Friday, July 03, 2009

Why *some* journalists deserve low pay

Robert PicardImage by macloo via Flickr

The full text of Robert Picard's lecture explaining why journalists deserve low pay is available in pdf form from

I read it when it first came out but given the chance to contemplate more fully, there are several points that can be pulled out and looked at in the light of magazine journalism and publishing.

Moral philosophers taught us that things and activities can have intrinsic or
instrumental value. Intrinsic value involves things that are good in and of themselves,
such as beauty, truth, serenity, and harmony. Instrumental value comes from things that
facilitate action and achievement, including awareness, belonging, and understanding.

From the standpoint of moral philosophy, journalistic activities produce
instrumental but not intrinsic value. Information and knowledge conveyed by journalism
has instrumental value that is external to itself, is relative to truth, and is related to its
USE not to its creation. Journalism as important not in itself, but because it of its
instrumental aspects in enlightening the public, supporting social interaction, and
facilitating democracy.
I would argue that a beautifully produced magazine (let's focus on print here, though the argument could apply to online) has an intrinsic value, inasmuch as it may be considered "beautiful" in and of itself; the contents – specially commissioned photographs, for example – may also be considered intrinsically beautiful; and a well put together magazine certainly radiates a harmonious whole. Research by academics and by the industry has shown that readers can have an emotional relationship with a magazine and this is surely an intrinsic value.

Closer analysis of one sentence in the block above – "Journalism as important not in itself, but because it of its instrumental aspects in enlightening the public, supporting social interaction, and facilitating democracy" – reveals that Picard is yet another commentator who has adopted the Fourth Estate definition of journalism and used it as if
a) "journalism" only ever takes one form, with one purpose
b) that definition applies to all forms of journalism.

Picard then seems to argue against his former position by stating:

To comprehend journalistic value creation we need to focus on the benefits it provides.
Journalism creates functional, emotional and self‐expressive benefits for consumers
Functional benefits include providing information that helps individuals and
society understand their place in the world, conveying ideas that help or create ease in
life, and supplying diversion and entertainment. Emotional benefits from journalism
include it engendering senses of belonging and community, providing reassurance and a
sense of security, conveying leadership, and creating escape. Self‐Expressive benefits
are provided when individuals identify with the voice, perspectives, or opinions of a
journalism enterprise or it helps provide them opportunities to express their own ideas
and to portray themselves directly.
Some of the benefits he identifies can surely be construed as "intrinsic" or tending towards intrinsic. This distinction is important because it may help to identify areas in which "journalism" can add value, and in which magazine journalism traditionally excels:

"Thus the real measure of journalistic value is value created by serving readers"

So how does journalism actually produce economic value?

Journalism is practice designed to produce breath of coverage of issues and
events, to provide quality control of information, and to promote social well‐being by illuminating issues and informing the public. In journalistic practice, economic outcomes
have low priority for journalists and may or may not be a high priority for proprietors or
managers of journalistic enterprises depending upon their motivations.
I think Picard is conflating and confusing "journalism" and "publishing" in this passage and elsewhere in the lecture.

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. Because of the emergence of 24‐
hour news and information channels, parliamentary and government channels, talk
shows, and the Internet, individuals are able to observe events in real time, to receive
information directly from knowledgeable authorities, and to interact with sources of
information and news in a variety of ways not previously possible.
If you accept the Fourth Estate definition of journalism, the above may be true – but it is not true for all forms of journalism or for all journalists and especially not for magazine journalists. This is not because of the traditional "immediacy" issue – specialised consumer and B2B magazines have always been able to break news ahead of newspapers or even broadcast media because of their specialisation and their access to sources that other journalisms and journalists would not normally bother with.

Nonetheless, immediacy is increasingly becoming an issue for magazines, whose specialised readerships often want, or expect, up-to-the-second news. This is why magazines are exploring digital communication – websites, mobile devices, Twitter and Facebook all play a role in delivering immediate information to readers.

The value of journalists’ abilities to convey information is also being challenged
by technologies that allow individuals to distribute information on their own. Software is
incorporating essential linguistic skills (spelling, grammar, and translation), audio and
video production skills, and photography and graphics skills. The Internet and various
social networking applications are providing means for individuals to create and convey
information on their own. All of these factors are making traditional journalistic practice
less valuable in economic terms.
Picard has hedged his bets here by relying on the word "traditional". For one thing, it can be construed in so many ways that it is meaningless – how traditional do we want to get? Hot metal? Steam presses? Hand setting? Quill pens? All of these things have been "traditional".

It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labour 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.

This view is embodied in professionalism of journalism, especially in efforts to
improve practice and separate business and editorial activities that developed
throughout the 20th century and were designed to protect the creation of moral value.
However, journalists also used professionalism to create relatively comfortable
employment and economic conditions for themselves, to avoid any responsibility for
performance of their enterprises, and to shield themselves from changes in the market.
Actually, I think he has a number of very good points here, but only because he clearly states that he is talking about "news" journalism of the Fourth Estate variety ("the creation of moral value") and the type of journalist who believes advertorial or any other commercially-focused scheme to be the work of the devil ("to avoid any responsibility for performance of their enterprises, and to shield themselves from changes in the market").

In short, journalists will have to develop entrepreneurial awareness and skills. This is something that magazine journalists have, generally speaking, been better at than journalists working on other "traditional" platforms. There tend to be shorter chains between editorial and advertising, and the firewalls tend to be lower and more penetrable (which is not always a good thing, of course). Advertorial is a widely accepted concept, and spin-offs in the form of special issues, bookazines or associated titles published at greater intervals are all commonplace.

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.

Here I have to admit that Picard is unarguably right – and this where the excitement starts. Journalists, particularly young journalists, those undergoing journalism education (or training, if you must) and those teaching them should be, must be, encouraged to experiment, to try, to fail, to fail better.

Finding the right means to create and protect value will require collaboration
throughout news enterprises. It is not something that journalists can leave to
management. Everyone, journalists and managers alike, will need to develop
collaboration skills and create social relations that make it possible. Journalists will also
need to acquire entrepreneurial and innovation skills that makes it possible for them to
lead change rather than merely respond to it.
I couldn't have put it better myself.

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