Oxford, England - Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.
Actually, journalists deserve low pay.
Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days.
Until they come to grips with that issue, no amount of blogging, twittering, or micropayments is going to solve their failing business models.
Where does value come from?
Moral philosophers differentiate intrinsic and instrumental value. Intrinsic value involves things that are good in and of themselves, such as beauty, truth, and harmony. Instrumental value comes from things that facilitate action and achievement, including awareness, belonging, and understanding. Journalism produces only instrumental value. It is important not in itself, but because it enlightens the public, supports social interaction, and facilitates democracy.
Economic value is rooted in worth and exchange. It is created when finished products and services have more value – as determined by consumers – than the sum of the value of their components.
To comprehend journalistic value creation, we need to focus on the benefits it provides. Journalism creates functional, emotional, and self-expressive benefits for consumers. Functional benefits include providing useful information and ideas. Emotional benefits include a sense of belonging and community, reassurance and security, and escape. Self-expressive benefits are provided when individuals identify with the publication's perspectives or opinions, or when they're empowered to express their own ideas.
These benefits used to produce significant economic value. Not today. That's because producers and providers have less control over the communication space than ever before. In the past, the difficulty and cost of operation, publication, and distribution severely limited the number of content suppliers. This scarcity raised the economic value of content. That additional value is gone today because a far wider range of sources of news and information exist.
The primary value that is created today comes from the basic underlying value of the labor of journalists. Unfortunately, that value is now near zero.
The total value is the value of content plus the value of advertising. However, advertisers don't care about journalism – only the audience that it produces. Thus the real measure of journalistic value is value created by serving readers.
What are journalists worth?
Economic outcomes have traditionally held low priority for journalists. That's got to change.
Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively.
Accessing sources is crucial because information and knowledge do not exist as a natural resource that merely has to be harvested. It must be constructed by someone. The journalistic skill of identifying and reaching authorities or others who construct expertise traditionally gave journalists opportunities to report in ways that the general public could not.
Determining significance has been critical because journalists sort through an enormous amount of information to find the most significant and interesting items for consumers.
Effective presentation involves the ability to reduce information to its core to meet space and time requirements and presenting it in an interesting and attractive manner. These are built on linguistic and artistic skills and formatting techniques.
Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is "de-skilling" journalists. It is providing individuals – without the support of a journalistic enterprise – the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively.
To create economic value, journalists and news organizations historically relied on the exclusivity of their access to information and sources, and their ability to provide immediacy in conveying information. The value of those elements has been stripped away by contemporary communication developments. Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay.
Until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.
Well-paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities, and knowledge. It also requires that the labor must be non-commoditized. Unfortunately, journalistic labor has become commoditized. Most journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special expertise (such as finance reporters) get higher wages.
Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.
It is clear that journalists do not want to be in the contemporary labor market, much less the highly competitive information market. They prefer to justify the value they create in the moral philosophy terms of instrumental value. Most believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn't produce revenue.
A century and half ago, journalists were much closer to the market and more clearly understood they were sellers of labor in the market. Before professionalism of journalism, many journalists not only wrote the news, but went to the streets to distribute and sell it and few journalists had regular employment in the news and information business. Journalists and social observers debated whether practicing journalism for a news entity was desirable. Even Karl Marx argued that "The first freedom of the press consists in it not being a trade."