What comes next for journalism?

How does the media make a living? That’s an interesting question these days, and it’s something I think about a lot.

Once upon a time–and I’m really only talking about a decade ago–newspapers made most of their money from advertising, and the rest from subscriptions. Most people probably know that, and it was a stable business model for decades. That strategy, for good and for bad, built empires.

Since about 2000, as publications moved online, advertising followed along too. The difference is that online ads have never been worth as much as a print ad. Between attention spans, page views, and just the quantity of websites out there, advertisers have never wanted to spend as much for each ad placement.

So how does the media–especially small, independent outlets–make a living writing about anything today? It’s a hugely important question.

When I started The GATE in 2000, the whole enterprise was a side hustle. I was creating an online publication to establish myself, get experience, and hopefully build a viable business that would eventually pay for itself.

Over the years, I’d like to think that I established myself as an entertainment journalist, a photographer, a travel writer, and a technology reviewer, but the revenue from what I do is difficult to call a success. My greatest success to date, without any question in my mind, is my YouTube channel, which is where I make my bread and butter almost every month.

And it’s safe for me to say that without my YouTube channel, The GATE probably wouldn’t exist today.

So what does the future hold for anyone who wants to make a living as a journalist? Especially if they want to start their own publishing company? People like me want to be here, but it’s not exactly a business that looks like it has a good future.

Newspapers and other media have been closing and cutting jobs, and the current crisis is making all of that worse. Even special funds from the Canadian government are just a temporary fix, because there’s an ongoing hole in revenues that only seems to get bigger.

And journalism is important. Newspapers keep politicians honest, they help communities stay connected, journalism addresses injustice, and can help shine a light on problems. Entertainment journalism helps small and rising artists find an audience; articles, interviews, and videos can help make art and artists successful; and it’s hard to imagine what happens to film or television if journalists aren’t helping start conversations about new and emerging projects.

For the people who can build a social media following, and earn a living from sponsored posts, that is one of the few options out there today. The problem is that it’s a full time job just managing social media, building brand relationships, and creating content. At the end of the day, why would you do all that and then start writing news, or a review, or a profile? There are simply fewer and fewer reasons to work as a journalist, and it’s looking bleaker than ever.

And that makes this question important too: why do journalists keep doing what they do? We love it, of course, but that doesn’t pay the landlord, or put a meal on the table.

Even just looking at what I do, I get pitched every single day to cover new products, TV shows, movies, and events, and everyone involved has been paid for what they do. From the product specialists and designers, marketers, and down to the publicists, each person in that strategy makes a living off of what they do.

We could hunt down every scrap of ad revenue. We could, but even with thousands of views a day, normal website advertising might only account for $100 in a month. It takes tens- to hundreds-of-thousands of page views to create serious revenue for a website, and for most small publishers, that’s incredibly difficult. And how can you hire writers, designers, or grow the business if you’re not making enough money to begin with? Even startup money can only take you so far.

So we’re back to my question, and I don’t have an answer to it.

How does the media make a living today? If we haven’t figured it out in the last 20 years, we will need to find an answer. I can’t imagine Canada without a strong media culture, and frankly, it’s getting increasingly hard for me to justify all the work I do that doesn’t put a meal on my table.

Hopefully other people think what we do–and what I do–is helpful and somewhat important too.

So, publicists, marketers, and brands, please think about us and show us some love when you can. We don’t envy your jobs, but for many of us, it’s hard to know what comes next. Many of us are independent workers, and while we are dedicated to what we do, the next year or two could make or break us, and we can’t go on forever.

By W. Andrew Powell

Website developer, entrepreneur, photographer, and entertainment junkie.

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