ll see the piece is now identified as the author’s  “most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites.”  That would be a food column.

However, in the article’s initial incarnation, The Atlantic did not make this clear. It’s fair to assume that many readers thought the piece, because it was stamped with The Atlantic’s prestigious imprimatur, had passed the high editorial standards of the magazine. That gives the article a gravitas it didn’t deserve.

Now there’s a related, equally troublesome issue that I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post: the matter of financial compensation. It is not for me to say whether the author of that particular Atlantic article was paid or not by the magazine. That is his business, as he has made clear to me. But it is my impression that a good many of the online-only contributors do not get paid. I’m ready to stand corrected (in fact, I’d love it if I was). So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.

The issue of writers giving away their copy for free is a sore subject for many of us who are accustomed to being paid for our writing. The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. Personally, I’ve alway been paid for blog posts or online articles that have appeared elsewhere. Recently, I reached out to Barry Estabrook, a writer I used to work with (and pay) regularly when I was an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, after I noticed that he contributed to various online venues, including The Atlantic. Last year, Estabrook published a book called Tomatoland. I asked him straight out if he was getting paid for his online pieces at The Atlantic and other sites. Via email, he responded:

I have a policy of not writing anything (other than direct promotion for Tomatoland) for free, a policy I would perhaps waive if the editors and executives at these websites were also working for free.
Like me, Estabrook suspects that many online writers, seduced by the prospect of a byline at a reputable publication (such as The Atlantic), do not have a similar policy.

The issue of science bloggers, I should hasten to add, is a different kettle of fish. I’m bothered by journalists and science writers who give away their talents at those network/group blog sites. That said, I’m aware that these outlets, with their free back-end support and brand name perches, offer intangibles that can’t be measured in a bi-weekly paycheck. Those who latch on to such places get a seat at the grown-ups table and can make themselves heard over the din. If they do it well enough, that might even translate into gainfully employed work from other grown-ups that are willing to pay. Additionally, if you have a book or some other pet project to hawk, then a bloghorn is virtually a must. So I get the value of free labor under those circumstances.

But let’s not kid ourselves, either. All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.

UPDATE: Ed Yong, via twitter, says it’s “worth noting that all sci-blog networks assoc’d w/ media brands do pay. Some pittance, others well.”

21 Responses to “Free Journalism Has its Costs”

  1. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. ”

    Keith it seems to me that your complaint is similar to that of the Luddittes.  You are railing against a market strategy that is made possible through advances in technology. I sympathize with this  POV, but I have to say that I’d never have guessed that you were a fellow Marxist 😉

    I think your grievances with the Huffpost model and unpaid/online journalism would be strengthened if you could point to data that shows that the quality of the information (which in my mind is a product of timeliness, salience, insightfulness and accuracy) is measurably different  between online and offline media. In my experience it is the venue/brand (e.g. NY Times) that is a more accurate predictor of quality rather than the online/offline distinction.

    Then again, one could argue that timely less accurate information is just as valuable as information that is accurate but only gets to the reader a month later.  Interesting trade-offs worthy of discussion eh?

  2. EdG says:

    “All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.”

    Yes. There’s definitely some truth to that. But in terms of “the reputation of journalism,” that is largely a reflection of what professional “journalism” has become. In the case of the AGW story, as told by the mainstream media, it has become lazy propaganda parroting with no depth, objectivity, or real investigation. Just call one of the ‘sanctioned’ sources and become a stenographer. Or paste the latest press release from one of the usual suspects. 

    So, sorry Keith, but I have no concerns about the livelihoods of such parrots. particularly when all the real investigation of that story (and others) has been done by unpaid researchers who were more concerned about the truth than about their own paychecks.
    Vive la blogosphere! Sadly, it is so inconvenient to the sheep herders that I expect this free flow of information – and by that I mean freedom of thought not freedom from payment – won’t last. That is already happening, led by such Ministries of Truth as Google and Wiki.

    P.S. I can’t imagine anyone being put off by advertising here. Adaptation and evolution.

  3. Dean says:

    I think that it’s important to point out that broadly, there is nothing new here. Those who produce something and need some kind of labor in order to have something to sell, always look for ways to get it more cheaply, and what they pay the people who actually produce it has always been a target.

