Cheap speech killed journalism, and it hurts everyone

Last fall the WNBA Finals came to Staples Center in Los Angeles, as the Sparks battled the Minnesota Lynx in a five-game series. During one of the post-game press conferences, a media member who asked a question was gently ribbed by a WNBA staffer who obviously knew him. He said the reporter’s full name and I perked up; was that who I thought it was?

Afterwards I made my way to the man and introduced myself. Sure enough, he was a well-respected, longtime former writer for a major daily newspaper. He was laid off, with many others, a few years ago as print sales had fallen drastically and the publication was trying to stay afloat. This brilliant writer now does freelance work and doesn’t clear $2,000 per month.

I wish I could say this kind of scenario was an exception for journalists, but over the last 15 years, it has become the rule. The rise of the Internet has systematically reduced the profession, which for so long has been called the fourth branch of government, to a shadow of itself – and one that is on life support.

In 2001, about 411,800 people worked in the journalism industry. By 2016, that number had dropped below 174,000. Between 2010 and 2015, newspaper print advertising revenue had fallen from $60 billion to $20 billion per year. A 2009 Columbia Journalism Review report concluded that “What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis and community knowledge, particularly in the overage of local affairs.” (Data provided by Richard L. Hasen, the Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, from a forthcoming law review piece, “Cheap speech and what it has done to American Democracy).

Hasen said that the rise of “cheap speech” is “endangering the health of our democracy.”

Cheap speech is also killing the livelihoods, hopes and dreams of journalists, as the ability of anyone to post anything has lowered the bar for the profession considerably. Many who have never had formal writing and/or journalism training are posting stories that read horribly, have an agenda beyond fair reporting, have no AP style or punctuation, and which are biased. Yet, these pieces float around on the Internet and drag down the reputations of good writers with them.

This has resulted in a dearth of jobs for those trained in the journalism discipline. Traditional, ethical, fair journalism has lost ground to blogs and sites that provide “platforms” for any kind of writing; uncensored/inappropriate opinion; and “fan” websites on the sports side.

Young journalists are seeing their careers stagnate, if they ever take off at all. They’re questioning their career choice, wondering what to do with their talents if they can’t use their strengths and gifts.

Older writers are having the same issues, as there are scarcely any jobs to be had at traditional newspapers for us, either. And getting a freelance writing job that pays seems to be an act of God. The way it used to work was that if a writer showed her skill and knowledge, she would get somewhere. But it’s not nearly that easy anymore.

In 2012 I pitched a a story to a large sports news entity and it was accepted immediately. Every story I pitched to them afterwards was rejected, until a couple years ago the editor finally told me that not only do they seldom do stories on female athletes, but that their freelance budget had been shaved to nothing. In other words, don’t bother to pitch.

I had a similar experience with another sports publication, who for a while was paying writers only for stories published in the hard copy; they didn’t pay for pieces featured on their website. Eventually they opted to keep all writing assignments in-house, and no longer hire freelance writers.

There is one major news entity that is like many others in that they don’t pay freelance writers, but they welcome anyone to keep a blog on their website. Similarly, I wrote a story for a new site a couple years ago, for which I received a check. Now they don’t pay writers anymore at all – they welcome anyone to “submit their story as a contribution to the platform,” according to an email I got from one of the editors recently.

I don’t think so. I didn’t go through all that schooling and put work into my craft for the last 27 years to give it up for free.

A writer friend of mine clued me in to a writing job page on Facebook. I found that the ratio of emailing pitches to editors and actually receiving a response was about 25-1 – discouraging odds, even for a vet.

Everyone is competing for the same limited opportunities. Many other experienced writers I’ve talked to have had similar experiences finding paid gigs. Sometimes it feels like better luck would be had mining for gold.

The situation is ironic because the public still relies heavily on news, as they always have. It’s just that now, no one wants to pay for it. And some organizations are having trouble understanding that news entities don’t have the budgets that they once did.

The WNBA has bemoaned the lack of coverage from major news entities, but even ESPN laid off numerous employees earlier this year. Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve criticized the Minneapolis Star Tribune for not sending a reporter to cover the WNBA All-Star game last month, which featured four of her players. The paper said they didn’t have funds to cover the cost of the trip, and I have no doubt that was true. If major online sites won’t pay for writers, traditional newspapers have even more meager budgets.

It is a sad state of affairs for those of us who got into the profession because we love to find, research and tell stories. We did not become writers to get “clicks.” Yet here many of us are, and no one wants to pay us for our skills.

I am big on solutions, yet for once, this problem-solver has no solution for this predicament. But know this, younger and older journalists everywhere: you are not alone. We live in a cheap speech world.