Does it pay?

The headline at left was something I posted to the administrator of  a group looking for somebody to take over moderating/managing the forum, ‘Cyberjournalism.’ I knew the answer was no, but I wanted to prove a point about the “here today, gone tomorrow” tendencies of online ventures, and the thin budgets so many of them have.

The chap who was giving it up came to see it was a thankless job. And certainly a job it was, easily worth some kind of compensation, even free lunch once or twice a week. But who would pay the freight to pay his freight?

It’s the central question that remains unanswered as those who extoll the glories of “free net for all” still don’t get that somebody has to pay someone, at some point, for all this activity. Or it, as most often happens, simply ends.

This blog I’m posting is on a free service. WordPress is hoping it will be able to sell advertising around it to eventually make some money from my work. I have the time to write it because my employer is paying me a reduced salary to take a year off on sabbatical. But the point is, somebody will have to pay something eventually.

Others don’t believe that, so many under-financed start-ups and projects rely on free work; contributions, and the desperation of journalism students and grads to fatten their portfolios/resumes. This has led to a diminishment of the value of content, of journalistic work, and self-image of people who are passionate about journalism.

That was underscored yesterday when the mighty Knight Foundation, the single biggest contributor to journalistic experiments in the world, announced it would no longer be funding “networks” projects (web sites) as part of its $5 million innovation competitions. Instead, it would be granting funds to projects that make maximum use of existing products and technologies. See more at http://www.knightfoundation.org/what-we-fund/

The exact wording, from Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation:

“There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.”

Knight has realized that the journalistic products and projects that are still with us, are the best bets to survive and thrive now and into the future. That’s because they’ve been accountable to the vagaries and standards of industry, where the right people were hired, the wrong ones fired, and managed a company that had to be accountable for all of that.

Walking away from projects is too easy when you’re using someone else’s money. It is the great untold story of our times, as that relates to government funding of start-ups.

Making money isn’t easy. Somebody has to meet payroll, make often tough decisions to make sure that they and others get paid. Knight now knows they afforded many people the luxury of walking away from projects in which they’d had little or nothing personally invested.

The companies and people who have survived months, years and centuries of change, like good and innovation-seeking newspapers, are those best positioned to experiment. And they are doing so today, with mixed results, as society works out what it will pay for, at least when it come to content.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburgs aren’t common. They were successful not because someone handed them a grant, but because they were driven, talented, ruthless and lucky. For the rest of us, earning a living won’t come from working for nothing.

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