Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What price better-paid journalists?

Leonard Witt, founder and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, has posted a video interview on YouTube in which Lisa George, an assistant professor and empirical economist at Hunter College in New York City, talks about her belief that there will be fewer but better paid journalists in the future.

Did you catch her point about "superstar" journalists? That "some of the best reporters, and the most insightful commentary, will come from fewer and fewer sources. But," she says, "these reporters will have national reputations, and those reputations will be well-financed, both from media itself and also from books and speaking engagements."

A shiver just ran down my spine.

George spoke about the same thing last month in a workshop held in Washington, D.C., by the Federal Trade Commission on the future of journalism in the Internet age. (You can see a webcast of her presentation here, at about 1:12:43 into the afternoon session on the second day of the program. Read the pdf transcript here.)

Her argument is that technology has given newspaper readers many more choices than they had with traditional ink on paper, and that will push journeyman scribes out of the marketplace as papers disappear. But it will elevate to superstar status those with expertise offering analysis and commentary.

At the FTC workshop, George seemed to suggest there will be no market in the future for local news -- "hyperlocal" coverage (news at the neighborhood level) most recently was the lifeline at which many ad-revenue-starved newspapers grasped -- so the reporters who become expert at big-picture national and international issues will see their stock (and paychecks) rise.

(The lesser reporters, I guess, will make their living in the future earning micropayments as freelancers. George told the FTC she was "a big proponent of micropayments -- penny per click," which is one business model now being tried by an ever-growing number of online-only media companies that use free-lanced copy to fill their sites.)

Witt, George's YouTube interviewer, also is chief blogger at, site of the Public Journalism Network, which is described as "a virtual global network of journalists, educators and lay people interested in exploring and strengthening the relationship between journalism and democracy."

You'll note Witt's interjection asking George whether the creation of superstars is "a good thing or a bad thing for the public square?" -- with "public square" generally meaning the place in a democracy where the exchange of ideas occurs. (Some say that role is shifting to blogs and the Internet.)

"It’s generally a very good thing because people can read more and better stuff," responds George.

The "more" I can understand, but I still need convincing about the "better."

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