Over the last 40 years, the Internet has turned journalism and the newspaper industry upside down. Long-standing forms of financing the news and organizing media outlets have crumbled. Theorists like Clay Shirky have argued that “there is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”
Like many scholars, Shirky has likened the current media revolution to the revolution created by the printing press, which is visible in the dramatic contrast between before- and after-printing press phases: In the early 1400’s, before Gutenberg’s invention and the widespread popularization of moveable type, literacy was limited, books were almost exclusively Bibles, and the Catholic Church had a firm grip in the European continent. By the late 1500’s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread, literacy was on the rise, science was challenging religion, and the spread of information was destabilizing political power.
But during this transition, around 1500, when rapid changes were taking place and various actors experimented with combining old and new methods and technologies, it was essentially chaos. As Shirky puts it, “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”[i]
That is precisely the time we are living in now. Experiments are taking place every day that will define how information gets created, verified, and distributed. As Dave Winer describes in his blog post “Readings from News Execs,” volunteer bloggers and amateur writers pose a serious challenge to reporters and newspapers, because of their willingness (and I would argue, eagerness) to do traditionally compensated work for no pay.
Just a few years ago, I was one of those aspiring amateur media-makers Winer describes, eager to find my place in the changing media landscape, and willing to sacrifice pay and even my own safety for carve out my niche.
It was 2006, and I had just graduated from college. I had a few years of student journalism under my belt, and had recently taken an ethnographic filmmaking class that had changed my life. I wanted to make documentary videos for a living, and in addition to taking a side job as a wedding videographer, I started surveying the lay of the land for how this “industry” worked—how did people get paid? How did their work get published? What steps could I follow to set up a stable career for myself?
The answers I found were both disappointing and constantly changing. I remember that for a short time, Current TV, a now-nonexistent TV channel, would pay $500 for user-generated video segments. (A fellow student and I had a serious discussion about earning our livings this way.) I remember when YouTube was acquired by Google, and so many of us wondered what the fate and impact would be of such a seemingly audacious video sharing website. And I remember countless conversations with other documentary filmmakers and videomakers about the realities of this industry.
My six years in the industry can I be summarized by the words of wisdom I received from one award-winning filmmaker with an advanced degree from Harvard: “Jessie, every documentary filmmaker has some combination of the following: a trust fund, a patron or a day job.”
In my experience, this rings true. People were constantly trying to get my colleagues and I to work for free. It became such a joke that a graphic circulated my workplace with a flowchart on “whether to work for free.”
After six years in the industry, I realized what many in journalism have realized: that in order to achieve stability, I needed to attach myself to an institution. Unfortunately, there are very few institutions to choose from. As a result, I’ve been moving further and further from film work and into other sectors. In the world of documentary film, the stakes are not as high as in hard news. Documentary film isn’t charged with the responsibility of being the watchdog of politics. But when considering the parallel path that so many journalist friends have gone down, I begin to worry about how we will make it to the other side of this chaotic moment, and what knowledge will be lost in the meantime.