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Feb. 22, 2011, 2 p.m.

Jeff Israely: Building a news org in order to support good journalists

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He occasionally describes and comments on his startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Via bank wires and PayPal emails, sent to accounts in Philadelphia, New York, the U.K., Spain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and here in France, Worldcrunch is sending out its first payments to the men and women (mostly women so far) who select, translate, and shape the stories we are producing for our site and the sites of our partners.

It is a significant occasion for any startup when it begins to make its wares with the sweat and smarts of real people, beyond its founders and first investors. I would add that it is even more significant — in 2011 — if those people are professional journalists, getting paid for their work.

But this post is not about self-congratulation, or even necessarily optimism for the news business or the profession of journalism as a whole. One of the rationales for our decision in December to go live with our online work-in-progress/pre-beta “garage” was to be able to take the first step in seeing how we might build a team of journalists — with a range of experience, backgrounds and foreign-language skills — to make our daily (top-quality!) supply of global donuts.

In financial terms, the good news for our project is bad news for the only line of work I’ve known for the past 18 years: smart, qualified, multilingual professionals are ready to work at a rate that is indeed lower than the very modest money I was making when I began 18 years ago.

In the short/medium term, this works in our favor, allowing Worldcrunch to showcase our stuff without burning through the first bit of seed investment we have raised. Whether it is good news in the longer term is a much more complicated question that touches on what we might call the labor economics of the transformation of the news business.

I am not an economist, and have exactly 14 months of business experience…so the best point of entry I can offer is the economics of my own transformation in the news business.

Time, where I’d been a correspondent since 2001, has progressively been moving to a freelance-stringer model, and has cut staff positions every year since 2005. My turn came in May 2009. I had the possibility to continue contributing with a solid pay rate, which — if I supplemented with another string or two — could allow me to earn a living and keep calling myself a Time correspondent. And indeed, that is what I did for a while.

But all along, this project was staring down at me from the shelf, saying “now or never.” And so, on the side, I got the ball rolling on what would become Worldcrunch.

But my story is the exception that proves the rule. For starters, I have a wife with a good job (that’s grist alone for a whole other post!), and a net of security from the French social system (ditto!) that colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere don’t necessarily enjoy. But more to the point, I had Worldcrunch, a bona fide business concept, a would-be company to build, that went beyond the sum total of the journalism I could produce with my own two feet and 10 fingers.

And so, this post contains a conspicuously paradoxical polemic: an entrepreneurial journalist taking issue with all the huffing and puffing about the “rise of the entrepreneurial journalist.”

First, though, to try to limit the amount of hyperventilating on Twitter, let it be clear that the concept that Jarvis and others champion largely reflects what is in fact a new reality for both individual journalists and the news business as a whole: We all must market our work better, we must look for creative ways to generate revenue (for ourselves, and others), we must innovate, adapt, evolve, and take the occasional calculated professional risk that all successful people do to strike forth into new territory.

My gripe is that this misses a basic reality that most journalists face, that they know right well what territory they want to conquer: It’s called journalism, y’know, like doing stories, shooting videos, covering beats. Notwithstanding the power of Twitter/Facebook/liveblogging/extreme aggregation or any combination thereof, the self-contained “piece” of journalism remains the form the vast majority of people still rely on to get informed, educated, entertained. And by far, the most likely way to get paid for your journalistic work continues to be selling the sweat of your labors to a media outlet, either by the piece or by way of a salaried position. (For the record, having a fixed job doesn’t in itself make you fat or lazy or unethical. Indeed, it remains the most efficient path to the kind of honest/investigative/experimental work we used to call enterprise journalism, a term that both pre-dates and, a priori, produces more civic value than entrepreneurial journalism.)

Some like to celebrate the cases of those who have used the tools of new technology to carve out their own space and make major career leaps, unhindered by the conventions of traditional news business economics. But these exceptions continue to prove the rule: The vast majority of wannabe, would-be, once-were full-time journos — who work hard, have ideas and talent, and are willing to adapt to new platforms and technologies — are simply sliding down into that ever widening pool of underpaid piece workers, hired-gun press releasers, content-farm sharecroppers.

What may look like the golden new age of entrepreneurial journalism for the lucky few cannot hide the dark realities of bad-old freelancing for a growing proportion of those actually delivering the goods.

The cause, we all know well: The Internet-era business model for the industry just ain’t there yet, and probably won’t be for a good while. The risk, of course, is that the new landscape being tilled with the received wisdom that “anyone can do journalism” will wind up barren of anyone who can pay the bills doing journalism, the kind where news is gathered and sense is made of events in the places where they happen. We are in serious self-fulfilling prophecy territory.

Still, I would be a fool, on a number of levels, if I spent my energy trying to preserve or bring back the old labor model. But being flat in the middle of a do-or-die startup, I also have no choice but to think clearly about the way things are, rather than some idealized/demonized ideological view of where the industry is coming from, or going.

And that brings me back to those ever modest initial Worldcrunch payments. Yes, we have big plans to capture the proverbial “energy of the crowd.” But this particular project will not work without the steady/reliable/available labor of professionals. And so we must hope there is a model by which the talented and hungry (not starving!) will be able to stay in this line of work. Naturally, it will be different from the old labor model dominated by large staffs of fixed professionals. But it also cannot have “free” (or dirt cheap) as its baseline. This tweet was how it crystalized in my head just a week or two after we began paying journos: “Building a News company means having a vision for how journalists will earn a fair wage working for you.”

In just these first two months, when the early reality can’t match that “vision,” I am seeing how the journalists react (each, slightly differently!) to the work and the pay and the betting on our project’s future success. In the back-and-forth, we are coming up with new ideas about what and how stuff gets produced — and I see how it relates to renumeration. The shifting labor economics, indeed, will actually be part of how we shape both the business model and even the substance of the journalism we are producing. We must balance the need to bring great people into the fold with our own bootstrapped finances and future cost/revenue projections. We must be viable, in other words, or we will be providing no work for anyone.

It is clear that news and journalism are a different beast than just generic “content.” As a global news source, we have launched in this trial-by-fire moment of the rolling revolutions in the Arab world. We aren’t yet working directly with Arabic publications, but have gotten some great on-the ground stories and analysis translated from of our top European launch partners. We were also lucky enough to hook up with Kristen Gillespie, an Arabic (and French!) speaker, with 10 years of on-the-ground experience in the Middle East for the likes of CBS Radio, NPR and The Nation. With events unfolding fast, and the region’s media/information transforming before us, Kristen and I came up with this regular feature, Arabica, to give our readers a quick daily tour of what is being said/shared in Arabic. These items, like the pieces we are selecting/translating from the mainstream foreign-language media, must be accurate, reliable, accessible, interesting. They must also be timely. It is work for professionals. (The rubrique is also the kind of germ of an idea that comes in working/brainstorming in a team, rather than in isolation.)

I don’t know yet how we’re going to keep Kristen — or whether Kristen herself will even be able to continue to make a living in the news business. Don’t let the (temporary) influx into Cairo fool you: Kristen’s gigs from her base in Amman were gradually reduced and eliminated over the past few years, with one editor telling her “don’t call us unless Americans are killed.” In her desire to continue in this line of work, I am starting to get an idea how I might gauge my own entrepreneurial foray into the journalism business: We can consider Worldcrunch a success if we can build something that allows others to spend more and more of their time and energy focused on the business of producing the journalism itself.

POSTED     Feb. 22, 2011, 2 p.m.
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