Do Journalists Deserve To Be Paid?


Not much! That's the conclusion from Robert G. Picard, an Oxford professor whom I'm not liking very much right now. Here's his argument for why journalists deserve low pay:

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days. Until they come to grips with that issue, no amount of blogging, twittering, or micropayments is going to solve their failing business models.

Ouch, Picard. Since I've already Twittered about this article (literally) and asked for micropayments from my comment section (still waiting, guys...), I guess the only thing left to do with this piece is blog it. To value creation and beyond!

Let's begin where I agree. Picard writes: "The primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge to others." Journalism should bring new information and ideas to readers. I agree

Content, he argues, has a social value. It gives readers useful ideas, it helps build a sense of community and, as the fourth estate, it monitors and challenges government. But it also has a material value that is completely distinct, which comes from advertising. Advertisers don't care about journalism -- only its audience. So "the real measure of journalistic value is created by serving readers" whom advertisers target. I agree.

But then he writes this:

Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay. Until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.

But didn't we just establish that journalism wasn't a function of technology but readership? If my friend, an "ordinary" adult, can report news with video components and draw enough people to consume his stuff, then he can join an ad network and begin to profit of his "ordinary" work. If he produces something truly distinct, he can join the ranks of bloggers who have, with relatively little technological skill, turned their daily musings into ad revenues.

The trouble I see with Picard's argument is that if you define value by readership, then it's hard to see how the Internet could possible suppress the value of journalism. In 2000, the New York Times' circulation was about 1 million. Today online, it's monthly unique audience is 15 times larger, and it's stories are picked up and blogged throughout the Internet world. Would Picard argue that a New York Times reporter deserves to be paid significantly less today even though his readership has increased potentially by 15-fold?

I appreciate Picard's respect for journalists who attempt to add value in addition to reporting (I haven't left my desk during this post). But I'm also concerned that a journalistic model that re-spins a dwindling core of reportage is a journalistic model dangerously leveraged on ideas instead of information.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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