Citizen journalism, a Google-spawned idea that everybody can do the job I’ve done during the past 35 years, is so very democratic. Just take a peek at my mail at internet jobsites for journalists looking for work:
“Talented writers for start up News website — Are you a good writer? Do topics like world events, business, cars, sports, entertainment, love, etc interest you? Ever wanted to voice your opinion on something you’re passionate about? If so, we have a great part time job for you!
“We are a small, start up website looking for talented, competent freelance writers to help us kick off. What we want to do is usher in a brand new era of journalism – citizen journalism. Articles that are written by the populace, by the people, on a vast variety of different topics pertinent to everyday life.
“Requirements: Be an active member of this news community, by publishing articles, and commenting on articles published.
“Qualifications: Able to create and write on poignant and creative topics. Unique writing style. Can write without error. No prior work experience needed.”
It’s that last bit — the qualifications — that gives me pause, or as a really Southern new journalist might say, gets my dander riled.
I went to school and learned libel laws, took every imaginable course for professional improvement and, as I mentioned, spent quite a few years at quite a few newspapers and magazines where I honed my skills.
At small newspapers, I was the reporter and also the photographer (including dark-room film and photo print processing), as well as the editor and the design/layout person), all for about $5.50 an hour in 1970’s-’80s dollars. I built a salary and a career, until the Houston Chronicle layoffs of March 24-25, and, yes, eventually I earned more. But never, even in my best year, did I crack $50,000.
I was never sued, either, for being on the wrong side of a libel case or for getting the story so wrong that it prompted someone to take me to court — an important feat I’m not sure citizen journalists or their sponsors can appreciate just yet.
I’m guessing it will one day take the the court system to finally argue the legitimacy of the “citizen journalist” after they inadvertently and unknowingly libel someone. It may be the courts that will decide if the citizen journalist or his/her sponsor site that is answerable for that mistake.
The people who went into real print journalism, and — by the way — pioneered the early online versions, didn’t do it for the money. It was our job. In some cases, an almost sacred duty to get the news out in a manner that was accurate and, yes, fair and balanced (before Fox News made those words a bad joke).
The idea that the news had to also be entertaining came a lot later.
In my early years as a reporter, I traveled on my own dime or with some company mileage compensation, sometimes into territory most people wouldn’t enter on a bright, sunny day, to get the story, to cover or promote the event, to bring attention to a cause or individual or organization that deserved the credit or exposure.
Yes, we got paid enough money to live on, if we didn’t live too high on the hog. We also got the reward of seeing our byline and, if we were good at this particular calling, in the knowledge we’d done a good job, that maybe we’d even helped somebody along the way.
Here’s the part I left out from that citizen-journalist job description:
“Compensation: $15 per article of at least 500 words long.”
And that posting on Elance represents the high end for the citizen journalist, who will doubtlessly have to hold down another day job and will only be a journalist as a lark or for pocket change. A side hobby.
Many of the sites offer substantially less than Elance. Examiner.com pays $10 per every 1,000 hits. Writers, copywriters and editors bidding for jobs on Helium and ODesk accept pennies, agreeing to do several hundred articles for less than a half-penny a word.
Of course, everything is more globalized and even experienced journalists on these sites are competing with people from Sri Lanka and other countries where people scramble over half a cent.
I just wish I’d known in 1974, when the U.S. Navy was at a loss as to where they could fit me in their Vietnam-era service, that this was going to happen.
Back then, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had just cracked Watergate and had brought down a president, so being impressed with the power of the pen, I told the recruiter I wanted to be a journalist.
Had I known what my profession, vocation, great calling of my life would become — could I have foreseen that I would be thrown on my butt at age 60 during “downsizing” layoffs at legitimate but now-poor newspapers or have imagined the rise of the citizen journalist — I should have told them “Boatswain’s Mate.”