The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 5

Part 1 of this series sketches the history of journalism in the U.S. from the pre-Revolutionary era to the present day.Part 2 recalls the emergence of the Internet and the growth of the long tail of online advertising. Part 3 delves into the rise of social media.Part 4 traces the growth of communities of interest.

When questions about the future of journalism come up, there are generally two driving concerns: what happens to the notion of “news” in an era of ubiquitous communications; and how you, as a writer, get paid.

One of the great paradoxes of the information age is that as channels of distribution have proliferated, rates of pay for producing content for those channels have continued to fall. Part of this can be attributed to the collapse of the basic business model for many news publishers that were reliant upon advertising in order to fund their operations. Part of it can be attributed to the growing number of bloggers, who are, at least on the surface, generally publishing their content for free. Part of it can be attributed to the shift from local to global economies, which translates to a larger number of people producing content.

The bad news is that the immediate future is not likely to improve significantly. We’re in a transitional era, and in such periods, the specific value of anything — especially something as intangible as writing — is extremely ambiguous. The good news is that when things do stabilize, they will definitely stabilize in the writer’s favor.

Writing Is a Skill – Blogging Is a Tool

Writing, regardless of whether you’re writing a novel, a textbook or a blog, is a skill. It takes a great deal of time to become proficient in that skill, to build up a base of fans, and to reach a stage where you are capable of producing high quality content on a regular sustained basis. It requires gaining an understanding of your audience and a time to find your own voice, and time to establish a network of publishers.

Most people have the basic tools to become writers. In this day and age, all that’s required is having a computer and Internet access. However, generally speaking, few are willing to make the investment of time necessary to become proficient as a writer, regardless of the domain. It’s worth noting that of the huge number of blogs that are written every month, the vast majority of them are updated perhaps once every two to three months, and most blog sites will be abandoned after no more than five posts.

The reason for this is simple. Writing is a business, like any other — but unlike most others, it requires that you are constantly inventing, constantly creating new content. This content has to be informative, provocative, or entertaining — and hitting all three of these is better than getting one or another.

Blogging, whether as news content or something else, is the sizzle — it is what gets readers interested in your work. It’s your calling card. It is, in essence, your own advertising. The more you blog — and the better the quality of that blog — the larger the following you develop, but it’s highly unlikely that you will get people choosing to pay for your blog.

What that means is that writers should look upon such content as being part of their overall offerings. Many financial analysts use blogs as a way to establish their authority as an expert in the field, then make their money by taking on clients for whom they provide much more customized services. Technical writers regularly publish technical blogs that prove their authority, then translate that advantage into selling their services, or selling books that outline their take on technology in a more cohesive fashion. Fiction writers may develop themes, even publish short stories within their blogs, especially if the short stories are in support of book-length storylines.

Indeed, one of the key points about “do-it-yourself” Web publishing is that ultimately, what you are selling is your expertise in some area — your worlds, if you are a fiction writer, or your skills in being able to fashion larger, more complex bodies of work. In a lot of cases, you can package that expertise as other products — webinars, customization of code, training, private newsletters and so forth — that are sent to your “patrons,” your actual customer base.

Five Paths to Cash

One of the keys in all of this is to recognize that you have at least five avenues of monetization as a writer in this day and age:

  • Customers. Those people (or organizations) who wish for you to customize your services and offerings for their specific needs;
  • Patrons. Those people (or organizations) who want to support your efforts as a way of enhancing their personal reputation;
  • Employers. Those people (or organizations) who hire you long term for your skills, including your communication skills;
  • Agencies. Those people who wish to sell your works through their imprint or under their banner; and
  • Advertisers. Those people who wish to use your reputation to sell their own goods.

You target customers with books, digital videos, software, training materials and so forth. Typically monetization here involves content that you create once then sell repeatedly, though it may involve some customization. As a writer, you should always be looking for potential things to see in what you produce.

