Last week I had dinner with a good friend of mine and while chewing on a spoonful of meat and broccoli he suggested to me to start positioning myself as researcher instead of as journalist. “You know”, he said before I could even think of uttering a surprised ”why?”, “ journalism is a dying profession, it’s becoming obsolete. Nowadays basically anybody who knows how to operate a smartphone and has a social media account is able to be a journalist: to report, comment, to become an influencer. It’s as simple as that. It’s not even important to have writing skills any longer. Soon computers will take over. You can only stand out of the masses if you excel in a field of research. If you continue writing about a broad range of issues and if you go on identifying yourself as a journalist, you would eventually be starving. Your work is worthless. Think of your pension.”
Such were his words and I must admit that I froze. I envisioned my self being pushed aside by computers producing impeccable texts within seconds, being held at gunpoint by thumbs on mobile phones and drowned in the fathomless ocean of tweets and Facebook posts. I froze because I sensed that my friend might be right, or better: that he wasn’t totally wrong.
I have been working as a journalist for over twenty years, will say, I have been able to make a living from it, pay my rent, my insurance, my pasta. I have always known that journalism would never be a field that holds financial promises. When I started as a freelance reporter at a daily newspaper in Luzern I was paid one Swiss Franc per line that was published, regardless of how much time I had invested in researching and writing. If an article was planned to run over 150 lines but then cut to 70 due to lack of space, I got 70 Francs. So I knew: If you are out for the money, concentrate on something else.
Within the last two decades, however, the situation has changed drastically (this is common knowledge, I know, but let me dwell on that for a while). Free media content on the internet as well as the launch of free newspapers have not only changed reading habits but also reduced people’s willingness to spend money for media products. On top of that the fight for advertisement gets increasingly desperate. This is due to the fact that marketing budgets have been reduced or companies prefer to advertise in media products that serve their interests best - which I feel threatens editorial and journalistic independence. As most media depend upon advertisements you don’t want to publish anything that might chase your client away. So, if a big luxury travel agent advertises in your paper, you would hardly run a story about popular low-cost accommodations in the Caribbean – even if you figure your readers would appreciate it.
Caught in this two-front- struggle, there is almost no newspaper or magazine and almost no tv- or radio station that hasn’t been forced to cut its budget severely. Newspapers have become thinner, have been converged or closed down. Innumerable journalists have lost their jobs. Highly skilled reporters have dropped out to become teachers or to find a new fulfillment in setting up stores for vintage clothes. But alas, you could say now, almost all businesses are struggling, so why shouldn’t the media? Times are changing, we are stuck in a global financial crisis, there is no space for visions, excel sheets rule, face it. And if you don’t like it, reinvent yourself.
Right. I do face it and I can take that all. I am blessed to have a job as an editor and reporter at annabelle magazine, where I feel valued and appreciated. And where I feel that I can exert some influence.
What frustrates me deeply, however, is that from an overall point of view the work of a journalist has gotten close to worthless. Here my dinner friend was right. And this I directly link to the no-cost information that is available on the net as well as to piles of free newspapers that wait for you at every train-, tram- or bus station – at least here in Switzerland - and that are left on the seats or simply thrown on the floor after being read. It breaks my heart to see those papers being stepped or sat on, even more so as to me those crumpled sheets symbolize the devaluation of media products and consequently the work of journalists. What you get for free is worthless.
If you are a freelancer it’s becoming a luxury to get paid fairly. Some editors take it for granted that you are grateful enough to be able to get your stuff published at all and to keep your name alive and circulating (“you have to see this as a form of self-marketing”) that they don’t expect you to send a bill. There are online magazines that reward you with their potential reach, will say with their number of users but not with money. And then there are magazines that pay you according to the amount of “likes” that you get for your story: Last summer I started to publish freelance articles on the war in Yemen for a British news outlet. I knew they would pay those journalists whose articles were among the weekly ten percent most liked. I was aware of that. I was even surprised they had a salary policy. And I started to publish there because I wanted to get the war in Yemen and the suffering of the Yemeni civil society on the radar of public awareness. I did it as an activist. I didn’t expect any money. But after publishing a piece about the entangled politics between Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UN - a piece that had taken me days to research and that went viral – I got an email telling me I had qualified for payment. 30 Pounds. To be sent to me via Paypal. When I stared at the figure I remembered a piece I had read about prostitutes in Zürich complaining that the costs for a blow job had dropped to 30 Swiss Francs. They spoke up against the fierce competition they were subjected to and the dumping prices in the business and argued that there shouldn’t be any women so desperate to perform a blow job for merely 30 Swiss Francs.
