Monday, March 29, 2010

Doing the hustle for a writing gig

I'm late to the party here, but I'll say in my own defense that the phrase would have washed over me a year ago. Today, it has meaning: The Gig Economy.

Tina Brown and The Daily Beast apparently coined it when the online news and entertainment site, headed by Brown, reported in January 2009 that workers on higher rungs of the career ladder were "hustling" -- working multiple jobs to make ends meet. They no longer were employed in the traditional sense -- one 9-to-5 job offering paid vacation and other benefits -- but instead worked gigs that involved putting together multiple projects to make "the nut" of ongoing expenses.

Brown used the term again this afternoon during a panel discussion held (and webcast) as part of the forum "Transforming Journalism: The State of the News Media 2010." Staged at George Washington University in D.C., it drew students in person, online and through Twitter, and offered them this nugget retweeted (#SoNM) around Twitterdom: "Don't let your parents say you shouldn't go into journalism. You're the ones to reinvent it."

Maybe, but first let's revisit the Gig Economy and do a little back-of-the-envelope mathematics.

For most Americans, the traditional 40-hour workweek remains, The Daily Beast said in its 2009 report. "But fully one-third of Americans in our survey are now working either freelance or two jobs, with nearly one in two (45%) taking on these additional positions in the last six months."

And what's more, "by and large, these new alternative workers are not low-income -- they are college-educated Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year," it said.

In other words, they paid the entrance fee to climb the career ladder, but now find they're no better off than their paycheck-to-paycheck brethren who didn't go to college.

The survey, conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based market research firm, involved 500 interviews via the Internet with U.S. workers aged 18 and older. (See survey results here.)

According to The Daily Beast, the Great Recession bears some blame: "This shift toward freelance and multiple jobs ... is being exacerbated by the economic crisis." But this time, it's not only those on the lower rungs of the ladder who are having to hustle to adapt. They're being joined by middle- and upper-class workers who are "being asked to do more for the same or less pay, to work more outside of normal hours --and are more likely to see layoffs around them."

For journalists laid off in the past few years as newspapers cut expenses to fight declining ad sales, freelance gigs often were the answer. Some wrote for new entities created to pick up what legacy media jettisoned or never did well; others helped slimmed-down newsrooms keep coverage going.

The Daily Beast (late 2008) and GlobalPost (early 2009) were founded in this period. Both use freelancers, who are paid $250 to $350 per story -- a one-day, quick-turnaround piece, Brown and Global Post Executive Editor Charlie Sennott said today.

That's better than the freelance pay offered by others, but if I wanted to use either gig to earn anywhere near $75,000 a year, I'd have to really hustle. At $250 a pop, I'd have to write one story a day for 300 days over the course of a year to earn that kind of income -- meaning I'd be working many seven-day weeks to accomplish it.

For $85,000 annually, I'd have to produce a story daily for 340 days each year; for $100,000, a story a day for 400 days -- or more than the 365 days that comprise a year. It's hyperbole, of course, but you get the point.

So did Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, who moderated the panel: "This model is not going to sustain a journalist" once he or she is no longer a fresh-faced newbie but has a mortgage and kids.

That's one place where those who will reinvent journalism can lend a hand: Get us away from this gig model and back to one requiring less hustling.

(GWU's School of Media and Public Affairs promises video clips of today's discussion and a full transcript by week's end.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Twitter is a whitewater sport

I have succumbed to Twitter.

Hmm. Succumbed sounds more derisive than I mean to be. Perhaps surrendered is the better verb. Or bowed. Or gave in.

My fear had been that by signing up with the microblogging service, I would open the floodgates to more and more information. And Twitter -- with some 75 million accounts and averaging 600 tweets a second -- did not disappoint. This is how it felt:

You see, after being laid off last summer, I found myself in a hellacious state of withdrawal, severed from the multiple screens that had put the news of the world at my fingertips. I was out of touch, uninformed.

