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article imageOp-Ed: Journalism – participatory or professional?

By Lynne Melcombe     Dec 16, 2009 in Internet
The decline of print journalism is raising questions about business models, advertising revenues, and writers' pay. But while crowd journalism makes a vital contribution to a free press, what will happen if professional journalism disappears?
Journalist Mark Schulte posted an article to his blog recently about Examiner.com, a crowd-news site with a “hyper-local” angle. Good article, well-written, lots of interesting points. One of those points is that Examiner.com, like other participatory news sites, doesn’t pay writers much. Right now, that may be because the business model is just getting established. Some day in the not-so-distant future, advertising dollars no longer being spent on print might be sent the way of web news sites.
But, says Schulte, "Even if that day comes, it is not at all clear whether Clarity Media Group will re-examine its pay scale. Its writers have so far shown they are willing to work hard for, in most cases, very little."
This is a double-edged sword, and one best wielded with thought about the consequences, good and not-so-good, of this type of journalism. On one hand, writers’ passion for writing and purveying information about subjects they hold dear is inspiring. As well, given how hard it is these days to earn money, it’s good for people to place more value on their earnings than they might have a few years ago. And one can’t underestimate the value of more people with diverse viewpoints having direct access to publishing tools, without risk of being censored due to a publication’s revenue concerns or editorial bias.
On the other hand, there's something to be said for professional journalism. It takes time to develop research, writing, and editing skills, to do good background research, develop strong interview questions, and pin down evasive subjects. It takes time to fact-check, as well as to understand background and context, particularly for very complex subjects. This is what good journalism is.
Good journalism takes time, and time is money. Good journalism is also the basis for democracy. For democracy to work, people have to participate. For people to participate, they have to be informed. For people to be informed, they not only need access to information, but to quality information. For some people to research and write that information, they need both training and time. Which takes us full circle – good journalism takes time, and time is money.
It's been suggested that the current generation is so accustomed to getting news for free on the web that it's unlikely they'll be willing to start paying for it. But that statement is based on a misconception. Nothing is free, and information is no exception. The only questions are, what’s the cost, who is paying, and how is it being paid? Are the people who live in a democratic society going to pay for it by sacrificing the accuracy and reliability of information on which they base important decisions? Or are those same people going to pay for it by acknowledging that, in order to get quality information, some people have to be paid to find it, write it, edit it, and publish it?
Put another way, in a recent liveblog debate on DJ, guest Alan Mutter said:
Consumer choice is at once the miracle and the tragedy of the web. You can get anything you want for free but it is up to you, the consumer, to figure out what is real, what is important and what to believe. It puts an awful lot of work on people, who, for the most part, don't have the time or expertise to sort it all out. As a result, we may be developing the worst-informed population in history despite all the sizzling technologies that we have at hand.
In principal, participatory journalism can be seen as vital to participatory democracy. The problem is, it’s unlikely for any democratic jurisdiction to be run well if it is only run by leaders with no prior experience or education, and no ability to get it. And it’s equally unlikely for information to be provided well if it is only provided by writers with no prior experience or education – and no ability to get it.
It’s pretty clear that current print models of journalism are on their way out, and still-developing models of web journalism are on their way in. It makes sense, on every conceivable level that, as this happens, those in charge of web publications should ensure that financial success at the core is accompanied by increasing professionalism and remuneration on the front lines.
If the owners of web-based news-gathering sites like examiner.com, digitaljournal, and others continue to do well as a result of the hard work of their contributors, they should re-examine how much they pay, for what services, and for what quality of services. Perhaps they should pay more to writers who achieve and sustain a certain level of page views; perhaps they should promote some writers to editorial and/or training positions to ensure a minimum level of quality on the site; perhaps they should develop profit-sharing models. The possibilities are endless, but the most important point is not likely to be which model is chosen.
Rather the key point is likely to be that, one way or another, news-gathering sites should be finding ways to combine participatory journalism with professional journalism, and pay contributors according to their skills and contributions. And they shouldn’t do this just to be nice guys and show they can share. They should do it but because, in a democratic society, paying professional writers to report and write professionally is the responsible thing to do.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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