The Old World Crumbles

When I started out in journalism, the cub reporter phase was similar to being a young cook in a restaurant kitchen. Despite the skills I’d developed in my years at my college newspaper, The Daily Californian, and my eagerness (or maybe because of those) I had to endure a period of abuse. My cranky, cynical superiors at The New York Times ridiculed my work and especially my enthusiasm. I’d learn, they warned. They’d wipe that smile off my face. “You must be from California,” one sallow-skinned, ferret-eyed assistant editor mumbled when I bounded up to the city desk eager to hear what he thought of my story. I realized then that that was an insult, not an observation. If you were happy about your job, and showed it, they questioned your intelligence.

They did wipe that smile off my face by condescension and how grudgingly and inconsistently they offered up the occasional pellet of praise. This method was designed to make me like one of those mice in a conditioned response experiment. In filing my stories, I was putting my little hand on the lever anxious for a pellet, but I wouldn’t get one every time I pressed and certainly not every time I deserved one. Yet I kept stabbing at the lever, stabbing at the lever and, from time to time, I’d get the pellet.

Ever hopeful and mostly desperate, I’d do my best on every story, even those whose news value I questioned or whose subject matter didn’t interest me. I’d keep on that lever because I just never knew when I’d get a little droplet of recognition from the capricious and remote figures in charge of sustenance. How did they decide when I deserved one? Perhaps they didn’t decide; perhaps it was completely random. I had to keep trying.

So what happened to that cub reporter smile? It burrowed inside as clearly it wasn’t good for career advancement. I still thought of myself as the luckiest person alive. I was getting to tell stories at one of the greatest newspapers in the world. Telling stories was all I wanted really, and journalism offered a chance to see the world, explain things, and give a voice to people who had been voiceless. Although I haven’t worked at a newspaper in more than twenty years, I’ve still got that same attitude toward telling the stories and I’ve continued to make my living telling them.

It’s a job that’s become increasingly difficult to do these days. There are fewer publications and the fees I can get for freelance stories have dropped so low that it’s hard to support myself. In 2009, San Francisco magazine published my 8000-word investigative story that took a year and a half to report and write. For that, I got $8000, and I was delighted to receive it. In January, I wrote a 4000-word profile and, again, received $4000 for six months work. The most reasonable fee I received was from the fine people at AARP magazine via my superb editor and former People colleague Meg Grant. I’m not complaining, just stating facts. I understand the economics of magazine publishing are tough as publishers try to figure out how to make money on the web. Yet how are journalists supposed to continue to tell these stories if the money they earn can’t keep them housed and fed and connected to wifi?

What is emerging from the wreckage of conventional publishing is a powerful and direct connection between the journalist and her audience via the web. This is something that the newspaper editors are also trying to accomplish by posting reporters’ email addresses and direct phone lines at the end of their stories, and forcing reporters to go on websites to blog or to be featured in web videos about how they got that story. Yet all of this is doomed too, because it’s the methodology that supports the gatekeepers and maintains the pellet-dropping hierarchy.

Journalists who can figure out a way to finance their reporting and tell stories on their websites are the ones who will survive in this shifting world.

Once the journalists have chased the gatekeepers out of their guardhouses, a much better, more intimate, and ultimately more honest kind of journalism is possible through crowd-funded financing, and a new style of journalism my friend and inspiration Andy Alm calls “reporting in public.”