News Leadership 3.0

February 14, 2011

A volunteer Army for news? HuffPo notwithstanding, it’s not likely

The sale of The Huffington Post to America Online for $315 million has prompted another flurry of journalist hand wringing about people who write for no pay. Journalists need to step outside their fear that their steady, white collar paychecks are disappearing, get practical about what volunteers can and cannot contribute, and figure out how journalists add value in the new mix.

The big pay day for HuffPo has some people huffing that Arianna is getting rich on the back of unpaid workers - the folks who blog for free on the site.

(David Carr has a worthwhile take on the issue in the New York Times, although I think he errs in conflating social media participation with what journalists have traditionally been paid for. If you prefer the standard-issue journalism curmudgeon version, check out Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times.)

I just want to add a few ideas to the discussion:

- People who contribute for free are not being victimized. They get something out of writing, even if it’s not cash. As journalist Anna Tarkov notes, “No one is forced to write for free.” I’ve talked to a few volunteer contributors to local news sites in the past couple of years and they tend to cite these rewards: 1. They get practice and coaching to improve their writing. (These learners often move on to paid gigs); 2. They want people to see their work and their opinions; 3. It’s fun.

- People who are just in it for fun or attention is not a scalable business model. HuffPo notwithstanding, many online publishers find it difficult to get contributions beyond a small core of volunteers or the churn rate of volunteer contributors is very high. Andrew Huff, publisher of Gaper’s Block in Chicago, says his 80-100 volunteer writers, including some journalists, turn over in about a year’s time. Many sites see citizen contributions more as an engagement strategy than as a way of creating journalism and then tend to separate it from their professional content. (Example: Voice of San Diego’s People’s Post.)

- Paid is still more common than unpaid. I’m running a survey of online community news publishers on my list of promising sites. With 53 responses so far, it appears that the amount of content coming from people who are paid (either journalists or amateurs) far outstrips than that coming from unpaid folks. (Caveat: I am surveying sites that appear to have a shot at sustainability. Stay tuned for further results.) Add to this that local news start ups have a fraction of the heft and payroll of large traditional news organizations and things tilt even more heavily toward paid content. Further, this analysis from Nate Silver suggests that HuffPo’s paid writers draw most of the site’s traffic.

- Fretting about unpaid contributors is just another way of grieving journalism’s past. They’re here. They’re on social media. They’re talking. They’re writing. Get over it, journalists, and use the energy to figure out innovative ways to add the unique value of the journalist to the mix. Here’s one fine example during the Egyptian revolution, which generated a flood of tweets. NPR’s Andy Carvin monitored and curated the tweets, keeping up a steady, coherent flow while noting what was verified and what was not. Check him out on Twitter at @acarvin - today he’s following demonstrations in Iran. Is there a business model for that? Maybe. It’s more likely to make money and add journalistic value than complaining about unpaid volunteers.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Quick comment about volunteers (and this can be expanded to include students and interns and in-kind professional contributors):

Our census of local US public broadcast newsrooms shows a large army of volunteers there. (For every one of the 3000 paid journalists there was an equal number of unpaid “journalists.”) This suggests that the combination of the content and the mission is a powerful mix—and may be the key to drawing voluntary contributions of talent, time and commitment.


“Journalists need to step outside their fear that their steady, white collar paychecks are disappearing”
If your paycheck is disappearing and you have a mortgage to pay, a family to feed, a 2003 Honda to keep on the road and your eldest son’s college loan to pay off, fear would be the correct reaction—or maybe panic.
Let’s not browbeat people who have or are about to suffer misfortune and let’s not be over-celebratory about the unpaid-journalist phenomenon. It is what it is: bad for writers and producers, good for predatory publishers. Any other interpretation is disconnected from the real world.

Thanks for the comments.
I didn’t suggest that people not worry in difficult economic times - we all do. But I hope it doesn’t get in the way of journalists exploring ways to strengthen their roles in the new mix - because that mix isn’t going away.
Agree that working with volunteers can improve what the news organization can offer.

One caution I would raise is characterizing journalists as a collective group in the anxiety, hand-wringing and need to “get over it.”

I often read Carr’s and Rutten’s columns, but I don’t see any evidence that these two journalists from major metros on the coasts are emblematic of any unified thinking among journalists.

Journalists cover a wide spectrum of where they are in their digital adaption. Sure, some are still in the grieving phase that you cite. But newsrooms of all shapes and sizes also have talented digital vanguards and others in the next wave behind them who are learning and changing.

It doesn’t ring true to me when I see writers lump journalists into a single entity to scold. There’s too much diversity of newsperson evolution—in reality, people are all over the map today.

Excellent point. I agree that many journalists have moved on and I didn’t intend to sound otherwise. I know you are definitely one of them! Thank you.

Michele, Thanks on that hat tip! I think the issue of people painting newsrooms with a broad brush is top of mind because it’s such a big challenge while we’re working on training plans for the newsroom. It’s difficult to structure training to help those who are way out front, plus those trying to catch up. One size doesn’t fit all, and I hear other editors talking about the same challenge.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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