Why journalists deserve low pay
The demise of the news business can be halted, but only if journalists commit to creating real value for consumers and become more involved in setting the course of their companies.
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Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is "de-skilling" journalists. It is providing individuals – without the support of a journalistic enterprise – the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively.Skip to next paragraph
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To create economic value, journalists and news organizations historically relied on the exclusivity of their access to information and sources, and their ability to provide immediacy in conveying information. The value of those elements has been stripped away by contemporary communication developments. Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay.
Until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.
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.
Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.
It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labor market, much less the highly competitive information market. They prefer to justify the value they create in the moral philosophy terms of instrumental value. Most believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn't produce revenue.
A century and half ago, journalists were much closer to the market and more clearly understood they were sellers of labor in the market. Before professionalism of journalism, many journalists not only wrote the news, but went to the streets to distribute and sell it and few journalists had regular employment in the news and information business. Journalists and social observers debated whether practicing journalism for a news entity was desirable. Even Karl Marx argued that "The first freedom of the press consists in it not being a trade."
Adapt or die
If the news business is to survive, we must find ways to alter journalism's practice and skills to create new economic value.
Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.
If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences.
One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in a thousand other papers today. Providing a food section that pales by comparison to the content of food magazines or television cooking shows is not likely to create much value for readers. Neither are scores of disjointed, undigested short news stories about events in far off places.