I’m not attending Jeff Jarvis’ 2008 Networked Journalism Summit, “New Business Models for News.” (I wasn’t invited. Oh well. I am, however, attending a conference on Media Literacy and Civic Education in Philadelphia today, so, all is not lost!). If I was at CUNY today, though, I think I’d probably try to say something like this. (I first posted this in August of this year)
What if newspapers– and other media– paid journalists for reporting, and paid them for being part of a community conversation? How could we turn this basic idea into a business model for news?
During my fieldwork in Philadelphia, I watched the breakdown of the journalist-news organization “contract” merge with the new access of reporters to their web traffic statistics to create a real fear (or maybe, a secret hope amongst the lucky few) that journalism would become piecework. In other words, journalists would start to get paid based on the amount of hits that their articles received. For the record, there’s no word at all of this happening in Philly, or anywhere else, any time soon. In fact, possibly the only person who has put it in those terms is me.
Now, I admit that even the hypothetical idea sounds crazy to people looking in on the news business from the outside, but if this can become a real, subtle fear amongst unionized reporters at a major metropolitan daily, than who can really say what might happen? The fact remains that the news industry is in crisis, and a lot of this crisis if financial. The fact also remains that reporters and editors exposure to web traffic, in real time, is having a major impact on journalism, in a way that’s gone largely unnoticed so far.
But what if, instead of paying journalists based on “hits,” we paid them for what almost everyone agrees is the real value added that reporters bring to the table: i.e., reporting? And what if we paid them for what many people are starting to agree is an equally important part of journalism in the 21st century: being part of a “community conversation”? And finally, what if the payee-payer relationship wasn’t centered on membership in a news institution, but was basically between a news institution and everyone— bloggers, reporters, ordinary people, everybody?
Here’s one way you could monetize those two abstract concepts.
First reporting. What if you paid journalists, per article, based on the number of sources they talked to, documents they examined, and amount direct observation they did? In other words, somebody who talked to one source and then wrote up a story that was mostly opinion would get paid less than someone who talked to five sources, read 1000 pages of documents, and a person who did a ton of direct observation reporting (say, at a political protest) would get somewhere in the middle? I admit that this is a simplistic version of a more complicated process— would there be a difference between talking to sources on different sides of an issue and sources who all agreed; between a “deep throat” type source and a Scooter Libby; between reading complex documents and cereal boxes … and so on. But, this would be a start, and news organizations could tweak the formula as they saw fit. And maybe they could go so far as giving a “good writing bonus” for reporters that could actually take all those news objects and weave them into a well-written, compelling story.
Now, you’ll notice that this would probably leave out a lot of bloggers and people who don’t report. This is where paying for being part of the “community conversation” comes in. This is a payment system that’s tied to “the market,” like paying based on “hits,” but in what I think is a far more intelligent way. You could pay people based on the number of links they, or their articles, received from Technorati, or on their Technorati authority. So a blogger who was getting a ton of links, or links from other sources who also got a lot of links, would get paid more than someone who got no links at all. And so on.
OK, having completed that mental exercise, I have to admit I’m a little terrified. After all, isn’t this just neoliberalism? Isn’t it still turning journalism into piecework? Isn’t it eliminating things like long term contracts and stable employment, and so forth? Obviously, this notion would still leave a lot of work to be done — perhaps you’d need to combine this with guaranteed employee health care, or there’d be a thresh hold where key members a community of freelancers (which would basically be everyone) would slowly become put on long term contract. And how would copyright work? Wouldn’t this create a hierarchy between news. orgs that could afford to pay and those that couldn’t, and wouldn’t it lead to a decrease in the desire to freely share content online? That seems like a big problem too.
BUT … there’s market based journalism, and then there’s market based journalism. And paying journalists based on web traffic — well, that seems like such a horrible idea that other horrible ideas don’t seem quite as bad.