So I subscribed to RSS feeds, to breaking-news and keyword alerts, to email notifications on new blog posts and aggregated headlines. Soon my in-box and home page were full of news, views and other things I should know.

You'd think I'd be content. But I wasn't. Lurking in the shadows was Twitter and its immediacy.

If, for instance, I couldn't make it to South by Southwest, the annual music and media conference in Texas, Twitter users were more than happy to let me know what was occurring there in real time by posting to a common hashtag (#sxsw); ditto for the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (#sabew) in Arizona.

For event after event, I no longer had to hope that some hapless reporter might stumble on what I wanted to hear from the keynoter or workshops; Twitter obliged. The tweets won't offer a comprehensive play-by-play account -- remember Twitter's 140-character limit on posts -- but they'll give you the highlights and the money quotes.

Better still, conference hashtags can birth more focused offshoots -- #futureofcontext, for instance, for the South by Southwest workshop on giving news consumers more context for stories. And best of all, tweets can include links to related material and other smart discussions.

Yes, I opened the floodgates to all of that. And if I'm not really mindful of my time, I'll bob in the information rapids for hours.

ADDENDUM: Smart advice on Twitter time management from Steve Buttry.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When the economics of journalism stinks

Remember this parody from Slate last year?

I was reminded of it by an email this morning, a fund-raising pitch with the subject line "We Want You."

It told me I could join a special group whose members "understand the importance of watchdog, tell-it-like-it-is journalism." Then it outlined what my money could do:
  • $35 buys a journalist dinner with a confidential source in New York;
  • $75 pays for an interpreter for a reporter researching a story in Afghanistan;
  • $150 covers an Amtrak ticket to Washington so a writer can testify before Congress;
  • $250 pays for an editorial taking Goldman Sachs to task;
  • $300 buys a labor reporter's ticket to Detroit for a piece on unemployment;
  • $500 (expenses extra) rewards a brilliant article by a young journalist on Tehran dissidents.
And if I really wanted to show some cojones, it said, I could pony up $15,000 to subsidize eight fact-checking interns for six months.

I shouldn't make fun. As the email stated, "Newspapers are hemorrhaging. Funding for hard-hitting investigative reporting that speaks truth to power is drying up. And although we run a tight ship, every year we face new, expensive obstacles like huge increases in postage and paper prices. We don't carry big corporate advertising and subscriptions just aren't enough to sustain us."

It's a plea that could have come these days from any nonprofit media organization -- or, for that matter, a growing number of for-profit ones, too.

Indeed, "newspapers have never made much money from news," Hal Varian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, currently on leave and serving as chief economist at Google Inc., told the Federal Trade Commission Tuesday as he opened two days of workshops in Washington, D.C., on the future of journalism.

Hal Varian
Instead, "They’ve made money from the special-interest sections on topics such as automotive, travel, home and garden, food and drink, and so on," he said. "These sections attract contextually targeted advertising, which is much more effective than non-targeted advertising. After all, someone reading the automotive section is likely to be more interested in cars than the average consumer, so advertisers will pay a premium to reach those consumers." (Read his FTC remarks here. SlideShare has slides from his presentation here.)

And it was that advertising that papers used to "cross-subsidize" their real bread-and-butter: the community, national and world news that is so costly to produce -- what some have taken to calling "broccoli journalism," or the stuff you should be fed to be a well-informed citizen.

But nowadays, Varian said, readers interested in cars, travel and food are as just as likely to go to the Internet and seek out websites like Edmunds, Orbitz and Epicurious. "Not surprisingly, advertisers follow those eyeballs, which makes the traditional cross-subsidization model that newspapers have used far more difficult," he told the FTC.

The solution? An ideal one has not crystallized yet, although a number of suggestions were offered at the FTC workshop this week (audio recording here) and one held in December.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who on Wednesday opened the second day of the latest program, made this observation: "There's a lot of good experimentation going on that holds some promise for the future of news ..." but "it is too early to know for certain, though, whether these creative solutions can remedy the destruction of existing news organizations that's occurred thus far. But what we do know for certain, though, is that there is no going back. Obviously, the Internet is here to stay and these changes, at least in part, will be here to stay as well."

