A hard-knock life

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There will always be money in good journalism, just not very much. We're forever creating more media than people care to consume.

Humans are storytellers. It’s in our genes. It’s our default setting.

We tell stories all the time. For free. Not out of idealism or anything, but because that’s what we do. We write because we think, and we think because we are. That’s why blogs are so popular, why people use twitter and internet forums and why every organization you can possibly think of has its own newsletter.

Humans are also, as a rule, very curious about what’s going on around them.

Our curiosity and our love of storytelling are what makes a reporter’s job so damn appealing. Telling stories is wonderful, and knowing things others don’t carries prestige. Which leads people to be storytellers and sometimes journalists even if they’re not getting paid, or not getting paid all that much. It also leads so many of us to consider a career in a field that can be downright grueling.

The prestige associated with journalism also leads otherwise very smart people to start news outfits without really caring too much about whether they can make it work as a business. A big chunk of the media orgs that have seen the light of day in the past five or ten years are born out of idealism and passion, fostered by people who would keep on doing journalism even if they weren’t getting paid at all.

When we ask ourselves why it seems difficult to fund (some kinds of) news organizations, here’s an answer we should consider: that most news organizations, especially some of the newer ones, aren’t businesses, not really, not in spirit.

The goal for many web-era news outlets isn’t making money, the goal is having fun and doing something worthwhile. Sometimes they try to close a gap in the news coverage. Fix some perceived lack in reporting standards that needs immediate remedial action. Bring water to a news desert. But a gap in reporting is not, in fact, necessarily also a gap in the market.

Journalism is not an easy business to be in, because we want to be in it even if it’s not. Journalism is not an easy business to be in because we go for it and try to make things work when all the signs tell us we shouldn’t even bother.

People care about the news. They want to pay for it. They want the light stuff and the deep stuff too. They just don’t want as much of it as we — journalists and media makers — produce. But we forge ahead and produce it anyway. We love journalism so much we create supply without demand.

Media professionals are starting to find out ways to make journalism profitable again after the digital disruption, heaven be praised. But not everybody can turn their hobby or even their journalism degree into a job. We will never find ways to make it easy for every writer and every publisher to make money.

Journalism is a cutthroat industry. The wages are lousy. Don’t expect that to ever be different.

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A hard-knock life debrouwere.org/5h by @stdbrouw 

 writes about statistics, computer code and the future of journalism. Used to work at the Guardian, Fusion and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, now a data scientist for hire. Stijn is @stdbrouw on Twitter.