The future of journalism is independent contractors

Dad's new master bedroom

Dad’s new master bedroom

I recently finished a small remodeling project at my house, and I learned something that validates a suspicion I have about the future of work and specifically those who work in journalism.

I turned a bedroom/bathroom combination into a second master bedroom, because my 90-year old father-in-law is coming to live with us. I wanted to give the old guy some privacy, and putting the bathroom “inside” his space did the trick. The guys who built it were independent contractors who were paid by the contractor I hired. Sears delivered dad’s new mattress and box spring, and the deliverymen, while wearing Sears shirts, were independent contractors paid by Sears. Empire Carpets came out and installed hardwood flooring. The two guys who did the work were independent contractors paid by Empire to install carpets, tile and hardwoods.

I spoke with each of these people about working as independent contractors instead of employees, and while they all bemoaned the lack of benefits, they all said that working for themselves had some advantages, especially when it came to taxes.

Clearly the business world is moving in the direction of independent contractors, and I’ve been writing for ten years that this will one day be the model for media companies. In the beginning, it will likely come about as a cost savings, but in the end, I think it’ll also be a part of acknowledging the growth of what J. D. Lasica first termed the “personal media revolution” in his 2005 book “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.”

Right now, in every community in the U.S., there are people practicing a form of journalism who aren’t employed by traditional journalism companies. Athletes, actors, retired journalists and TV people, elected officials, municipalities, police and fire departments, writers, moms, dads, students and many others are self-publishing content worthy of consideration as “news,” and tomorrow’s news organization will aggregate all of it. And if news becomes a matter of aggregating, then it makes sense for those who are currently “employed” to work for themselves and the highest bidder. This could upend the entire local media farm system, which finds young people just passing through small markets on their way to jobs in bigger markets. Smaller markets will be home to those who wish to live there, and I feel that would be quite a good thing for journalism.

Forbes is already practicing a form of this, as is the Huffington Post. Don’t be surprised when local media companies begin to move in this direction.

We’re all shilling for something

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

We’re All Shilling for Something

This will probably be received as the most controversial essay of the whole series, because I’m proposing that we re-examine the absolute negative assumption of the concept of shilling. My conclusion is that a hierarchical culture — where knowledge exists at the top — demands the policing of claims of truth, but in a horizontal culture — where knowledge is spread sideways — it’s up to the individual to police themselves. This assumes a weakening of the power to manipulate from the top, but that’s a subject for another day.

Andrew Sullivan’s paywall isn’t

RSS symbolAndrew Sullivan shocked observers yesterday by announcing that he was leaving The Daily Beast to go out on his own, charging a nominal $20 annual fee for access to his Daily Dish blog. This is both affordable for readers and so far quite profitable for Sully ($333k in first day). There are many excellent observations out there on this (Dean Starkman, Mathew Ingram, and others), so I won’t bore you with repetition. I simply want to point out a couple of things about this.

A whole lot of people are trying to call this a paywall or a “meter” similar to those of the newspaper industry. While it may appear that way on the surface, Sully is also providing — at no charge — a full RSS feed of everything that he writes. You may have to pay some small sum for reading the Daily Dish at the Daily Dish, but if you subscribe to his RSS feed, it’s free-of-charge. This demonstrates an understanding of the Web that few in legacy media would or even could bring themselves to repeat, but it guarantees that Andrew Sullivan will always be part of the conversation, which is every bit as important for a journalist as paying the water bill.

On that matter, Sullivan is employing the laws of 1,000 true fans to support himself and his six employees, and I certainly wish him well. It wouldn’t work for me, however; Andrew Sullivan is an anomaly as a blogger.

Post-Industrial Journalism

The only thing anybody really knows about the future of journalism is that there will be one. As Lisa Williams famously noted a few years ago, “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” But when experts try to go beyond that, sacred cows tend to get in the way. The best anyone can really do is follow a few of the larger cultural trends — those that we know will shape the future. To hone in on specifics is to turn our ship broadside to the waves of disruptive innovations instead of steering our ship in the direction of the sea. Sorry, but that’s the simple truth.

Three of the best minds among the world’s future-of-news thinkers — City University of New York’s C.W. Anderson, Columbia University’s Emily Bell, and New York University’s Clay Shirky — got together this year on behalf of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and created “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” a massive, lengthy and wandering thought-journey through the past and the present in order to get to tomorrow. The document gets my strong recommendation, because it is deep, thought-provoking and echoes many of the themes covered here over the last ten years.

It’s hard to summarize a document of this scope. Besides, Emily Bell has done a fine job herself for the Columbia Journalism Review. I do want to touch on a few things that I hope will influence the next group of intellectuals who attempt such a monstrous undertaking, for there are things about the report that I would’ve done differently.

  • Postmodern vs. Post-Industrial — The report’s major weakness is that it studies the institutions and the industry rather than the culture into which it is heading. I don’t think you can get very far in a thesis on the future of journalism unless the study includes a detailed view of tomorrow’s culture. Calling the report “post-industrial” teases its identity, but the report itself left me challenging assumptions throughout.

    My essay this summer The Postmodern Journalist is an example of what I’m talking about. It offers 11 sure bets about tomorrow’s journalists based on the culture in which they’ll be living. As good as the Anderson/Bell/Shirky report is, it could have been so much better if these three thinkers had spent more time exploring the culture instead of the industry or institution.

