Journalism is Alive and Well, But the Pay Sucks

Let me start by assuming the role of Captain Obvious and dropping this little news bomb on anyone considering a career in journalism: There’s no money in journalism. Shocking, I know. Those of us who are trying to break into or have worked in the industry for some time are already painfully aware of the putrid pay potential. We’re seeing the employment opportunities become fewer and fewer every day while the competition within the field becomes greater. There is a bright side, however. It’s called self-publishing.

In this Digital Age we live in, the marketplace of ideas has become an almost universally egalitarian virtual sphere in that anyone with the basic new-media tools can reach anyone with the same tools. As we like to say in the business these days: there are no gatekeepers. But the future of journalism will not look like something out of a science fiction thriller. It won’t be magic glasses on your face that fuse the physical world with the virtual. The technology by which we consume journalism will definitely look this way, but journalism, especially that we call “narrative journalism,” will continue in its fundamental form—story.

That’s about the extent of my own futurist mumbo jumbo. I am a storyteller, not a businessman, which is why my focus is on the primacy of the ancient and timeless practice of storytelling. It is indisputable that while the media with which we communicate will continue to change and evolve, so too will our brains, but our brains will always need stories, whatever the medium. In “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall argues that human beings are evolutionarily wired to tell and consume stories. Gottschall offers a unifying theory of storytelling, asserting that stories help us adapt and thrive in our complex human environment. This means that the supply and demand of stories will always find equilibrium somewhere. Where that point is, I have no idea.

The communications industry is currently scrambling, as it has been for years, to figure out the best new business model for journalistic outlets. Many innovative media professionals are stepping up to assume the role of futurist-Messiah. They roll out armies of statisticians, fill PowerPoint slides with sleek info graphics and preach to crowds of anxious media producers and owners, who eagerly consume every word, hoping the giant gash ripped by the iceberg has not doomed the ship. And bless them for that. We certainly need a fourth estate in society, and it seems a foregone conclusion in America that most of it should be constituted by a handful of titanic, for-profit global media conglomerates.

The trend of corporate media consolidation seems to be showing no signs of waning. It appears the Brothers Koch and Rupert Murdoch—often vilified in the media as villainous right-wing plutocrats—are poised to get into a bidding war over Tribune Company’s sale of some of the biggest newspapers in the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Isn’t that heartening for all the idealistic young justice crusaders coming out of journalism school? As a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s Multimedia Journalism program, I can tell you the answer is no, it most certainly is not. The purchase of Tribune’s papers by either party will likely mean an influx of new capital and innovation, maybe even new job opportunities for unemployed journalists like me. But what will happen to the stories? What will happen to the editorial content and the ability of the editors and reporters to maintain some semblance of political impartiality? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Whatever happens, storytelling will remain an integral part of the human experience, and as the voices within the mass media become more homogenized with further consolidation, independent journalists will continue to react and find new ways to reach people with their messages. Richard Gingras, director of news and social products at Google, described the media landscape during a speech to journalists and educators in 2012:

"There are no longer any barriers to publishing — everyone has a printing press … We have more voices participating than ever before … In my view, the future of journalism can and will be better than its past. We have never had a more open ecosystem for the expression of information and ideas."

In 2011, Margaret Atwood gave a speech at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference called “The Publishing Pie: An Author’s View.” In it she points out that publishing simply means “to make public.” It is the transfer of ideas from one brain to another. While providing a brief history of publishing’s evolution, she quips that the oldest form of mass publishing was yelling. Not surprisingly, her speech echoes to some extent the same idealistic fervor of a lot of cyber utopians, which says that any disciplined, savvy storyteller with a computer and an internet connection can carve out their own piece of the publishing pie and thrive in the new media landscape. 

The message from the cyber utopians is a bit romantic and obviously meant to inspire a come-from-behind victory for the Bad News Bears of the business world, but it sounds good. I don’t think this is a good time to be a journalist if you want a steady job with health benefits and a 401k. It may or may not be a good time to be a media entrepreneur trying to make it big by jumping in the ring with the steroid freaks who rule the mass media. But the opportunities for skilled and motivated storytellers to reach wide audiences on their own are endless. Narrative journalism will thrive in this new media landscape even if profit margins continue to shrink. So I say bring on the mass media apocalypse. It’ll make a great story.