Journalists are among the many workers whose employment has become precarious in the transition to a digital economy. Their core values and the quality of the news are threatened as a result. The threat to our democracy is even greater. Decent work must be written into plans for Canada’s news media industry to create a responsible future
A young music journalist gets her dream job at a magazine but she must move across the country to San Francisco. Her long-term boyfriend breaks up with her and now she has a week before the big move to live it up one last time with her besties in New York City. This is not only the logline to the recent Netflix film Someone Great. It is also yet another tired, deeply flawed portrayal of what it is actually like to work in journalism.
Alas, job insecurity, compromised values and struggles for survival are not sexy movie themes.
It is true that for the better part of the 20th century, journalism was a white-collar profession with relative job security that allowed for strong journalistic values, but that era is long gone. Instead, journalists like myself are becoming entrepreneurs and branding ourselves online to survive in an industry that is not producing decent work.
There is no shortage of evidence detailing the journalism crisis in Canada and around the world. The advertising revenue model that once reigned is no longer viable. Revenues have been siphoned to major social networking companies that are better able to deliver audiences to advertisers. Google and Facebook accounted for 72 per cent of Canada’s $5.5 billion advertising industry in 2016. Their share of the global digital ad market in 2018 was close to 85 per cent.
A third of Canadian journalism jobs have been eliminated since 2010. This is reflective of a larger trend over the past few decades that has seen mass closures of local news outlets, a gutting of newsrooms, and a hollowing out of journalism as coverage deficits abound. Many of the jobs that do exist are precarious; contract based or part-time with little job security or workplace benefits. Over one-quarter of the Canadian public broadcaster’s unionized workforce are contract and temporary workers, many of whom are working an endless stream of contracts.
The rise of entrepreneurial journalism
The response to such immense disruption in this industry has tended to view entrepreneurial journalism as the ticket to survival for journalists and news media organizations. The argument goes that the wall between business decisions and editorial decisions (not that it was ever impenetrable) ought to be breached for journalism to survive. This requires redefining what journalism is by setting aside former notions about editorial independence, one of the key norms that has governed the profession.
“The celebration of the entrepreneurial journalist takes legitimate struggles for decent work and recasts them as opportunities to revitalize the industry. The positive aspects of this new environment are overstated and the struggles are rarely discussed.”
Canadian journalist David Skok, former managing editor and vice-president of digital for the Boston Globe and founder of The Logic, puts it this way: “Without sales, marketing, strategy, leadership and, first and foremost, revenues, there is no editorial independence left to root for.” There have been increases in sponsored content and native advertising partnerships with news organizations as a result of this shift in thinking.
As for journalists, we’re advised to accept our new fate. Freelance is the new normal. We need to start our own businesses and find ways to make our journalism profitable. We must be adaptable and flexible, willing to constantly reinvent ourselves. We must develop personal brands to market ourselves, bring an audience to our reporting, and build a community around our brands.
The role of journalists is, therefore, is to prioritize journalism’s economic viability first and social utility second (if at all). The celebration of the entrepreneurial journalist takes legitimate struggles for decent work and recasts them as opportunities to revitalize the industry. The positive aspects of this new environment are overstated and the struggles are rarely discussed.