Fast Company

Why Robert Picard is Wrong about Journalists Deserving Lower Pay

Details matter: Robert Picard’s recent editorial shows a reckless disregard for context, when he accuses journalists of being responsible for their profession’s own demise. Picard, essentially, argues that if reports are not profitable, it is because they do not have value. However, he fails to show that everyone is struggling to cope with the upheaval caused by the Internet. Journalists have been hit hardest, since they were information tradesmen during the information revolution. Because this is a blog post, I’ll keep my response short and focus on two objections.

1). Picard ignores the role of editors

Now, I haven’t written 25 books, nor I am a professor of Media Studies. But, with my relatively smaller experience in media, the journalists I know begged their editorial staff to put more resources into a stronger online presence; yet their bosses ignored the suggestion. At least one senior journalist with the LA Times (who will remain anonymous) and one who has been quite vocal (@eweinger) told me horror stories during the downfall of the Times. Editors outright dismissed those who made suggestions for a smarter web strategy.

So, I’m reasonably skeptical when I read Picard write:

“Most [journalists] 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.”

It’s more reasonable to think that old-guard editors misjudged the impact of, what was then, the coming Internet revolution (for evidence that older generations sometimes adapt slower to online media, compare the 2008 Presidential candidate who won to the one who lost.)

2). Picard ignores that everyone is struggling to remain profitable

Over the past decade, marketing has become extraordinarily complicated; few people have found ways to monetize websites. Even Internet media titans like Amazon, Twitter, and Youtube are yet to find a profitable business model.

Promotion strategies must now take into account ludicrously intricate details, such as hyperlink schemes that maximize Google page rank. For instance, in a recent talk by Digg’s brilliant user architect at UC Irvine, @trammell noted that Hulu’s success is, in part, due to how it places adds in accordance with the latest research on user eye trajectories. Apparently, people typically scan a page in a sideways arrow shape “>”, starting with top left, moving right, and finally to the bottom left. Baiting this path with advertisements gives Hulu a competitive advantage.

Contrast this fact with Picard’s statement:

“Before professionalism of journalism, many journalists not only wrote the news, but went to the streets to distribute and sell it and few journalists had regular employment in the news and information business.”

The learning curve has gotten a bit steeper since the days of advertising as ‘yelling on a street corner.’ It’s unfair to blame journalists – or anyone – for not understanding the Rubix Cube that is the Internet. Details Matter

In truth, if Robert and I talked over a beer (or ten), we’d probably agree on most things. What irks me is his paternalistic tone. A bit of empathy for those falling on hard times and some humility with regard to the uncertainty caused by the Internet would go a long way toward making the debate a more respectful and productive one.

Greg Ferenstein

P.S. Happy Memorial Day America! (I said my thanks by donating money to a military charity. Hope you have time to say thank you as well.)

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