Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mayhill Fowler and the pitfalls on the road from unpaid blogger to paid journalist

The other day, Mayhill Fowler, the blogger who broke the "Bittergate" story announced that she was leaving the Huffington Post Fowler states in her intro: I want to be paid for my time and effort—or at a minimum, to get a little remuneration in return for the money I spend myself in order to do original reportage. I would not expect to be paid for punditry. But can a "blogger" go from rank punditry to reportage? Therein lies the rub...and it's not easy to overcome.

Fowler goes on to recount how she pitched stories to Huffington, only to have them rejected. Yet she continued to write/report for them for free. And when she was writing for OffTheBus, as a "citizen journalist," she never expected to get paid. She also never considered herself the kind of "who, what, when, where, why" type of journalist, but wants to get paid for political reporting (which, actually *is* a form of 5W journalism, whether you bury the lede or not.)

This seems to be the same dilemma of many a fine blogger finds his or herself in when they who would like to be taken seriously and be paid for their work. It's very easy for a journalist, or someone with a journalism or publishing background, to go from journalist to blogger. There are several celebrated "bloggers" who follow this pattern, including Josh Marshall and Ana Marie Cox. And I don't begrudge them their success, and obstacles they may have had to overcome. But having the the journalist(Marshall) or editorial (Cox) creds before they became maverick bloggers was probably an advantage that many of us among the "unwashed" don't have.

In the eyes of the folks who edit and publish, previous career creds mean something. They mean, perhaps, that the individual understands the process that creates journalism. That they even might understand standards of objectivity and the pursuit of truth.

But that doesn't mean that those of us who did not get a degree in journalism or go to work in publishing/media straight from college are incapable of understanding principles of objectivity and the pursuit of truth. In fact, there have been many debates regarding the abilities of news journalists to be objective in this current day and age.

Back before OfftheBus (the initiative that launched Fowler in '08) it was the hyperbole around the term "citizen journalist" that got a lot of bloggers motivated to delve into the fray and try to become something other than unpaid personal publishers. I've always hated the term "citizen journalist' and found it somewhat derogatory. It always seemed to mean that you, the "citizen journalist" was going for the guts (byline) and not the glory(pay.) In 2005 I ruminated on the term and found that it was best used to describe journalists who had left the newspaper or magazine industry to be private citizens yet still published from time to time--and that the term was not really descriptive of what citizens, at that time, were doing with blogs.

We have seen many changes since 2005, and there are some great "citizen journalists" out there who have created news sites for their local neighborhoods and are carrying forward with the ideas of "civic journalism." That is indeed one kind of citizen journalist.

And I doubt today that many would be willing to call the person who posts an anonymous snarky diary blog or a teen-ager posting to LiveJournal a "citizen journalist." As they once might have argued vociferously in the halls of academia....

So where does that leave Fowler in the journalist vs. citizen journalist fracas? Well, I have some trouble with many of the things she says in this regard. Fowler goes back and forth, wanting to get paid for reporting, but not wanting to consider herself a journalist. As if to consider herself one she is perhaps insulting a whole bunch of others who have "paid dues" literally to a union or in a figurative sense to some gods of journalism. As I learned after my own HufPo experience (where I wasn't paid but was edited), if one is going to have one's work go through an editorial process, and one is going to get paid for one's work, then one is, in some form, a journalist. Why deny it? One can certainly have respect for the "who, what, when, where, why" local or national reporter and still be a journalist in his or her own right....

This is something I had to get used to myself. It took, and continues to take, lots of good conversations with longtime journalists to remind me that, yes, I've built a reputation beyond blogger, and can indeed call myself, at least, an online journalist. Yes, I even have a professional membership in the Online News Association. All that took was getting the respected, paid bylines.

Deep down, though, I have to believe that my writing is worth being paid for, and that I must be paid in some form or another for my work. Whether it is livebloging/"livetweeting" a really great conference (where I get "paid" by having the registration fee waived) or getting a check for something I wrote, I will not write for free. There may be some rare circumstances where I might contribute for free, but the organization must have some merit and certainly must enhance my bottom line in some form. I will not submit posts of 500 words and be paid $10 because some guy somewhere wants to build a "great blog network." Are you kidding me? I'm not going to put in my time and my effort, even for a blog post, for a mere 10 bucks.

