Friday, August 28, 2020

Information Sources: Don't Quit Your Day Job

The New York Times just announced another "project" to be embedded within the paper and funded by philanthropic types. It's not a new model; the Gates Foundation has been funding journalism "projects" for a while. This piece by Tim Schwab at the Columbia Journalism Review lays out in depressing detail just how large the Bill Gates Underwritten Journalism Industry actually is (freakin' huge). This kind of funding model reflects how hard times for "journalism" has affected the tilt of what you and I get to read.

Blame the internet, at least in part, because of its prodigious grasping hunger for content. If you want to keep your site in the game, you've got to be rolling out new content several times daily. And that content has to come from somewhere, and there has to be a lot of it, and it has to be cheap.

The old Huffington Post model was a prime example of what can happen next. You may recall that I used to write for HuffPost. So did a lot of other people. It paid exactly $0.00; more accurately, it paid in eyeballs. Sometimes it paid handsomely; this piece may be the most-viewed thing I've ever written.

What we've got is an information ecosystem in which people can't afford to be writers. Nobody who does journalism for a living is making a particularly great living

And what that means, in turn, is that we have an information ecosystem in which many of the producers aren't actually working for the organization under whose masthead they appear. They are either working for someone else, or they're working out of dedication to a cause.

I'm not just talking about the cardboard faux fronts put up by the wealthy, eg Education Post, originally created by Eli Broad, Laurene Powell Jobs, and others of that crowd to imitate an education information website while really devoted to pushing their PR (EdPost has recently morphed into something a little more interesting, but that's a conversation for another day).

I'm talking, for instance, about thinky tank employees who are readily available as a source for any education article, because that's part of their job, and who regularly produce content for other outlets not because they are working for those outlets, but because they are using those outlets to do their real job, which is to push a particular narrative.

Those of us who blog are used to accusations that we're tools of the teachers union, and I think that's partly because that's the model that many folks in the reformy biz are familiar with--you get paid by these folks over here so that you can go write stuff for those guys over there. What has marked much of the resistance to privatization and disruption of education has been a whole lot of folks willing to do the work for no pay but eyeballs, and that has been a powerful force, but at the same time, it has meant that the movement relies on a loose network of people who have lives and day jobs and have to somehow do the work in the margins, while the ed disruption movement has a small army of employees for whom getting the word out and selling the narrative is their day job. And behind them, guys like Gates who are funding a whole lot of writing in other organizations' publications, and making it easer to insure that their narrative is the one that's most readily accessible to readers.

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