    Wrt journalism the impact could be farther reaching  than in other areas due to the role that journalism pays.

    As to Marlowe’s comment about Luddites, it probably bears pointing out the the Luddites were not really fighting new technology, they were fighting poverty, and it was new technology that was causing their poverty. That technology did in the future create more wealth, but the actual Luddites were by then many generations passed. It never helped them.

    People will usually oppose that which impoverishes them.

  4. jeffn says:

    I think one of the problems here is the definition of “free” and the pretense that the Internet makes this a new phenomenon. Many writers are willing to write for “free” because it’s part of their volunteer work for their hobby/cause or because writing is ancillary to their paid position as an issue advocate.
    Even before the Internet, we had no shortage of groups coming to the newspaper asking that we run their “free” often professional looking content as long as we didn’t edit out the… ahem… exaggerations. PETA will happily supply you with no end of photos, video, and text about animals and some papers that cater to people who like that sort of stuff ran it happily.
    Paid or volunteer advocates can confuse people. One example I’ve brought up before is Joe Romm- a man who is not actually a science blogger, he is a blogger for a political advocacy organization that includes a science theme as long as it’s helpful to the politics. Look it up. This doesn’t make Romm a bad person or a “liar,” but it often answers the question “why doesn’t Joe Romm simply accept blah blah blah” Well, he can’t if it doesn’t match Progressive political policy just as the paid staff at CATO are unlikely to “accept” higher taxes and regulation.
    I think the difference now is that journalism is fragmenting and becoming more and more partisan. There aren’t more Ari’s willing to write junk for free- they’ve always been there. There are just more outlets that don’t care about their credibility enough to spike it.

  5. Michael Larkin says:

    It has been the AGW brouhaha as much as anything else that has made me realise that many paid journalists write slanted articles – the sin often isn’t failure to check sources, but omission of counter views. On the other hand, bloggers have been my main source of those counter views.
    There are good and bad bloggers, but the best of them, when it comes to the science, are in an altogether higher league than professional journalists. I don’t care about niceties of grammar or turn of phrase, I care about content.
    We also have the Murdoch affair being given much prominence in England, and that has severely dented public confidence in newpapers and journalism. Sales are continuing to fall and at some point, it’s quite likely newpapers will disappear. Some paid journalism will continue on the Web, that place where seekers after information can find many angles on the same story and make up their own minds, or, if they prefer, seek out views that conform to their prejudices.
    But it’s only on the Web that there is at least the possibility of exposure to such a wide range of views. Personally, I’d prefer to evaluate for myself information from many sources, albeit that those might not include professional journalists, than pay for biased information. The media in general have been almost universally on one side of the AGW issue, and so there is little opportunity there to find alternative viewpoints. The Web has shown that is not because such alternatives don’t exist.
    If there is such bias in one area of interest, who is to say it isn’t there in others? So I read many sources on all sorts of issues. I can’t afford to buy dozens of newspapers every day, but now there’s no need. I can access oodles of information and exercise my own judgement as to its worth and/or the worth of its source.
    I can tell you are a journalist, Keith; and I believe you to be a reasonably fair one, even though I disagree with you on some things. But you don’t say things I can’t find elsewhere even if not presented in as polished a way. Additionally, for a non-American reader, many of your allusions (presuming a common cultural awareness) are unfathomable, so much so that sometimes I can’t readily see what point you are trying to make. I wonder if it’s actually that easy sometimes for your American readers to see it either.
    Of course, different readers gravitate to different writers, but the point is, journalists aren’t inherently more readable or informative simply because they are professionals, or even, quite knowledgeable. Couple this with the fact that they may have an axe to grind (may indeed have been hired to grind), and I don’t see them as being paragons of quality public communication. I see them as often being part of a serious problem with that.
    It’s all going to shake down and equilibrate, Keith. There’s always going to be a place for professional, paid journalists. My hope is that those who survive will include a greater proportion of principled ones. But even if not, the genie’s out of the bottle and the Web will provide more opportunities for principled readers.

