Don’t write off the future of journalism

Nonfiction might not be headed for the dumps.

By Patrick Reilly

I love writing nonfiction. For now, that gratification is enough. Yet someday, if I want to channel nonfiction writing into a career, it will need to pay.

When that day comes, warns blogger Tim Kreider, I’m in for a rude awakening. In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”, he laments the plight of “those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than…when I sold my first piece of writing in 1989.”

Kreider, it seems, has fallen victim to a much larger trend: the devaluation of those who assess and interpret our ever-changing world. Mere days after his bitter article, The Times’ Bill Keller noted that foreign journalism has become dominated by “a legion of freelancers, often untrained and too often unsupported.” If you’ve been following developments in the Middle East, news of the latest demonstration in Cairo or blast in Aleppo was probably brought to you by one of these “untrained,” “unsupported,” and minimally paid journalists, protected by his own common sense and the hope of another check from Reuters. Even if that intrepid young writer gains the backing of a major newspaper, his long-term prospects are dim: According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual census, the total workforce in American newsrooms has shriveled from 56,200 in 2000 to 38,000 today—a decline of over 30 percent, courtesy of free online news. Why pay The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal for in-depth analysis when you can skim Politico or The Huffington Post for free?

Yet before you write off writing, consider that journalism isn’t the first form of intellectual property to face an existential crisis.

In the early 2000s, the music industry was facing Internet ills of its own. CD sales were plummeting, victims of online, illegal peer-to-peer networks that enabled users to download the exact songs they wanted. Why pay Sony or Virgin for an entire album when you could download only the songs you wanted off Napster for free? Record-company executives attempted to defend their obsolete business model by suing prominent file-sharers. Despite their litigation, sales continued to suffer. Then, in 2003, Apple came along with a radically simple notion: Compile all songs in an online store, sell each one individually for 99 cents, and let the customer listen to it anytime, anywhere. Today, music piracy remains a serious problem, but the industry can at least counter it with a sustainable business model.

A decade after iTunes revolutionized the music industry, Silicon Valley just might have something in store for us nonfiction writers as well. In October 2012, Instapaper co-founder Marco Arment created an online-only, ad-free, subscription-based publication entitled, simply, The Magazine. For a $1.99 monthly subscription, I got access to a gripping account of a glitch on a Mercury-bound space probe, a Canadian’s musings on eclectic Dutch holiday traditions, and an introduction to the world of indie video game design. Americans have supposedly stopped paying for this high-quality online nonfiction, yet The Magazine racked up 25,000 subscribers in its first four months of operation. Not surprisingly, The Magazine quickly turned a profit—and found the cash to pay writers about $800 per article.

Could this mark the start of a much-needed revolution in journalism? When I emailed Glenn Fleishman, The Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, he urged caution. “There’s zero proof that this is anything but a fluke,” he explained. “We’re still an experiment, in that I can’t reliably predict whether the future will continue to bring success….Readers have more than enough to consume without paying, so it’s a hard sell. In the near future, I expect a drop in the number of ad-supported sites and more print publications shuttering or shrinking. This may reduce the amount of interesting things to read enough that readers finally are persuaded to start subscribing.”

Not exactly the confident, Steve Jobs–esque vision that an aspiring nonfiction writer had hoped for, but Fleishman’s pragmatism is, well, pragmatic. He’s attempting to charge Americans for a service they’ve snapped up free of charge for over a decade. Although deeply entrenched, that paradigm is unsustainable. UChicago students know as well as anyone that the task of assessing a complex issue, forming an opinion, and coherently expressing that opinion is arduous work. It’s time that those who have taken it up as a living make a living wage.

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College.