Can we afford the news?

The future of journalism is maybe you should start looking for another career

Illustration By robert armstrong

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It’s no secret. Newspapers are dying, mortally wounded by television, the flight of advertising to the Internet, the indifference of younger readers or all of the above, take your pick. Serious questions are now being asked about the future of journalism; the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. And moi? I just want to know one thing.

How the hell am I going to get paid?

Show me the money. All of the other questions pertaining to the prospects of the news business flow from this simple query. Unfortunately, it appears to be the one question no one has definitively answered. We’ve got high technology up the wazoo. Blogs out the ying-yang. Thousands of Web sites that purport to deliver the news. So show me the money, the kind of money that will support an editorial staff on a level approaching a living wage. Or, in lieu of that, just me.

You can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Not even at

The army of citizen journalists once envisioned by the likes of Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and scourge of the newspaper industry, has failed to materialize for one simple reason: It costs money, lots of money, to do good journalism, as a visit to any of the free Independent Media Center Web sites ( will attest.

Even an übergeek like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is hip to this fact. Interviewed last month by the online tech industry trade magazine CNET, Gates was asked if newspapers, and quality journalism along with it, was going the way of land lines, the compact disc and the passenger pigeon. He hemmed and hawed, throwing a bone to the blogosphere here and to his own company’s heavily subsidized online news effort there, before issuing a proclamation about journalism’s future that’s as accurate as any I’ve heard.

“For journalism, there are a lot of things that I doubt that alone will give us the kind of in-depth professionalism, persistence that we’d really like to see, and so you’d like some form of the financial reward to be there,” Gates said. “I hope that readers will be willing to pay subscriptions or watch ads or things that will keep the high quality and breadth of journalism alive and [make it] even better than it is today.”

In short, even Gates is wondering how the hell I’m going to get paid. We know how much we all like watching ads on the Internet, so we can scratch off that revenue source right away. No doubt subscriptions will and already are playing a significant role, for online news as well as satellite radio. In the past year, I’ve “donated” an amount to one of my favorite Web sites,, far in excess of any fee I ever paid for a traditional magazine. It’s worth it, because the site provides me with original content I can’t get anywhere else. One of my other favorite sites, CounterPunch, performs a similar service. But after I’ve donated to, there’s nothing left for Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair and crew. Who pays them?

Last year, longtime local talk-radio host Christine Craft was wondering how the hell she was going to get paid for hosting the afternoon drive at KSAC-AM 1240 Talk City, the only station in Sacramento featuring a progressive format. There was no discernable sales staff; thus no significant advertisers. Craft got her answer from station manager Paula Nelson in September: She wasn’t going to be paid. Last week, Nelson pulled the plug on progressive talk in Sacramento, switching to the always popular gospel format with no warning to listeners.

“You have to give her credit for trying something [progressive talk] that nobody else would do,” says Craft, who’s been filling in at KGO-AM 810 in San Francisco since departing KSAC last fall. She hopes to land a permanent gig there or somewhere else in “terrestrial radio.” Craft doesn’t blame progressive talk’s failure in Sacramento on a vast right-wing conspiracy. The audience for progressive talk is here. The only thing missing was a clever sales manager capable of convincing local advertisers of the same.

So, assuming that both advertisers and the audience have deserted traditional media for the Web, how do we convince the former that we as journalists can deliver the latter? Product placement? To be honest, there’s no way I could have written this column without BMW motorcycles. It goes without saying that Race to the Bottom would be impossible without Macintosh computers. R.V. Scheide uses only Olympus digital voice recorders bought on sale at to interview his subjects, and you should, too.

Sure, it’s not very elegant, but what did you expect? I’m just a dumb-ass journalist, wondering how the hell I’m going to get paid. Get over it.