Where's the media money?

Bec Fary / September 04, 2013 05:32 AM

Media paychecks are evolving, with traditional job opportunities shrinking as newsrooms merge into smaller operations. ‘New News’ panelists at the 2013 Melbourne Writer’s Festival explored the current evolution of journalists’ wages, many calling for innovation in the way mediamakers are paid.

L-R: Ninemsn's Hal Crawford, Swinburne University's Andrew Dodd, The Herald Sun's Jon Burton and The Australian Financial Review's Pam Williams. Photo: Cheryl McGrath

‘The News About News’ was the opening event, where journalist Margaret Simons, The Age News Director Mark Forbes, The Australian Financial Review editor Pamela Williams and Private Media chairman Eric Beecher discussed how newsroom downsizing and evolving technologies are affecting media jobs.

Margaret Simons referred to 2013 as “the year of the start-up”, but in a media climate where anyone can pick up a laptop and start a blog, who’s paying for the news? 

“The media ecosystem of the past was a small number of large media organisations,” Eric Beecher said, citing the success of blogs and start-ups as an indicator of a breakdown of previous barriers to enter into the system.

But despite the explosion of start-ups, Beecher said the media’s current commercial pressures are “looming” and traditional media business models are unviable.

Mark Forbes disagreed, saying small news operations won’t be able to replace the kind of quality journalism traditionally provided by newspapers.

“They’re not doing the investigative work,” he said.

“Who’s paying for that?”

In a digital newsroom, word counts and layouts don’t dictate journalism as much as rolling, 24-hour deadlines now do. With space on a printed page no longer an issue, it’s not the length, but the depth, of reporting that’s suffering in a digital age.

“People are outraged that we are losing good investigative journalism. What we really need to do then is get people to put their money where their mouth is,” ConnectWeb’s Bronwen Clune said, discussing crowdfunding on a panel with freelance journalist Melissa Sweet, Pozible co-founder Rick Chen and Crikey’s First Dog on the Moon.

Clune cited the Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s Pozible campaign as an example of how funding models are shifting. Publications like New Matilda and John Corlett’s ‘A Good Brief’ are crowdfunded, and First Dog on the Moon said he got potential audiences to combine their interests with their wallets for an art project ‘A Marsupial Life’.

Pozible's co-founder Rick Chen said entertainment projects like films and music are less popular than journalism on the crowdfunding website. He added, however, that if you focus a pitch to appeal to the right audience the money will follow.

“The internet is the people around you. It’s your people,” Chen said, emphasising that a potential crowdfunded campaign has to pitch to a broad audience.

Chen likened crowdfunding to a full-time job, highlighting the need not just for hard work but also a constant dialogue with an audience. First Dog on the Moon agreed, saying you need to a build a social media audience before you ask them for money.

Instead of getting a paycheck from Fairfax or News Limited, First Dog on the Moon said crowdfunded journalists’ paychecks come directly from their audiences.

Thanks to his emotional commitment to the people funding the project, First Dog on the Moon said there is more responsibility to his audience, and more pressure to deliver.

“You can’t call in sick to a crowdfunded job,” he said.

If audiences have the power to pledge donations to the journalists they want to keep working, it can democratise the news. But when the people funding journalism are the ones directly interested in it, it raises serious ethical questions about public interest journalism and conflict of interest.

“Traditionally the model with crowdfunding is that you get something back physically (such as a pledged gift) for what you put in, but I don’t know if that would work for journalists. It raises ethical questions about what kinds of stories you are funding,” said Bronwen Clune. 

Clune said the Pozible funding model could see sexy, fun and accessible journalism funded, questioning whether that model fit into journalism and “more serious stories, the type of journalism we all fear is under threat at the moment”.

“We need to be a bit more inventive. I don’t know if merchandising is a way to fund serious journalism.”

Freelance journalist and blogger Melissa Sweet said she wasn’t sure if she’s an “optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimistic” when it comes to getting paid for journalism. She asked: what about the crowdfunding failures we don’t hear about? And how can public interest journalism compete in this space?

Existing media outlets are increasingly turning to paywalls as a way to raise revenue from digital content. Paywalls would not only help finance journalism in the long term, but also would help online publications make a better experience for readers by learning more about them through their mouse clicks and traffic.

At 'Will We, Or Won't We, Pay For News?', AFR editor Pam Williams noted the problems that newspapers have faced in introducing paywalls, especially rigid paywalls with too little content or too high a price.  The other challenge was “re-training” readers who are used to free content on the web.

For Ninemsn editor-in-chief Hal Crawford, paywalls are “an inconvenience, not just financial”. With such devices easily being undercut and overridden, are paywalls even able to cope with the financial burden of journalism? Are they simply ways for publications to collect data?

In the current media climate, we’ve become accustomed to getting our news for free. Journalists are dealing with the reality of shrinking newsrooms and shrinking job opportunities. But far from painting a pessimistic view, ‘New News’ panelists at Melbourne Writers Festival were pragmatic in providing insight into the evolving media paychecks of the future.

To see how #NewNews unfolded on Margaret Gee's Twitter account, see our storify version. 

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