Patrons, in general, are people who — for some reason or another — are willing to support you financially in your writing efforts, either because they believe in the message that you’re trying to articulate or because they want to be seen as being a supporter of your career. This mode of monetization went out of style, in great part because the mechanics of patronage made it something that only the very wealthy could do (and only at a very large scale), but the Internet may change that by letting people become “micro-patrons” (via PayPal donations to sites, for instance, as well as a number of social networks that are coming online soon).

Note also that patrons may be organizations that are interested in some particular cause or focus, and are seeking writers who can clearly articulate their purpose without necessarily hiring them as employees.

Employers often represent the most-desired path to monetization: a guaranteed paycheck, benefits, potential for career growth and so on. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns for writers who have been formal journalists is that, without an employer, their careers are dead. However, it’s likely that — at least for a while — formal employment may prove increasingly elusive for writers. Many organizations are looking for ways to cut costs; with the exception of dedicated news organizations — most of which are disintegrating fast — bringing on full-time writers who do nothing but content development is very low on most organizations’ priorities.

This trend is exacerbated by the fact that in a buyers market (which it is, for most companies) one of the major expectations is that anyone who is hired will, in fact, take on any writing and communication responsibilities associated with the position. In the short term, this means that although full-time employment should be viewed as a potential source for monetization, it is not necessarily the most viable.

Longer term, that will change. Recesssions should be seen as periods of adaptation, as people go from one set of expectations to another. Once that equilibrium state is reached, however, you also tend to get a huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship that tries to take advantage of the new rules. At that point, original content creators will likely be in very high demand as organizations become their own publishers, as new news organizations that have found successful funding models emerge, and as the number of available writers declines. Expect this to be the situation by 2012.

Agencies fall into a somewhat different category from other employers. They aggregate writers (or similar experts) and package them together under the agency’s label or banner. In essence, each writer is a consultant or partner within the agency, producing cohesive analysis about the state of an industry, technology, financial sector, government policy or politics.

Obviously, this applies most to writers who specialize in analysis, but that encompasses a broad swath of columnists and journalists working at news organizations today. Note that this concept also covers studios in which writers (in this case fiction writers) work together to produce entertainment content in a given genre or medium.

Finally, advertisers may end up helping to fund a given writer in order to promote their own products. This will likely prove to be a somewhat contentious area, primarily because advertisers may have gone overboard with their efforts in the last couple of decades, to the extent that as a creative individual, you have to determine the balancing point between promoting your own brand and promoting the brand of some other company.

Note that there’s nothing preventing these from overlapping — this is the era of the mashup, after all — and there may be other venues that may emerge over time. Nor should you think that the existing modes will completely disappear; people will be buying paper-based books, magazines and newspapers for the next century, in all likelihood.

However, expect for those texts to be increasingly printed in micro-lots by all-in-one presses that can go from a PDF proof manuscript to final hardbound and paperback book without ever being touched by human hands. Expect for magazines and newspapers to become anachronisms, used for “historical color,” backups or archives, but far less important as vehicles for providing news content.

Embrace the Unknown

In the end, what is changing most is the vehicle for expression of journalism, not the very real need that we still have day to day for news, analysis, investigative reporting, deep technical knowledge and entertainment. The rise of interest communities, replacing geographic ones, places an upper limit on the number of people who can effectively write to the concerns of those communities, and the means for individual writers to increasingly become their own publishers, marketers and promoters gives them considerable more leverage as the economy recovers.

It is likely that as the economy shakes out, the ethics for a new form of journalism will arise, one consistent with the media and ways of thinking of a distributed, networked society. That it doesn’t bear that much resemblance to the journalism of yesterday should not be surprising. We’re undergoing one of the most radical transformations to society in the last half millennium, and the rules are changing as a consequence.

With change comes opportunities, if you’re brave enough to take them.

Kurt Cagle is the managing editor for Kurt Cagle on Twitter.

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 1

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 2

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 3

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 4

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