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A Reporter's Survival Guide for Journalism in the Digital Age

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As the fast-paced [portable] Information Age moves forward, yet another industry's number is up: journalism. OK, this death knell has been sounding for a while. A broad range of magazines have folded. And of course newspapers have been struggling to reinvent themselves lest they turn to dust in the paperless era.

The only "paper" (to use soon-to-be-extinct jargon) enjoying security these days seems to be USA Today--which had previously been the laughingstock of so-called "real journos" for its snack-able TV-style approach to print journalism.

I bring all this up in the wake of the Gannett (USA Today publisher) announcement. But more urgently because I'm deeply disturbed by the types of bitter, counterproductive comments I'm reading from disgruntled journalists all over the Web these days.

Having been a journalist myself, I was initially (like these peers) also disturbed by some of the low- (or no-) pay rates being offered to me by publishers and editors. This has been the subject of many journalists' blog rants, and trust me, I empathize.

Being asked to put a freemium on your work as a skilled and experienced journalist feels--at first blush--like a personal affront. Reactions by journos to this trend seem to operate much like the famed seven stages of grief. Unfortunately, many of those with the loudest voices on the forums and blogs seem to be frozen in Stages Three or Four, Anger and Bargaining -- or, worse, at Stage One, Denial.

This is as good and simplistic (in fact, befitting a colorful USA Today sidebar) an analogy as any for journalists' anger at being overlooked, undervalued and disrespected. In fact, it makes perfect sense to grieve, because what's happening to the medium is a sort of death. For more information, ask the music industry to elaborate. Cries of "exploitation," and "low standards" abound as many old-school journalists live in the denial stage. Some have congregated together online and formed consortia, intent on demanding higher pay for higher quality work.

The whole situation is unfortunate. The most unfortunate part is that many of these professionals have forgotten what the term "media" means and that it comes from "medium," as in the conduit through which messages, information, commentaries, input, advice, creative perspectives, instructions, etc., are passed.

Throughout the stable years, journos grew comfortable with the definition of their jobs and somehow sensed that the "medium" or the "media" was the job, rather than the conduit for a message or purpose. Little did they realize that in a modern, technologically evolving world, their medium was also meant to evolve.

Personally, I got tired of getting angry and feeling righteously indignant towards the lowballers soliciting my expertise. That gives them all the power. It says that these small (most likely entrepreneurial, admittedly sometimes opportunistic and unfair) individuals are so important that they're the ones setting the pay rate for the entire industry. The truth is that it's way bigger than them. The technology-fueled, consumer-driven landscape of our society has served as fertile terrain for a new pay scale (a much lower one than professional journalists are comfortable with). Stocks go up. Stocks go down.

It's unfortunately not up to these potential employers to "do the right thing" and pay journalists those good ol' $2- and $3-a-word standard rates of the glory days of glossies.
Those hiring are taking their cues directly from the so-called marketplace created by our society via its values.

Today, information architects, Web strategists, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) consultants and such are earning way more than they were in say the '90s. I would even argue that SEO wasn't really a "thing" back then. But things changed and the tables turned. It's painful but it's progress, and if as journos we choose to put all our valued energy into fighting the inevitable, we may as well join the Flat Earth Society while we're at it.

Instead, some--but still too few-- forward-thinking journalists are dusting themselves off and reinventing their careers. They're taking control of their destinies the way the democratized Internet demands we all do. They're not waiting around for publishers to approach them. They're creating their own publishing platforms and models. They're acquiring new skills, learning how to convey messages differently, branching out to different clients and imbuing themselves with new, better value in a new world.

I don't know if the blandly named iPad is going to "save journalism." That again is another disempowering phrase as far as I'm concerned. No one knows, for sure. Nor do any of us media professionals know if there is a "right way" to evolve through this -- but evolve we must.

Perhaps, a good starting point where journalism is concerned would -- quite appropriately -- be the word itself. Journal-ism, to me, connotes Emily Dickinson pouring her heart out on her writing tablet by a lantern. Much like one of my dear old dad's oft-used terms "pictures" (to refer to the once-advanced technology of moving pictures, i.e. films), it sounds crusty, ancient and irrelevant.

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