I couldn’t help it but the figure 30 stuck in my mind and seeing the 30 on the email it popped up and was breakdancing in front of my inner eye. Not that I felt like a prostitute and one British Pound is worth more than one Swiss Franc. But 30 Pounds - this was all my work was worth? 30 Pounds. I felt outraged and deeply humiliated. As a consequence I stopped writing for this outlet. And I never cashed the 30 Pounds.
And yes, since then I have refused working for free. When the editor of a bi-annual magazine asked me to contribute with an 30’000 character- in-depth analysis of women and media in the Maghreb (something I would have loved to do) and apologized for not being able to pay me I declined. Unless I decide to work as an activist or to support an organization I care fore, why should I offer my skills, my expertise and my talent without being paid for it? Working as a journalist is neither a past time occupation nor something everybody can do – there my dinner friend was wrong. Researching demands imagination, precision work and perseverance. Writing is hard work, makes you sweat and suffer and can leave you in a tormenting daze for days. And in the end a text is always an intimate thing as it is a reflection of yourself, your way to see the world, your vocabulary, the rhythm of your language. This not even the smartest software will ever be able to equal. Getting issues to the point as well as analyzing them within a bigger picture takes a lot of expertise. And you don’t achieve specific knowledge in a field in no time. You have to invest years of practice.
You want this for free? Then let me ask you: Do you expect the people who fix your toilet or paint the walls of your hallway to work for free? Do you expect the architect to do the first sketches of your house for free? Do you expect the food in a restaurant to be for free? No. If you purchase services, you pay for them. Why should this be any different with media products? Sharing economy might be a good idea. But in the end you need to make a living.
Whenever I talk to guests who visit me at the magazine, when I discuss media issues at public events or with friends I ask them what they expect from me as a journalist. They always answer: they want in-depth reports, well researched subjects, well written texts that are fun and exciting to read. They want me to surprise them with new ideas and perspectives. They want me to be the fourth pillar of democracy that watches the elites. They consider freedom of speech and an independent media as basic to our society. But when I ask them what newspapers or magazines they buy, I am met with silence. Some then tell me that they don’t buy any media products but wait for the free online-versions of the texts they are interested in. When I explain jokingly that there is a correlation between them having got used of consuming media content for free and getting increasingly less of what they want – which they deplore - as well as my struggling to pay my rent, they stare at me in disbelief. They tell me they weren’t aware of that.
Maybe one day I will create a commercial that will feature newspapers and magazines, printed or digitalized, as highly valuable must-haves that not only make you smarter but also more fit to tackle the world at 2016, must-haves that will make you stand out of the crowd. And one day I might teach kids at schools about what it means to be a journalist. I will tell them that this is more than just a job. It’s a passion and a way of life. You have to be willing to take responsibility, to weigh your words and pictures well and to know when to protect your witnesses. And you have to be equipped with an almost pathological curiosity and the urge to see the big picture as well as the details. It’s not enough to write: “The grass is green.” Because the grass shifts from yellow to emerald, sometimes there is dew on the leaves, sometimes an insect, sometimes the grasses smell of autumn, sometimes they tell you that something underneath is rotten.
And I will tell the kids that this is worth a lot.
Yes, maybe I am a researcher. There my dinner friend was right. A researcher for gender issues and societal developments in the Islamic world. But I will never hide being a journalist. I love every syllable of it. And I believe in it.