For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Michael Rosenblum asks: “Is it possible for a good journalist to be a good capitalist?” My answer: yes, but the people who employ journalists tend to be a lot better at it than the journalists themselves, thanks to the state of the market and the laws of supply and demand.
Entrepreneurialism – while it can be brilliant and is a vital part of the ecosystem – is risky, difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, and the odds are against you ever making more money from it than you could from more traditional employment. Freelancing is, of course, not the same thing as being an entrepreneur, and while plenty of journalists go down that route the money is often scarce and the financial position insecure. At present journalism jobs – outside specialist markets like financial journalism – are few and far between, and even at their best the money pales in comparison to some other professions, as Michael points out in his introduction post.
Many journalists don’t want to be – aren’t cut out to be – technical or technological innovators, or freelancers chasing clients for cash. Some of us love digital production and want nothing more than to be playing with new ways to tell stories. Others want nothing but to be allowed to get on with their important investigatons, or their war films, or their pithy columns. I am unequivocably in favour of journalists learning new skills in order to do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively – but when it comes to demanding they move away from their specialism and into areas they may not enjoy or be good at, I get a little uncomfortable. Not everyone can or should be a jack of all trades.
This is a supply and demand problem. This isn’t an issue of journalists not wanting to make money – it’s an issue of there being an awful lot of very talented journalists, from new graduates to grizzled veterans, all of whom would like to be able to eat. Journalism right now is a buyer’s market, and content is very cheap. The people at the bottom of the rung who can afford to work for free will do so; freelancers who can undercut the competition will get the gig. Employers who want to employ journalists and cut costs at the same time can pay so little, because so very, very many people want a job in journalism, have sunk years of time and a great deal of money into the prospect of a job in journalism, and are willing to work for little cash because of their principles and desires.
Much like news online, journalists’ skills are devalued not because they are not respected, but because they are abundant. Much like an absolute paywall, unless you have unique content or the ability to ensure everyone adheres to the same pricing strategy, charging more for your work is likely to simply make people turn elsewhere. The macro issues affecting the industry hit journalists individually too. The solutions to both problems remain unclear.