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The digital revolution’s road to exploitation

June 16, 2011

By John F. Kirch

Before graduating from college, journalism students should learn how to write strong stories on a variety of media platforms, take photographs and video, make sound ethical decisions, verify facts quickly, approach sources with a healthy skepticism, provide context and perspective to fast-moving events, work comfortably in a team environment while at the same time knowing how to lead, write basic HTML, design web pages, manage time effectively, approach the news creatively, do social media, and … whew … adapt to ever-changing technology.

This is the message that is being sent to journalism majors at universities around the country — and it was a message that was reiterated during an Ideas Summit held at American University last week by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). (See previous post.)

But while it’s true that college graduates must know a variety of writing and technological skills to make themselves attractive in the digital media job market, it is also true that this new paradigm of the “backpack journalist” is leaving young reporters, photographers and editors even more vulnerable to exploitation than had occurred in the past.

It used to be that news organizations divided the labor between employees with different expertise. At a newspaper, for example, one person was paid to report the news, another to take photographs, and still another to edit stories and write headlines. The general belief was that the final news product would be better if each employee focused on their particular piece of the puzzle.

To be clear, there was plenty of economic exploitation in the old days as well. Starting in at least the 1980s, news organizations kept profit margins up by laying off expensive experienced reporters and forcing the remaining staff to “do more with less.” 

But today, this problem has been exacerbated. In addition to the traditional economic pressures in the newsroom, journalism majors and recent  j-school grads are being told that it is now normal for one person to do the tasks that, until recently, were divided between several.

If you want to be a dependable and dedicated journalist, young people are told, then you need to happily accept (and never question) a work environment in which you not only interview sources and write stories, but you shoot video, take photographs, create slide shows and craft your own headline before posting your piece on a website you helped design.

In short, greedy employers are using the digital revolution as yet another excuse to pay one person to do the job of two or three.

What makes this particularly troublesome is that mass communication educators are complicit in supporting this new professional mindset that masks the exploitive nature of the media workforce by getting young journalists to worship the digital revolution as perhaps the most exciting period in the history of American mass media. 

Whether in the classroom or the newsroom, the image of the do-it-all backpack journalist has been romanticized into a figure who traverses the community on a pittance, armed with all the equipment he or she needs (notebook, pen, video camera, digital camera, audio recorder) to write, produce and illustrate stories for a multitude of media platforms.

As educators we have overemphasized the technological aspects of the revolution, without property explaining the economic factors that will also affect how much journalists are paid and the workload they will be expected to carry.

A case-in-point occurred last week at the AEJMC Ideas Summit held in Washington, DC. Although informative, the three panel discussions held throughout the day had a clear bias in favor of technology and its perceived ability to do only good.

Virtually absent from the conversation was any meaningful discussion of the economic incentives underlying the push to digital journalism.

I am not suggesting that educational institutions wage war against the fast-changing media landscape. Far from it. Journalism schools and departments of mass communication must continue to teach students how to effectively report the news in a media world dominated by the Internet.

But students should also be told some of the reasons why they will be expected to know so many different kinds of skills. They must be educated about economic factors that come into play. They should understand that employers are taking advantage of their youth and inexperience to indoctrinate them into a worldview that keeps worker salaries low and corporate profit margins high.

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