The FTC plans to use the information gathered from the workshops -- and submitted in response to a notice in the Federal Register -- for a report it will submit to the government that likely will offer ideas for changes to some tax or other policies "to support the optimal -- or I might even say -- the minimally necessary amount of journalism that we need in our society," Leibowitz said.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Prediction: Media chaos hangs on

You'd think, with all the thousands of layoffs over the last few years, we'd finally be at the trough in the business cycle for newspapers and other media, at which they're done contracting and now are ready to grow once more.

Bob Garfield
Not so, says Bob Garfield, author, columnist and pundit.

"In the short term, news organizations will simply retrench with painful cutbacks, not only on investigations and enterprise reporting, but on the basis of monitoring local, state and national government," he said this morning. "The medium term will be much worse as liquidation and consolidation reduce the number of newspapers and broadcasters by at least half."

Garfield, who last summer published The Chaos Scenario, a book on the effect of the digital revolution on mass media and marketing, was among today's speakers on the first of two days of discussion in Washington, D.C., on the future of journalism.

It's the second time the Federal Trade Commission has convened a workshop on the topic, which the agency sees as vital to protecting consumer interests in the Internet age. This one, like the one held in December, is meant to delve into the changing economics of journalism.

Garfield didn't paint a pretty picture.

"It's going to be a frightfully barren period of chaos for advertising as an industry and for the media industry it has for 350 years supported," he said.

Mass media and marketing have existed in "a mutually sustaining yin and yang" for centuries. "Consumers have put up with ads as part of the deal -- the quid pro quo, the unspoken compact that provided all of us with free or subsidized content in exchange for having to sit through 20 years of  Mr. Whipple fondling toilet paper," Garfield said.

But the Internet has changed that, breaking the bond that existed between media and marketing.

"People are consuming more stuff, including newspapers and TV, than ever before in human history but the audience is carved in smaller and smaller slices," Garfield said. "... The thing is, as audiences fragment, the amount of revenue coming in for any given piece of content goes down, down, down, below the point where the publisher or broadcaster can continue to produce the thing."

So rather than great drama or point-on sitcoms, TV, for instance, offers lower-cost fare. "It's cheaper to do," he said. "But it's also suckier and draws fewer viewers to the ratings, still less revenue and so on until oblivion."

"It was a magnificent ecosystem," Garfield said. "But it turns out to have been just an accident of history -- a happy accident, but an accident nonetheless."

Now, everyone with a blog is a publisher; everyone with a video camera is a filmmaker. "The time when folks at the apex of the pyramid got to dictate to the audience, the electorate, the congregation, the electioners -- that is coming to an end," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the herd will be heard."

You can listen to more from Garfield here, in an interview he gave last summer to NPR's "Talk of the Nation." (Garfield is a co-host of NPR's "On the Media.")

You can access the FTC workshop sessions (audio only) here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Reality that's begging for a show

Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New York City"
Here's a suggestion for Bravo: Produce a TV reality show on journalism.

Chronicle the ups and downs of reporting the news, as you have followed the everyday -- but certainly not ordinary -- lives of housewives (top), chefs (middle) and obsessive-compulsive real estate developers (bottom).

Bravo's "Top Chef"
Just think of the possibil- ities: reporter-editor disagree- ments coming to blows; columnists calling out one another; writers unmasked as plagiarists. Oh, the drama!

Bravo's "Flipping Out"
You could film reporters-in-training as their journalism schools send them off on un- paid intern- ships -- particularly those that take up the slack after news organizations cut their payroll -- or as they dive into social media and go about developing their own brand. (Although that plot line might be too close to one in your "Real Housewives" series.)

You could get in on the debate over whether newspapers are dead or dying and/or necessary for democracy's survival. (On second thought, that might be too academic, unless you could find a way to bring back Ben Franklin.)