  6. Mary says:

    I thought this whole exercise was an excellent illustration of why good quality science journalism matters. I have a bunch of these folks in my twitter feed and social networks, and I try to support them by giving them page views and retweets, and commenting.
    But how else can we encourage, support, and reward quality at these publisher sites?
    I know not to click HuffPo links, and Examiner, etc. But these stealth ones….?

  7. BBD says:

    How long does it take to write up an interesting, non-derivative blog post? You need to be sure of your facts or you will get eviscerated in comments. Who here would care to take over KK’s blog for a month? It’s worth thinking about.

  8. Doug Allen says:

    The Fourth Estate was once a respected and powerful force.  Edmund Burke said there were … “three estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all.”
    What has happened?  It appears that the first three estates (politicians) and the Fourth, journalists, have all lost respect.
    I’ll throw out a few possible reasons for journalism’s decline-
    1)  news has become entertainment stories  because
    2)  entertainment commands  higher ratings which is required 
    3) to maximize profits with advertisers 
    4) entertainment also involves creating controversy and mostly predicting the future rather than informing about the past and present 
    5) controversy requires easy-to-understand competing narratives
    rather than evidence, understanding, and nuance
    6) celebrity talking heads and their cheerleaders are in perpetual battle over these oversimplified narratives  
    My father was a conservative Republican (circa 1950’s and 60’s) and a managing editor at Newsweek, but you would never have guessed his politics from the articles he wrote.  His painstaking effort to be informative and be fair seems in decline.  I think there is still quality from professional journalists (and hobbyists and experts from other fields), but it is very uneven and easily lost in the multitude of voices. I think Dad would be shocked and chagrinned by the state of professional journalism.

  9. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    I don’t see a big difference between the crap about GMOs by an unpaid blogger in the Atlantic and the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checkers dropping the ball on Paul Brodeur’s scare-mongering about electromagnetic fields in 1989.
    Whether I’m reading amateur bloggers or professionally edited journalists (even The New Yorker and The New York Times, both of which I gladly pay to read online) I pay most attention to the byline and whether I am familiar with the reporter’s reputation and history. When I read Gina Kolata I think about her great reporting (wonderful stuff debunking silicone scares and lawsuits) and her lousy reporting (uncritically hyping angiostatins with no legitimate news angle). When I read Nicholas Dawidoff interviewing Dyson on climate, I asked who in the hell is this Dawidoff fella, ’cause I’d never heard of him; and when I figured out that he was a sportswriter with no track record in science reporting that influenced the way I read him, regardless that he was paid, and presumably edited by NYT.
    It’s a similar thing with reading the scientific literature. If you don’t know the author of a paper, you don’t know how to read it. Is he or she sloppy and reckless, or careful and conservative? How frequently does he or she have to publish corrigenda? Peer review won’t substitute for knowing who’s who. A lot of graduate school is not just learning how to do experiments or calculations. It’s also learning how to read the literature—what to trust, what not to, and how to tell the difference.
    It’s not just science or science reporting. Raymond Bonner, Alma Guillermoprieto, and Stephen Kinzer built solid reputations on their 1980s Latin American reporting that have followed them through their careers.
    So perhaps the upshot of the dissolving boundary between free and paid journalism is something you’d value, Keith: a diminution of the value conferred by the publication and a complementary augmentation to the value of the author’s own name.  If many readers trust the Keith Kloor brand in whatever venue it appears more than they trust the brand of the venue, isn’t that to your advantage?

    In this light, read what Estabrook writes as the importance of maintaining the value of your brand. And the key, as Estabrook says, is to convince the venues that it’s worth more to them to be associated with your brand than it is worth to you to be associated with theirs, which is why they should pay you if they want your content.

