Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Brave New World

Every week seems to bring another herald of the impending demise of reporting as we know it. Last week, the New York Times Company threatened to shut the Boston Globe unless the newspaper's unions agreed to $20 million in concessions. And in my home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Intelligencer Journal (founded in 1794, making it the 7th oldest newspaper in the United States) and the Lancaster New Era (first printed in 1796) have announced that they will begin publishing a single morning edition starting June 29.

Though the papers share a corporate owner and a newsroom, they have historically maintained relatively distinct editorial voices, with the Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster's morning paper) maintaining a relatively liberal line while the Lancaster New Era was often frothingly conservative. In addition to depriving readers of a diversity of viewpoints and thoroughgoing news coverage of Lancaster County, the move will also result in the layoffs of dozens of employees at both papers. Ironically, the Lancaster New Era was my first taste of newsroom journalism when I spent a day there when I was something in the neighborhood of 14 years old during a middle school career day.

The challenges such an ever-contracting news environment present to independent journalists such as myself, many of whom live hand-to-mouth on a razor thin profit margin that separates solvency from destitution (as I do), are substantial and ongoing. With the news business, particularly in the United States, on life-support, journalists need to be ever more dogged and creative in the means by which they are able to continue doing the kind of in-depth, on-the-ground reporting that someone blogging behind a desk is unable to do. But that process itself - applying for grants and looking towards non-traditional avenues of publication - is also often a stark reminder of the relative disposability and vulnerability of the position of reporters in this current environment.

A case study from my own experience.

During the process of applying for a grant with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a project in Afghanistan, I received an email from Jon Sawyer, the Center's Director, telling me that the Pulitzer Center had recently struck an agreement with under which Pulitzer Center grantees agreed to write at least one short piece (600-800 words) suitable for use on the website. Sawyer went on to write that these stories would then be featured on GlobalPost - a for-profit venture founded by Philip Balboni and Charles Sennot - and afterwards made available for purchase/republication by Global Post subscribers. After Global Post used the article on their own website (for free), the “re-use” fee, if the articles were indeed re-sold, would net Pulitzer Center grantees the princely sum of $200 per use.

Asked if I would be amenable to filing a story/photo for GlobalPost, I responded that I would be more than happy to write for the website as long as they paid upon publication, as is the norm, not upon re-sale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s enthusiasm for the Afghanistan project, which he had previously spoke of in the most eager terms, cooled tremendously, and no grant was in the end dispersed.

Perhaps I should not read too much into the incident, but I found this episode troubling in what it suggested, which was a surreptitious compromising of the Pulitzer Center’s publicly-stated position of providing "travel grants to cover hard costs associated with upcoming travel for an international reporting project” in support of a for-profit enterprise. Writing to GlobalPost about this, I received a prompt though rather self-important response from Rick Byrne, GlobalPost’s Director of Communications & Marketing. It stated, in part:

GlobalPost didn’t need the work of Pulitzer Center journalists to fulfill its editorial budget, but we wanted to provide them an opportunity for additional compensation in addition to the exposure.

But of course, GlobalPost, which describes itself as “relying on the enduring values of great journalism: integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling,” is not exactly turning down the free labour of journalists to provide itself with content either, is it?

So, what are committed independent journalists to do? How does one feed oneself and care for one’s family in such an environment? I have never for a moment doubted the value of principled, investigative independent reporting that exposed often-ignored truths and challenged the powerful in their positions in privilege, whether it be in Haiti, Congo, Australia or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Far from saving this kind of reporting, though, my fear is that entities such as GlobalPost, which seek to replace the actual jobs once offered by newspapers with networks of underpaid, overworked freelancers lacking in such perks as health insurance, may in fact help hasten its demise.

We as journalists are now piloting a fragile ship through stormy seas, and I hope that we can make it to the far shore. Do my fellows journos - or others - have any thoughts on the matter?


Wesley Gibbings said...

It is ironic I should receive a link to this piece at this time. I am just off a radio programme in Trinidad where I spoke about the 'soft targets' in Caribbean newsrooms. Journalists, because of our relatively low rate of financial return in media enterprises in these small markets, are among the first to be cut at times of economic distress. It does not surprise me that those who pay us are so readily inclined to shop for package deals and other basement bargains when seeking journalistic products.

Gerry Hadden said...

For years now we've all heard editors who offer low pay for hard work defend themselves like this: Hey, the money ain't great, but you're getting exposure. Once upon a time, when newspapers had money for hiring, 'exposure' might have had value. But what are we exposed to today? To other outlets that also pay crap. Or to the elements, when we run out of money and can't pay our mortgages.

Noelle Theard said...

Very important points Michael. I read 20-30 articles per day online. Without the content that reporters produce, there is practically no substance. Most blogs I read comment on articles anyway, or aggregate them.

If reporters on the ground (and not corporate heads) got the money, I would be more than happy to pay for news.

These are dangerous times for principled people. Sorry to hear what happened with the grant...

info said...

I thought you'd be interested in reading my entire note to Mr. Deibert, below.

Rick Byrne
Director of Communications and Marketing

Mr. Deibert,

Thank you for your inquiry. Our partnership with the Pulitzer Center is intended to help their journalists gain more exposure for the work they are doing under the terms of their grants by providing a venue for a derivative article. It was also intended to shed light on the great work of the Pulitzer Center in the form of branding on our site as well as complimentary advertising. We don’t have editorial control over Pulitzer Center stories, nor do we take an active role in shaping them. There have been occasions when we have asked a Pulitzer Center journalist for additional work on a story, and we have then paid the journalist for their work. We built our network of journalists, most of whom have long term contracts with GlobalPost, and we pay them for their work. GlobalPost didn’t need the work of Pulitzer Center journalists to fulfill its editorial budget, but we wanted to provide them an opportunity for additional compensation in addition to the exposure. If one of their stories is picked up by a GlobalPost syndication partner a fee is passed directly through to the journalist.

We believe our partnership with the Pulitzer Center comports quite well with our mission.


Rick Byrne

Rick Byrne
Director of Communications & Marketing

Michael Deibert said...

Wesley, Gerry and Noelle, yes I couldn't agree with you more on the points you raise.

Rick (call me Michael), I am happy to post the full text of your email to me here, no worries. But alas it doesn't change my assessment of some of the problems suggested by GlobalPost's relationship with the Pulitzer Center, or the publication's business model, problems that go far beyond either organization and to a more general malaise about the disempowerment of reporters in our current shambles of economy. It is a state of affairs that I, as a working journalist who depends on reporting for my livelihood, simply cannot support.

One hopes better days are ahead.


Babette said...

And lest we forget- journalism is still a dangerous job in many countries in the developing world. There is a huge ungoing drug involvement story here in the DR which no one is yet covering in English. Reporters are regularly threatened and harrassed. Haiti gets under reported since few of the "outlets" pay travel expenses -- which are hefty in Haiti. My last trip- even from 7 hours away- cost me $350 - more than I would have made on a story.