Newseum Executive Paints Bright Future for Freelancers

Tam HarbertIt’s hard to be optimistic about the state of journalism today. Newspapers and magazines are bleeding red ink; some are closing their doors altogether. Employment in the news business plummeted from 55,000 in 2006 to 36,700 in 2013. Reporters have even been replaced by computer algorithms that can string together data to assemble sports, finance and other formulaic news stories.

But Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum, thinks freelance journalists have a bright future. Policinski, who is also head of the Institute’s First Amendment Center, was keynote speaker at “A Capital Event,” ASJA’s first regional conference to be held in Washington, D.C.

While depressing, those statistics don’t tell the real story. In fact, the Internet, smart phones and social media make more news available to more people than ever before. “We are at the beginning of a golden age of information,” said Policinski. But the information comes in snippets, usually without background, fact-checking, perspective or analysis. The public still needs professional journalists to confirm what’s real, say what it means, explain how it relates to other trends, and deliver an educated guess at what may happen next. “Tweets tell people what happened,” he said. “We need to tell them why.”

Policinski’s assessment inspired the audience of more than 100 attendees at the Aug. 28 conference. One of the founders of USA Today, he said that freelancers today are often ahead of “legacy” media in terms of business models. After all, if freelancers don’t find and write stories that sell, they don’t eat; whereas traditional news media is hobbled by an old business model that no longer works.

The disintegration of that model, however, is dangerous in that it threatens a free press. Severe cutbacks in newsrooms and international bureaus mean that reporters are no longer there to hold governments accountable and report facts that self-interested parties would prefer to keep secret. Public officials “aren’t afraid of reporters coming into the room because there are no reporters coming into the room,” Policinski noted.

He urged freelancers to harness their talents to fulfill the role of a free press. Although the Internet, social media and algorithms have cheapened reporting to the point where many outlets expect writers to work for free, Policinski thinks the pendulum may be starting to swing back. Readers are starting to realize they need journalists who not only know how to report accurately, but also interpret the facts within the context of the big picture. “The idea is finally dawning on people that credibility does matter,” he said.