  10. harrywr2 says:

    All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.
    The ‘great consolidation’ damaged journalism more then blogs or the huffington post style operations and IIRC the ‘great consolidation’ came before the internet.
    For those not familiar with the ‘great consolidation’ most print publications used to be owned by some prominent family in a community. Some are still controlled by prominent families but most are now owned by conglomerates that churn out a ‘standard shell’ that is then ‘localized’ by ‘local journalists’ or editors.
    As examples
    The Charlotte Observer is owned by the Washington Post. Most of the content comes from the Washington Office and the Charlotte office adds ‘local color’ and ‘local editing’. Everybody follows the same corporate ‘style’ guide.
    The ‘Hartford Courant’, supposedly America’s Oldest Continuously published newspaper is owned by the LA Times and a large proportion of the content is now written in LA by people whose ‘frame’ are shaped by the experience of living in LA, which is not the same frame as people living in Hartford have.
    The ‘Boston Globe’ is now part of the New York Times group. Boston and New York are completely different cities with completely different cultures , experiences and outlooks. When I was young living in Connecticut there was no shortage of people who would buy both the Sunday Boston Globe and the Sunday New York Times so they could read about issues from two different vantage points. There is no point to buy both now. The vantage point is the same…New York.
    Sorry Keith, whats killing paid journalism is not the free content internet. What’s killing paid journalism is the predictable homogenized news the Major Conglomerates deliver with their ‘corporate style’ books.
    Most newspapers today have the intellectual richness of a McDonalds hamburger.

  11. Keith Kloor says:

    Many good comments in this thread. 

    Jonathan (9)
    In an ideal world, everybody would be as discerning a reader as you. Alas, I’d venture to say that the average person doesn’t pay much attention to bylines. The eyes are drawn to the headline and if sufficiently interested, they go right to the story. 

    Your point about individual brand writers is well taken.

    harrywr2 (10)

    Most definitely, consolidation is a factor. So is the loss of ad revenue (to online venues), executive mismanagement/malpractice, and a host of other reasons I didn’t get into. My post just addresses the implications of the “information wants to be free” mentality that underlies what I am talking about.

  12. grypo says:

    The Luddite reaction and Marxist scholarship afterward to increased technology set the stage for the union’s post WWII agreements with capital that made it so labor shared in the profits of increases in production, even though less came directly from labor.  This is another example far left ideology incorporated into practice and helped causes for the people.  

    There is a lesson to be learned here.  Former print journalists could boycott non-professional rate paying venues, (Huffpost) and force an internal struggle for journalists.   I agree with Keith that consumers are fairly ignorant in recognizing what’s what.  Pro Genre fiction writers have basically ignored or ridiculed free or low paying programs, like Huff, for a degradation of talent within the field.  

  13. mondo says:

    In time it is likely that trusted online mastheads will emerge and become the daily read for large numbers of people, just as there have been trusted mastheads in the print area.   These trusted mastheads will attract large readership, which in turn means that they will attract advertisers, and other revenues, possibly even subscription revenues.  Once the brands are established, and revenues are flowing, then there will be funds to pay contributors.
    The problem that many of the formerly revered print mastheads have at the moment (Sydney Morning Herald, Nature, Scientific American) is that the emergence of the interweb and the wide availability of information has demonstrated forcefully that these journals have trashed their brand by abandoning objective journalism in favour of advocacy.   Particularly in the area of CAGW. 
    I haven’t seen the figures, but I bet that these journals (and similar) are seeing dramatic declines in paid subscriptions, and advertising revenues.  
    We are living in a very fluid interregnum where the transparency of the net is throwing light on bad journalism.  The man in the street can now, if he wants, check the veracity of his sources.   The Wikipedia brand is being damaged by the shenanigans that have gone on in their climate pages for example.
    Trusted online brands will emerge from what might seem unlikely sources, and attract revenues.  Time will tell which ones.
    Some newspapers that have retained their commitment to balanced reporting, investigative journalism, and news ‘professionalism’ may be able to attract subscriptions for their online editions.  Their strong brand may attract subscribers.   Here in Australia, The Australian is trialling an online subscription service which, while currently free, will shortly be taken behind a paywall.  I am likely to subscribe, because I respect The Australian, while not agreeing with quite a few of their journalists and columnists.  At least they present a diversity of views.

    If the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to pay for an online subscription, I would tell them where to go.
    So the key is the establishment of brands that consumers can trust.

