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Friday, November 20, 2009

Will journalism ever become a trade again?

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a representative of a well-known quality newspaper. They'd read my blog and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing one for their website. I was flattered, of course, but not flattered enough to do it for no money, which is what they proposed. What with this blog and True Stories Told Live I reckon I'm up to my quota of unpaid media work.

It wouldn't actually have taken much money to persuade me to do it. I'll write for food, even if it's only bread and water. Actually if they'd proposed some kind of payment-by-traffic deal I would have given that a whirl. Not that I reckon that would make me rich but it would be interesting to do something in media where your destiny was in your own hands. Like selling something out of a suitcase on Oxford Street. How quickly would I surrender to cheap populism then? And how badly would it hurt if it didn't work?

It's something I was thinking about as I wrote Wednesday's piece about journalists and why they resist becoming more entrepreneurial. A hundred years ago journalists, like actors, used to be not very reputable sorts who did whatever it took to put bread on the table. They would essentially ply for hire. It's only in the last few decades that journalism (as opposed to reporting) has been seen as a profession, with all the attendant pretensions, rather than a trade, like plumbing. Secure inside the profitable corporations that owned old media, the journalists of the last twenty years never had to worry that their commercial value might be set by the end-user rather than some notional market. They lived inside the bundle. Sales of that bundle were driven by TV campaigns or cover-mounted DVDs rather than individual pieces of writing. Not even the biggest name columnists commanded as much reader loyalty as they liked to pretend and the average inky foot soldier knocking out football match reports, crime stories or product reviews was happy with a situation where they were not personally responsible for any fluctuation in the bundle's fortunes.

Now that the bundle's coming undone they don't know whether to stick or twist, to hope that the old days are going to be restored or to take up their tool bag and start selling their services door to door.