Or, if you move quickly, you might catch a real tear-jerker in progress: whether Honolulu joins Seattle, Denver and other U.S. metros in becoming a one-newspaper town. There, the owner of one paper wants to sell and the owner of the other wants to buy -- but can't before selling what it already owns. Some say that's a lark destined to fail. So if you get on a plane now, you might be on hand for the death rattle.

Hollywood has crafted some pretty good movies around newspapers, but TV hasn't done much lately. So it's not only time for a starring role, but timely, too.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Help wanted (to cast off a scarlet letter)

So where do I put this on my résumé?

You know, the acknowledgement that I've been out of a job for at least 60 days so that whoever hires me knows they can count on getting a break on payroll taxes this year.

Hey, I've got to play every card I can. After all, being unemployed is its own scarlet letter.

While the legislation, known as HIRE (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act), hasn't been tied up neatly in a bow quite yet, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a co-author of the tax-break provision, says it's likely to be sent soon to President Barack Obama.

HIRE would let businesses sidestep their 2010 share of Social Security taxes for every unemployed worker put on the payroll. Said Schumer, "The more a business pays a worker (up to the maximum Social Security wage of $106,800), and the longer a business has a worker on its payroll, the greater the tax benefit -- so there is an incentive to hire people sooner, and pay them more."

He and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) laid out the tax-break plan in a New York Times op-ed in January, calling it "simple, straightforward and easy to explain and administer."

HIRE passed the Senate last week -- it wasn't caught up in the Bunning blockade that held up other unemployment legislation -- and could get through the House quickly. But that body passed its own version of a jobs bill in December, so the two may need to be reconciled. (Update)

No matter. I'll start to get my résumé ready anyway. Would it seem too desperate to put 72-point block letters at the top screaming I'M A TAX BREAK, HIRE ME! ?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Model staffing: pay or free?

I'm having a hard time getting beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the expansion of newspaper-college collaborations lumped under the "internship" heading.

The online newsletter Inside Higher Ed had a good roundup on the topic today, following The New York Times' announcement of a second pact with a journalism school to feed The Local, its neighborhood news site.

Under the headline "J-Schools to the Rescue?", Inside Higher Ed made this observation: "So why not make more explicit arrangements to have journalism students, who will work for course credit, fill the gaps left by the pros whom the news outlets could no longer afford to pay?"

Well, sure, why not take away my livelihood, and that of many, many other furloughed journalists, and put unpaid college interns in charge of reporting, writing and editing the news?

The Times has moved in that direction with The Local, an online hyperlocal news experiment launched a year ago in Brooklyn and northern New Jersey.

While expected to rely heavily on community residents for reporting and direction, the effort was led initially by Times staffers. But buyouts and reassignments at the paper soon altered that plan, and early this year, the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York was picked to handle day-to-day operations in Brooklyn. And last week, the Times said New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute would do the same for a new Local expected to debut by fall in Manhattan's East Village. (No j-school collaboration has been announced for the northern New Jersey Local, which seems to have built a robust roster of community participants.)

I have nothing against internships -- I had one in college that soon turned into a part-time paid staff position. And later as a newsroom manager, I coached my share of college interns and always gave extra attention to new graduates who listed an internship on their résumés when they applied for a reporting job.

But the pay-vs.-free staffing model is what bothers me here. Like other newspapers last year, the Times cut deeply into jobs (eliminating 100 newsroom positions by year's end), which usually necessitates a rejiggering of beats and/or outright elimination of some coverage. Yet through the j-school partnerships, news for some Big Apple neighborhoods will expand because there is no overhead for staffing.

One interview on the new East Village Local pooh-poohs that concern: "While critics cry foul over the Times' 'exploitation' of free student labor, they miss the point here: that this marks a progressive step for journalism training, and something students might actually want to do. Having your work appear on is worth a little 'free' labor now for bigger benefits later."

Let's hope those later benefits include a living wage.