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.


  1. Fabulous post, David, and without the terrible hubris of grave dancing Jarvis and his ilk.
    It strikes me that the trusted (if not always agreed with) Hepworth and Word magazine brands, are the future of mass publishing.
    A smaller readership which really values what it reads, perhaps in much smaller volumes, is perhaps the future.
    Now the Observer is cutting a lot of the extraneous nonsense it never needed in the first place, maybe we will get back to organs we actually want to read all of.
    When's Heppo's Miscellany out then, la?

  2. Paul K11:52 am

    Part of the bundle which needs to be unpicked is that reporting, comment, analysis and criticism all fall within the umbrella of journalism. Some of those are related to a trade (reporting) and some to a profession (the other three). As traditional media crumbles, all four of those have particular issues, but I for one am certainly happy to pay for any of them that are performed well; I would pay for Keith Waterhouse and Bernard Levin (and did), just as happily as I pay for cultural criticism, political analysis or the kind of reporting that unearthed, say, the thalidomide scandal.

    Am I naive to think that there are enough people who think like me to maintain "traditional journalism" in some form, somewhere?

  3. Good points, Paul. In answer to your last question, it's not very encouraging to look at those sections of newspaper sites that list the "most read" stories at any given time. For instance, these are the five most popular items on The Guardian site in the last week:
    1. The new wave of female firebrands striking fear into liberal America
    2. World Cup play-off: France v Republic of Ireland - as it happened | Barry Glendenning
    3. Gang 'killed victims to extract their fat'
    4. Jon Ronson on telling his son the worst swearword in the world
    5. Belle de Jour blogger unmasks herself as 'big mouth ex-boyfriend' looms

  4. I'm curious as to why they thought you might work for free? What was in it for you? Surely only a young and inexperienced journalist would be happy to blog for a newspaper voluntarily, just to get their name out there.

  5. Paul K8:16 pm

    Sadly, this whole thing has become a question of trade-offs. One writer will do a blog for nothing, because it raises his profile, so his printed work will get a higher fee. Another will do it because it publicises the book of his collected blogs he plans to sell. A third will do it because his byline will promote his other job as writer/editor/columnist, for which he is paid, and to which he wants to generate traffic. So even writers who are paid to work elsewhere might write a blog for free. It's sad, but true.