Why journalism sucks

Not all journalism sucks. But a lot of it does, and sometimes people get frothy about it. These people are in desperate need of an economics lesson.

Allow me to explain.

I do a bit of local journalism for “fun money.” I cover a few municipal meetings each month. If you are not familiar with local politics let me assure you it is every bit as vicious as what goes on inside the Washington Beltway. Maybe more so, since the people you’re trashing are your neighbors. Residents often complain about the “free press” (not just the local news outlets but the larger papers as well), bemoaning the lack of hardcore investigative journalism. For these folks hardcore investigative journalism is defined as sifting through every last councilperson’s emails and probably tapping their phones for good measure.

In response I would make two points:

  1. Many of these aggrieved residents seem to be conspiracy theorists with too much time on their hands.
  2. I don’t get PAID to do hardcore investigative journalism.

Let’s run the numbers.

I’m paid $45 per meeting. Most meetings are 2-3 hours long, not including travel time. It takes another hour or so to write and revise the story (most stories clock in around 500 words). When it’s all said and done I’m averaging about $10 an hour. And that’s assuming things run smoothly. Sometimes these meetings can ramble on for 4 hours or more if residents feel like parsing the minutiae of deer culling, stoplight installation, etc. For a point of comparison, consider that when I temped for a utility warranty company I made $12 an hour doing unskilled office support work.

Journalism is not charity work. It is economic activity. To be a bit more crass about it: pay bananas and you get monkeys. I provide journalistic output in proportion to my wage rate. This is the economic reality of journalism, local and otherwise.

Why we fight

the crimean war by orlando figesI like to read fiction and non-fiction parallel to one another. Right now on the fiction front I’m tackling William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. My current non-fiction book of choice, on the other hand, is The Crimean War: A History Orlando Figes. I like non-fiction because it tends to make me think. Contrary to what you may have learned in school all history is written from a particular point of view, and emphasizes a particular narrative. The best history is quite thought-provoking. In fact it makes you question things happening in the present.

With that in mind, a quote:

As the great historian of the Crimean War Alexander Kinglake wrote (and his words could be applied to any war): “The labour of putting into writing the grounds for a momentous course of action is a wholesome discipline for statesmen; and it would be well for mankind if, at a time when the question were really in suspense, the friends of a policy leading towards war were obliged to come out of the mist of oral intercourse and private notes, and to put their view into a firm piece of writing.”

If such a document had been recorded by those responsible for the Crimean War, it would have disclosed that their real aim was to reduce the size and power of Russia for the benefit of ‘Europe’ and the Western powers in particular, but this could not be said in the Queen’s message, which spoke instead in the vaguest terms of defending Turkey, without any selfish interests, ‘for the cause of right against injustice.’

Nothing plays better with the mob than a selfless war waged with righteous fury. Convenient, too, that it’s members of the mob who end up dying of dysentery in the trenches, rather than members of the political class.