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Why Readers Deserve No Journalism

There's been a buzz in journalistic circles about media economist Professor Robert Picard's claim that reporters deserve low pay. Although he makes some good points, his line of argument is largely flawed.

Picard's thesis rests on an unnecessary conflation. He writes that journalists "think of their work in moral or even sacred terms" and that "they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted." But the two statements are independent and the latter is downright inaccurate. Yes, journalists often do see their work as important to society. But they're not arguing that it is impossible to pay adequately for what they do. They're simply saying that the work must be paid for to be done.

Unfortunately, Picard's misconception reflects the relationship that society at large has to journalism. A key underpinning to Picard's assertion that journalists deserve to be paid little -- and here I thought statistics showed that they already were -- is that the work has largely become a commodity:

Well-paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities, and knowledge. It also requires that the labor must be non-commoditized. Unfortunately, journalistic labor has become commoditized. Most journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special expertise (such as finance reporters) get higher wages.
Picard then argues that technology is "de-skilling" journalists by giving individuals the ability to reach sources, access information, understand its significance, and effectively communicate it. Ultimately, if publishing is to survive, journalists "must add something novel that creates value."

The concept of value is slippery because it has a large emotional component. To claim that "[w]ages are compensation for value creation" is inaccurate, reflecting a simplified concept that allows economists to apply mathematical models, sometimes to good effect. But in reality the issue of wage levels is anything but pure rationality.

Wages are negotiated compensation in which each side often tries to maximize its interests at the expense of the other, and in such cases, one side generally loses -- typically the person seeking wages. There are garbage collectors who get relatively little for providing an important service to cities, undertaking work that people don't generally like to do themselves. And there are CEOs who get millions for scuttling their companies and destroying shareholder value. In Japan, the wage spread between workers and CEOs is a fraction of the difference in the U.S. Is that because the Japanese hold workers in too high esteem or have little value for chief executives? Or is it because in the U.S. compensation is twisted to a point of insanity?

As in all forms of negotiation, there must be a balancing of value perception: I offer something that you will pay for. But the equation is not objective. I may value what I offer more highly than you do. Or, indeed, you may set out to convince me that what I offer has far less value for you than it actually does because you want to spend less. This is called bargaining, the process by which people try to get advantage in a negotiation and acquire more for less.

Either side can have expectations that are either unrealistically low or high. I've often taught classes on marketing and business to writers and also interact regularly with reporters. I cannot begin to tally the number that take on work for a pittance because they're either too scared to ask for more or haven't done the math to figure out what they really need to make to live in this world. The correlation between talent and compensation is tenuous, and the willingness of employers to use various types of pressure to suppress wages has been obvious for centuries, even if an objective eye would suggest an existing adequate return on an investment. Where in Picard's world view do greed and fear lie? They don't, because he discusses values, not value perception and negotiation.

It's in the perception of value that we get closer to the problem facing journalists and media. Yes, there are stories that are widely available. But if those stories are being read, clearly the audience finds something of enough subjective importance to spend the time reading. I would agree with Picard that journalism can often be commodity work. So? Commodity work is that which is commonly available, generally at a cheap rate, but still needed. Any occupation can face commoditization at some level. The problem publishing faces is that people expect the work to be done for nothing.

The presumption -- which he illustrates by writing, "Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians" -- is that anyone can do the work, therefore it has no value to it. This commonly held assumption is incorrect. Even if, as he argues, "[m]ost journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories," why should that surprise? I would assume that academics or electricians share their occupations' same basic skills and approaches. Like journalists, they have learned occupations that over time have developed common sets of good and effective practices.

Yes, there are different levels of skill and, so, compensation among journalists. But do all electricians or even vaunted academics receive the same compensation? Many would-be professors cannot find positions, and clearly the local community college is not paying its faculty the same rates as Harvard. By Picard's own view, being a professor is another form of commoditized occupation, particularly for the many who do not receive tenure.

That is the intrinsic problem with any type of occupation. Some practices can be more easily done, resulting in more practitioners earning less under law of supply and demand. However, that does not equate to most people being able or willing to undertake the work. Unfortunately for journalism, many people assume that they could do the work of a reporter or editor because they can find something online, use a telephone, and write, at least at a basic level.

But adequately reporting a story requires the ability to interview people and get them to tell you what they might otherwise want to keep unknown. Journalists must dig up information, discern who are playing them and why, get information in the face of stonewalling, and ultimately write something worth reading. Picard and too many others assumes that technology has "stripped away" the journalists' only advantage of exclusive access to information. But most of the information has been there all along. Knowing where to look, how to push, and making sense of what you learn make the difference. One might as well argue that anyone is the research peer of a trained librarian because a library's resources are freely available.

To adequately report and write even a moderate story of maybe 1500 words, with enough variety in sources and research to tease out a semblance of balanced reality, and judiciously adding details to make a story come alive requires at least a good dozen hours of work that sit upon significant study and experience. Audio, video, photos, and graphics need different skills and additional investment in time. If enough people were willing to make the investment in time and effort over a sustained period, many more blogs would have staying power and something to say. As it is, only a minute fraction of the blogs in existence offer much worth reading. If commodity reporting is necessary, as commodities are, then someone must do it. As much as a certain type of technophile would like to believe that it will happen through blogs or Twitter, it largely won't. The few available examples may show that it is possible, but by their scarcity suggest that it is unlikely. By and large, people will not head to the town committee meetings on a regular basis. They won't develop sources in a government agency to uncover potential malfeasance. They rarely even vote.

Picard's easily formulated answer to the problem of news organizations is for journalists to "commit to creating value for consumers and become more involved in setting the course of their companies." If only that were directly possible. But the problem comes back to perception. Suggesting that the Boston Globe become the leader in health and higher education, or the Dallas Morning News specialize in oil and energy coverage, is fine, but who will pay for that to occur? Although Picard prescribes "ways to alter journalism's practice and skills to create new economic value," that economic value only exists if it is perceived.

So long as people expect free material on the Internet and advertisers think that online should mean cheap, then it cannot happen. Expecting that journalists can drive their organizations in the face of timid and hidebound management is naïve. Ultimately, the public must value what it wants enough to pay. If it doesn't, then perhaps the public will need a strong and sustained taste of doing without before any change is possible.

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