former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Will Journalists Be Reduced To “Gigs?”

In Blog on July 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

On Sunday afternoons in the summer, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association hosts terrific classical music concerts. The concerts are free, and they spotlight musicians with impressive resumes – schooled at the best conservatories in the country, performances at major music festivals, concert tours abroad, and awards.
In most cases, what the musicians don’t have is a full-time job playing with an orchestra. Instead, they play whenever they can, filling their time with as many performance dates as possible. Some teach. Others hold “day” jobs far from the concert stage.

It’s certainly possible that some musicians have wide-ranging skills and interests that lead them away from music and that they appreciate these part-time opportunities to play. But others, surely, had hoped that their years of preparation and talent would earn them a decent, dependable living.

Classical orchestras have seen hard times. So has journalism. I worry that, after the hemorrhaging of thousands of journalism jobs over the past two decades, many journalists with the passion to report now find themselves in the same place as many gifted musicians.

The “stars” of the profession, particularly the exceptionally facile writers, or those with the right connections or the luck to find the best internships, may be able to land a coveted job in journalism. But thousands more who aspire to a career in news will be reduced to free-lancing.

Indeed, a few years ago, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, speculated whether in the future, journalists would ply their craft in a series of “gigs” – short-term engagements with news outlets. News gathering may well be on the way of the profession of itinerant, albeit highly skilled, practitioners, whose passion prompts them to forgo economic stability.

They may blog, serve as a contributing editor for an online publication, write the occasional magazine piece. Some journalists may get themselves to conflict zones across the globe, hoping to be the eyes and ears of a major newspaper or broadcast outlet. Even major newspapers have drastically cut back on foreign correspondents, leaving the field to underpaid free-lancers, who are lucky if they can get nonprofit support for some of their expenses.

This is a tragedy for individuals with dreams and talent and nowhere to fully use their skills. But it is a terrible loss for the country. Journalism, which should be a staple of every community, may no longer viable enough to support the trained reporters we need to cover local and state governments, to hold elected officials accountable, to provide the information that informs citizens to enable them to participate in their democracy.

We should be a nation that can have classical orchestras in nearly every community. But we cannot be a nation that gives journalists no better job prospects than concert violinists.

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