To get to this point, it has taken years of constant building, of making connections, of working on start-ups and for very low pay. It's been a lot of pushing and insisting and serendipitous interactions that have contributed to bringing me from mere blogger to paid online journalist. Not to mention the great people who've been part of the process in one way or another--as supporters, as folks who've given me a break, as just cheering section. Still, I have a very long way to go before I am able to support myself totally from what I make thur writing.

But, when I consider where many other folks might be in their quest to be more than just a "blogger," I consider myself lucky, even with all the struggles and the bill collectors and the big ole annoying tax bills and lousy part-time jobs, and lectures and webinars and workshops I have to do in while I continue get paid for my writing.

So, Mayhill Fowler can stand on principals, can be wishy-washy on whether or not she wants to be, or even is, a kind of journalist. As for me, whether I'm using a blogging platform or a Google Doc or whatever, I want to be paid for my work when I'm writing for someone else. I want to be considered an online journalist who knows how to blog. Because I do know the process of journalism, I can be objective, and I do pursue truth (now). Not to mention that I'm also a damned good writer. :)

Note: While Fowler was standing her ground with HufPo, another blogger who's not a journalist (that I know of), Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch sold the most important blog in Silicon Valley to AOL. From all that I've read, Mike worked his ass off to build TechCrunch into something important--and yes, a lot of negative things have been said about Mike and powerbrokering in Silicon Valley over the years. I know nothing of that stuff. All I know is that he built it himself, posted constantly to keep it going, and wasn't a jounalist to start out with. Sure like most bloggers, many would argue that he's still not a journalist. But what he's done is pretty admirable.


Linda Lowen said...

Tish, an absolutely spot-on observation about Fowler and her troubling (and troubled) take on journalism.

You may not have gone to J-school, but you write like a true journalist, degree or not.

I just had a back-and-forth email exchange with Ms. Fowler that had me biting my cheek. I was interested in an interview on this very issue -- the transition from unpaid to paid, and the concept that part of the problem may be that blogging is the latest form of 'women's work.' Like volunteering, blogging is done for free, and when women give away their time and talent, it's devalued.

Ms. Fowler was not interested in my casting her as a blogger, repeatedly reiterating that I didn't grasp the difference between opinion and reporting. (I did and I do... but I didn't want to insult her by indicating that I believe the bulk of her work falls into the former category.)

She's said, "I've paid my dues as a citizen journalist; now I'm a journalist," and when I mentioned this to my j-school and non-j-school friends, nearly all bristled. One said, "I play football with my son after school. Now I'm Peyton Manning." Another said, "I watch Grey's Anatomy. Now I'm a surgeon."

If she practiced brevity and had to restrict herself to 500 words, she'd be a far better writer. And perhaps earn a steady paycheck.

My concern is that despite her legitimate gripes, she comes across as a prima donna; since her name is synonymous with 'citizen journalist' I fear her explosive exit from the Huffington Post taints other citizen journalists/bloggers by association. And there are many others who could avoid the pitfalls on the road you describe, and end up being compensated for their work. Their writing has merit and they retain both humility and personal integrity.

The two incidents that catapulted Ms. Fowler to fame have always been queasy-making. Journalists know the difference between on the record and off the record. From day one, she indicated to the world that by behavior alone, she was not a journalist.

Tish Grier said...

Hi Linda, and thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment--and for the wonderful compliment.

I totally agree with you re Fowler and "citizen journalist." I know lots of citizen journalists--some of them journalists who've started their own sites, and others are private citizens who do their best to find the heart of a story and write well about it. IMO, Ms. Fowler's words and writing speak for themselves...

I, too, was queasy (as you say) re the story that made her reputation. Even someone who's never gone to j-school, but who desires to be a journalist and has a modicum of personal ethics, doesn't engage in "gotcha" moments, and is clear re on and off the record. And respects that. You can still get an inside scoop--or even a gotcha--by playing it straight.

And yes, Fowler didn't do much to make herself become a professional. It takes work. Nobody hands you anything, and it doesn't come from one byline at one pub where you've never been paid. You have to do the work--whether that's writing, networking, etc. You have to listen to others, do the re-writes, etc. It's up to you to become the professional, no matter whether you start as a blogger or straight from a j-school.