The Future of Journalism is Bright, and Paid
Toby Abel

“The message is simple — people are willing to pay for quality journalism,” you say.

There’s a deeper truth: people are desperate for good information and will do anything to obtain it, even pay their last pennies for it. That is: people with issues, like cancer or unemployment or a bad relationship; issues that they’re facing and trying to fix, not issues they’re shrouding with denial and wilful “ignore-at-all costs” ignorance.

In a strange way, the greatest war on this planet is between the people who know which side they’re on, and the people who don’t. In particular, the people who are not even aware that there is a war going on. A war on all of our minds.

I was a senior subeditor on a variety of newspapers and magazines in South Africa up until 2010, much of it as a freelancer or “dash” sub, as we were called. I watched with great amusement as various managing editors tried to exterminate me, wipe out the “dash” budget, as part of their cost-slashing. I explained to them that they were only guaranteeing me more work; we temps are like weeds, I would tell them, we thrive on instability and upheaval. If you really want to get rid of us, have a well-staffed and well-paid regular production team. Ha, ha. But eventually I got tired of doing four people’s jobs.

So now I am very much a citizen journalist, earning a living as a scientific editor (inundated with work, incidentally). This gives me a base to do a bit of writing, and I can tell you honestly, making money out of writing is literally the last thing on my mind. For me, the single issue is credibility: this is the real currency, the most precious resource you can possibly possess in this arena. Credibility where it counts, with people who are themselves researching a topic, who have gone around in a few circles themselves and who will appreciate your efforts if you can cut through the bullshit for them.

My motto as a citizen journalist is a line from a song: “Karma has no deadline.” I want people to know that the stories I write are personal to me, I don’t count the cost or observe any news cycle, and if I can’t nail the bastards in this lifetime, I’ll hunt them down in their next incarnation. I want people to know I have skin in the game and plenty of scar tissue to prove it.

If you want to up your game, improve your editing skills. Editing is a true art and a true science, above all, the science of signal-to-noise ratios. Look and see how many people are waffling around the same subjects: what are you saying that is new or different? Do you actually have a signal that you’re putting out, do you actually have a message? Is it relevant to other people? Then do your best to put it across cleanly, quickly, clearly, with context, so that anyone who starts researching your reports finds themselves saying: “This guy knows what’s what.”

And then: with your improved editing skills, you can help other people to articulate what they’re trying to say. There’s an incredible wealth of knowledge buried down there with “the people”, and it’s beginning to bubble up to the surface. This is incredibly important. Before the AI brigade and the social network analysts completely lock us down into seamless machine cycles of media consumption and mindless shopping, we need to shape the human experience in human terms. No matter how humble the forum, with good research, better writing, and the very best editing.

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