Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Capitalistic journalism

As an entry in this month's Carnival of Journalism, participants are supposed to offer thoughts in reaction to an essay by Michael Rosenblum about whether journalists can be capitalists. (The specific wording from his piece is “Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist? If so, how? Or why not?")

The short answer -- and this is not meant to be flippant -- is they already are. While some non-profit news models are emerging, the vast bulk of U.S. journalism is done by capitalistic enterprises. History records for us the names of people who were effective capitalists and also journalists: Hearst. Pulitzer. Gannett. McCormick. The Chandlers. The Knights. The Ochs-Sulzberger family.

At the heart of Rosenblum's assertions is the assumption that "there is an instinctive aversion to the idea of making money amongst most journalists." He unfolds the argument from that point with a withering attack on some supposed financial sensibilities of journalists, and the negative result that he believes this has on the field.

I don't mean to turn this into an attack on his work, but the essay seems to be conflating the idea of "capitalist" to "person who earns a sufficient level of income" and from there sets up a false divide. In a formal sense, the capitalist is the owner of the means of production; certainly the various press barons mentioned earlier were that. They were also journalists in that as publishers they helped establish -- or flat-out dictated -- the editorial direction for their newspapers. And in filling the dual role they made LOTS of money.

Some journalists still make a lot of money; in a recent column Bill O'Reilly bragged about being a "1 percenter" and network news anchors' contracts come with seven-figure annual salaries. But the reason most journalists don't reach that stratum is not, as Rosenblum contends, because they fear making money or think it would taint them. It's because they are the labor in the capitalist-labor equation, and the returns to labor as wages tend to be lower than the return to capital. What's fair and equitable for each goes back at least to Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and is largely beside the point for this discussion.

That's because the question "Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?" sets out a false dichotomy. There is no natural, philosophical or structural reason the two roles have to conflict. Liebling's adage about the power of the press belonging to those who own one is demonstrably false these days. The low barriers of entry to online publication, in fact, make it ever easier for the journalist as a humble scribe to control (if not own) the means of production, and in that sense be both the capital and the labor in the equation. That's largely what the CUNY program that Rosenblum mentions means to address.

The real question is to what degree the work of journalists can be scaled up to a point that offers substantial earning potential, because scale is the source of big paydays. An author who sells hundreds of thousands or millions of books becomes a wealthy person indeed. But the writers who we think of as journalists tend not to produce at that scale.

Nonetheless, we are in an era where it is possible to distribute high quality content to a vast audience very inexpensively, though the very cheapness of the distribution platform and ubiquity of the content make monetizing it more difficult. We are also in the era of what Chris Anderson has dubbed the Long Tail, meaning finding and profiting from niche audiences is more feasible than ever before.

These factors combine to mean that journalists -- those who report and write the stories -- have more and better opportunities to work independently outside of institutions and make a living at it. Institutional journalism, with the journalists as employees of the enterprises rather than owners of them, will continue. Fewer jobs are found in this milieu now than a generation ago, but that doesn't mean they all are gone. And those working as independent journalists will take up a greater proportional share of the field.

Can we call them capitalists? As long as they manage to be fairly compensated for their work, does it really matter?


Carrie Brown said...

Exactly. Great post, Jack,though you said it so well I'll have to think hard now about what I can even add! :)

Jack Rosenberry said...

Thanks for the kind words, Carrie. But I'm sure you'll come up with something!

Kathy E. Gill said...

Hi, Jack - glad someone else took issue with the premise of the seed!

Jack Rosenberry said...

Michael Rosenblum, author of the seed post, wanted to offer a comment but was unable to log in through the blogger interface for some reason. So he sent me the following message via e-mail, and I assured him it would be posted in the comments section.


* * * *

Dear Jack.

Thanks for your participation and your early entry! I want to address one point in your piece: I think you are confusing 'making a lot of money' with being a capitalist. They are different. O'Reilly may make a lot of money, but he is still an employee - he is still a serf (a highly paid serf) but still at the beck and call of his master. He does not own the means of production; he works for someone else. By becoming capitalists, I don't mean raking in the bucks. I mean owning the machine. O'Reilly could do this. He could take his talents and set up his own company and license his work back to Fox and anyone else who wanted to buy it. The problem is, even at the top income levels, we don't think this way. That's the core of my issue: how we arrange ourselves. And that is why we will always be victims until we change our own perception of how we should interact with the world.

Michael Rosenblum
President & CEO

Tom P said...


My son so enjoyed this post. We had a great conversation about it. So thought-provoking.


Tom Proietti