…or is it exploiting readers?

Olly Haynes
Dec 21, 2018 · 4 min read

Recently a twitter firestorm was started by former Buzzfeed and Wikileaks journalist turned purveyor of terrible centrist takes, James Ball.

He lambasted Novara media for using unpaid labour thereby driving down the wages of other journalists.

This was an idiotic take for several reasons. The Novara crew volunteer their time to the organisation which they run on a not for profit basis. The founders and senior members of Novara finance their efforts through other work they undertake and do not get paid from any revenue generated by the organisation while contributing writers and tech support are paid.

The criticism of exploitation applies to companies or institutions in which senior figures profit from the unpaid grunt work of those at the bottom. Novara literally does the opposite of this.

Ball’s argument therefore is against the concept of any activity that falls outside the logic of the market — and given he could have singled out any number of voluntary organisations for his vacuous criticism, it was clearly another manifestation of the egregious partisanship of, to coin a phrase, the hard-centre.

Were Ball not quite so disingenuous in his critique of exploitation in the media he might have been onto something.

The former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s recent book Breaking News discusses the role of journalism in the internet age and weighs the merits of a variety of business models for sustaining public interest journalism. The conclusion he repeatedly draws is that “open” (collaborative, free, adaptive and transparent) journalism is better than “closed” (behind a paywall, non-crowdsourced, opaque) journalism. He is probably right, and his book is an engaging read despite his tendency to overlook serious issues like the social exclusivity of the British media.

A timely event that seems to prove Rusbridger right is the launch of the English language version of the Dutch online newspaper De Correspondent. It recently achieved its crowdfunding goal and the New York based Correspondent will be active by mid-2019.

Full disclosure: I am a “founding member” that is I donated five euros to the launch of the site and therefore belong to their “movement”. I think it promises to be an exciting new way of undertaking journalism in the 21st century, and can hopefully be a genuine antidote to some of the many pathologies that the media currently exhibits. Its various commitments to a profit cap, to covering solutions as well as problems and to in-depth social-justice oriented investigative journalism and the success of the original project in the Netherlands suggests that it will last longer and achieve more than the patronising, terribly named startups attempting to combat post-truth like The Spoon and Tortoise.

It too promises to use the kind of collaborative journalism that Rusbridger advocates, indeed Rusbridger himself is a vocal supporter of the project.

As WikiTribune attempted, there will be a symbiosis between journalists and readers in order to create stories with testimonials from readers on the ground feeding into the narrative pushed by the newspaper. The website states “We don’t see you as a mere news consumer, but as a knowledgeable contributor of expertise”.

This is where Ball’s critique, were it applied not frothingly to a fledgling alternative media group but in an intellectually curious manner to larger progressive news organisations with significant capital obtained through crowdfunding, could be reasonable.

Rusbridger sees this model as the democratisation of news. The collapsing of the hierarchies between reader and writer into a melting pot of ideas and truths. Maybe it is. But it also feels somewhat like use of free labour.

The beauty of opensource projects is that they subvert market mechanisms so that a collaborative creation can emerge entirely independent of capital through the effort of any number of passionate volunteers.

But are for-profit organisations like the Guardian and the Correspondent exploiting the unpaid labour of their readers as they gain financially from the final product?

This question is sincerely asked. It is unclear.

One thing Rusbridger zeroes in on in his book is the mountainous difficulty of balancing the need for serious, accurate, public-interest journalism with finding a business model capable of sustaining such journalism in the digital age.

So, maybe exploiting readers to a degree is necessary, when both the harsh constraints of the digital economy and the duty to provide clarity in that economy are hanging over you like two edges of the Sword of Damocles, perhaps asking your readers to contribute unpaid or compensating them poorly is the only way forward.

However, one thing does appear certain. There are existential challenges to the media becoming increasingly apparent, and the media itself is partly responsible for such challenges coming into being.

So someone like James Ball throwing petty, bad-faith tantrums is disheartening. For an alumnus of Wikileaks to slap down organisations that provide a check to the often misused power of the legacy media is irritatingly hypocritical and generally unproductive.

If establishment hacks maintain such complacency, the ideals behind the 4th estate will continue to be eroded. These conversations must be had sincerely and in good faith if the legacy media wants to survive in the modern world.

Written for Politicalists by Olly Haynes (https://medium.com/@ollyhaynes360)

The Politicalists

Politics chat while the world burns.

Olly Haynes

Written by

Pretentious student attempting journalism. Email oh265@exeter.ac.uk

The Politicalists

Politics chat while the world burns.

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