  14. mondo says:

    A couple more points.  We tend to be creatures of habit, and our habits develop in the media world as well.  I bet that most of us already have a list of perhaps ten blogs or news sources that they check for half an hour each morning, as regularly as they have their morning cup of coffee. 
    It is only occasionally that we will try a new brand, most often in my experience, by listening to word of mouth recommendations from trusted friends and colleagues.  
    Another aspect of our habits is that we think nothing of spending $3 or $4 each morning for a cup of coffee on our way to work.   We all have at least some budget for such things, and I maintain that we all have at least one or two bucks to spend each day on a trusted news source.   Clearly we will spend that money on brands we trust.
    One advantage that trusted brands have in this incredibly diverse media world we now live in is that it saves us the need to go searching for ourselves.   We will still do that on issues that interest us (using Google probably), but otherwise I bet that most of us will stick to our list of trusted brands for daily consumption.

  15. John N-G says:

    “So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.”
    If I were an editor, the journalists I paid would be the ones I trusted the most.  I’d spend more time with the copy that came to me from unpaid sources.

  16. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Idly thinking about a few things… United Artists vs. the studio system, Magnum and photojournalism, and so forth…
    What if a number of high-quality freelance journalists made something like Magnum or UA? A collective, owned by participating reporters, that would fund and distribute high-quality journalism? Sort of an Indy wire service.
    Could this work as a business model? Could collective representation demand decent remuneration from aggregators, such as HuffPo, and turn a profit for its principals or would it, like Pro Publica, require charitable contributions as its dominant revenue stream?
    Googling, I find people writing about journalism cooperatives, but only from a consumer-oriented POV: it’s like the food co-op or the credit union, owned cooperatively by the consumers. Fine, and good ideas to explore, but what about a producer-centered and producer-owned cooperative that focuses on helping its members to produce valuable journalism, and to capture and protect the value of what they produce?

  17. Gaythia Weis says:

    @Jonathan Gilligan, @Keith Kloor:
    How about organizations such as:
    I think that the problem here is funding.  As wealth gets concentrated, ability to pay goes down.  I also don’ think it is reasonable tot think that the impact of disruptive technologies on journalism is that unique.

  18. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @Gaythia:  You’re correct.
    See this bit by Tom Stites, which discusses the perils of the Pro Publica model: both foundations and individual big donors are fickle and don’t like funding long-term projects, and volunteers burn out. There needs to be a profit stream (Stites proposes a third way, modeled on his Banyan project, which he describes as neither for-profit nor non-profit; but as I suggest above in #16, it’s not clear whether there’s a role for high-quality professional journalists in his model).
    Everyone agrees that there’s nothing unique about journalism in being impacted by disruptive technologies. Keith’s question is how quality journalism needs to change to survive in the new world. Lots of industries are being slammed, but if we use an ecological analogy each industry lives in its own niche and as the environment changes and makes those niches less hospitable, different species will evolve in different ways, guided by the unique interactions between the common environmental change and the specifics of the different habitats and niches.
    Contrast the stress journalism is experiencing to the stress on manufacturing, described nicely by Adam Davidson in The Atlantic (I mentioned paying attention to bylines: more about Davidson here and here). Manufacturing is evolving in one direction, but journalism can neither automate nor offshore reporting so its evolution will be very different.

  19. Mary says:

    Ed Yong is doing a “science I’d pay to read” series. But yeah–voluntary stuff suffers burnout, and is not really sustainable.

  20. Tom Scharf says:

    Ha.  Thanksgiving was the worst day of the year for this paper-boy.  My Dad used to help me out on Sundays, but I was on my own on the advertising spectacular day of Thanksgiving, at least as big as a Sunday.

    I used to have bring a wagon and haul it the hills of my WV neighborhood, cursing most of the way.

    I still have nightmares about my paper route 30 years later.

    It was disappointing time when I moved to FL and found out adults had taken over.  Very little teenage entrepreneurial activity down here.

  21. toto says:

    Online needs not mean “free”. Several reputable organizations have developed a balance of free and paid-for online content. The NYT (20 free articles per month IIRC) and the Economist are well-known examples
    Then there are publications that have a pay-only website, like the Times (of London).
    Finally, there are online-only, pay-only publications. Admittedly these are rare. I can think of the French website Mediapart, which gained a solid reputation for investigative journalism (and is apparently profitable).

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