  • Don’t be naïve — I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life studying people and the business models of news organizations, and no attempt to predict the future of the industry can produce usable fruit unless it takes a serious look at media’s business model. The business of media is audience, and that’s exactly the problem. The advertising availabilities (avails) that media sells are illusionary, because what’s really being sold is the audience. That’s because media is a stage, a sterile one at that, in an age when nobody has time for the theater. This points out, once again, that the post-industrial culture is more important for the study of journalism’s future than the practice of journalism itself. If you’d like to explore more on this subject, check out my essays Working Without a Stage, The Emerging Impotence of Mass Marketing and The Hidden Disruption.

    One day, you will know the truth of a Bob Papper quote that I’ve rewritten: The Internet didn’t hurt news organizations by taking away its readers; it hurt news organizations by taking away its money.

  • Managers and leaders are different — The assumption inferred in the report’s “Institutions” section is that the search for new processes is the quest in the creation of new institutions. This misses a broad cultural understanding that I believe is critical to reinvention in a time of change/chaos. Processes are what managers manage, and it takes a different kind of person at the helm to implement transformative change. A discussion of processes is a necessary step only after a vision has been set, not before. Tomorrow’s news consumer simply doesn’t have to care about the institution’s wants and needs, including production deadlines and other contemporary processes, so why even include them in the discussion at this point?

    It’s done to satisfy the status quo by suggesting that they will be an important part of whatever comes next, whether that’s true or not. This is the Achilles’ Heel of all industry-led attempts at understanding and reinvention.

    If you’re interested in more on this subject, read the first chapter of AR&D’s book, Live. Local. BROKEN News, which I wrote in 2008, or peruse my essay Overcoming Formula Addiction.

  • Institutions serve themselves — Institutions within a hierarchical culture are problematic in the Great Horizontal, which is another reason I believe so strongly that understanding the coming culture is more important than anything else in trying to figure out journalism’s future basics. Many institutions begin as social movements, which are built on the energy of those movements. All designed originally to serve the common good, they evolve over time to hierarchical bureaucracies that (mostly) serve only themselves. Survival, after all, is the basest of human instincts.

    What does a postmodern — or post-industrial — institution look like? How does one manage others in a culture based on a level playing field? Will there be new hierarchies? How will they function? Viewing tomorrow through today’s lens, which the title of the Columbia Journalism School project suggests (“Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”), can be a frustrating set of handcuffs, especially with minds of those such as Shirky, Bell and Anderson.

Again, I strongly recommend reading the entire report for those interested in where everything is heading. Here it is (thanks to All Things D).

Post-Industrial Journalism: Adding to the Present

Gallup: Lack of trust in press hits record high

The folks at Gallup today released their annual survey about trust in the press, and it’s bad news. Six of ten Americans now say they have little or no trust in the news media. Here’s the chart published along with the release:

Gallup Trust in media displayed in annual increments since 2001

While this may be depressing, it pales in comparison to the chart I’ve been creating ever since Gallup switched to annual data in 2001. Prior to that date, they only asked the question every three years. I think the story is more precisely told by looking at the data in 3-year increments going back to 1973:

Gallup media trust data in 3-year increments

Either way, this is an incredibly dangerous sign for the press, the elements of which are fighting for their own survival. Here’s the way Gallup summarizes the problem:

On a broad level, Americans’ high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other. At the same time, there is an opportunity for others outside the “mass media” to serve as information sources that Americans do trust.

The bottom line is this (and it’s been this way for many years): When your newsroom employees hit the door to do their jobs, they do so without the public trust. The only way we’re going to get any of that back is to be trustworthy.

Newspapers: Defending the indefensible

Newspapers and the postal service are in a tug-of-war over couponsWhat happens when one industry in disruption runs into a business conflict with another industry in disruption? Think of two huge carnivores fighting over a third helpless beast at the tar pits of LeBrea.

An editorial in the Madison Eagle newspaper of Bernardsville, NJ last week caught my attention, because it provides a new enemy for newspapers — the United States Postal Service (USPS) — and proposes the same tired refrain of a threat to freedom, if something isn’t done about it. Last month, the Postal RegulatoryCommission approved a three-year discount deal to boost use of the mail system by Valassis Communications, which sends mass coupon mailings to homes under its RedPlum brand. Newspapers opposed the deal, because it cuts into “their” value proposition on delivering coupons via the Sunday paper.

I get that this is yet another rug being pulled out from under the newspaper business, but I object to the industry’s defense, as spelled out beautifully in the Eagleeditorial:

To newspapers that count on advertising to pay its reporters and cover the news, this USPS plan is beyond alarming – it’s a threat to journalism and an informed public. Many think it will push some newspapers in America already struggling with a fragile economy and Internet competition over the edge.

If that or anything like it happens, communities across our country will suffer the most long-term harm.

…We don’t fear the Internet; we are using it, and it is vastly expanding our ability to inform the public up-to-the-minute.

But, two things to keep in mind: The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers. Anything that weakens those newspapers will have a negative ripple effect on access to solid, accurate news on the Web.

And two: This is a media age not only in revolution, but in transition, to a future no one can fully describe. There are still many readers who aren’t satisfied that the news has really been reported and disseminated “until it’s in print.”

I’m especially struck anytime I read such hubris as: “The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers.” Let’s ask the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post about that.

Do newspapers truly believe stuff like this, that they are so important to freedom in the U.S. that their loss would be a threat to an informed public? In a capitalist economy, the powers that be simply say, “Cry me a river,” for only fit businesses are allowed to thrive. Fifteen years ago, newspapers had a virtual monopoly on classifieds, display advertising, and coupons. As each one has been stripped away, the industry has chosen not to compete with the disruptors, but instead do nothing except cry “foul” and offer a threat to freedom as the consequences of their doom.

As Lisa Williams famously wrote in 2008: “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” Do I really need to go into the ways it’s already happening?