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April 21, 2005

Chris Nolan: The Stand Alone Journalist is Here...

...And the newsroom has left the building. "If the folks in the building want to insist that what they do has some sort of magical quality, well, today's stand alone journalists have an even better chance of becoming the next generation's most trusted names--plural--in news."

Guest writer Chris Nolan, the accomplished journalist and opinionated author of Politics From Left to Right, coined the term “stand alone journalist” to refer to the self-sufficiency of the individual provider, made plausible by the Web.

The first time I heard her use this term (at BloggerCon III in Palo Alto) I thought: That’s good coinage. She had found a spot between “blogging” as a trend in authorship and the press as we’ve always known it: here’s where you two are going to converge, said she.

Of course, Nolan was also trying to describe the kind of journalist she could feel herself becoming as Politics from Left to Right developed and the Web expansion wore on. (Her column in e-week.)

There have always been freelancers and journalists who worked on their own, but one of the headaches they shared was not owning the means of production and distribution. As Nolan says, “We have our own printing press” (the nifty modern weblog) and “RSS gives us our own delivery trucks or satellite feeds.”

A stand alone journalist is able to reach users directly, but also through bigger media sites that draw off the energy of many contributors. Nolan thinks a mixed future is likely, where you can go into the journalism business for yourself, sometimes contracting with media agencies, sometimes syndicating your work, sometimes publishing it at your own address (like, an effective platform for Nolan’s brand of snappy, intelligent, point-of-view journalism).

Now the stand alone model is not just an idea. The outlines of it are coming into view. The best example so far is widely known: Josh Marshall, a journalist with a stand alone operation called Talking Points Memo, supported by contributions and ads. (On Marshall’s fascination with open source journalism see my recent post Are You Ready for a Brand New Beat? which also profiles other stand alone journalists. )

In blogging years, Josh Marshall is old. There are some new developments. For instance, there’s this offer, now running from

NEW: To get paid for your Citizen Journalism articles, go to any site and create a Readers Write account or update an existing profile to receive payments. The Readers Write login pages have more information about the article payment program. (Also see this announcement.)

Then there’s this contest in video, announced recently:

As we move closer to our launch this summer, we want you to help us create content for Current TV. There are three different video themes our production team is working on now. We’d love to see your take. The deadline for submissions is May 12. We will accept all submissions up to five minutes. We’ll post the top 5 and you decide who wins. The winner will get a Studio development deal of $3,000 to pitch and produce three 3-5 minute pieces that will air on Current.

As I said, it’s just the outlines. As with this system:

NowPublic News is built on stories that people demand. By creating an assignment or voting on assignments you think are important, you help make the news. Here are the most recent assignments…

And see Metafilter too, with more links.

Special to PressThink

The Stand Alone Journalist is Here

By Chris Nolan
Politics From Left to Right

A few days ago, when Jay Rosen wrote and asked if I was going to do any more posts defining “stand alone journalism,” the phrase I coined to describe the work I do at my site, Politics From Left to Right, I demurred. My readers are interested in my West Coast view of politics and its intersection with technology, my feminist rants or my theories about Progress libertarians. As for the nuts and bolts of the news business as we practitioners see it, they’re not interested. Jay’s response was perfectly reasonable: Mine are.

So, here I am, spurred on by Rupert Murdoch’s speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I don’t care for his politics but I deeply respect his news and business judgment (I’ve been inside The New York Post and they were good to me). And I’m impressed but not surprised that Murdoch has the nerve to tell American newspaper editors something they badly needed to hear.

The newsroom has left the building. Readers—and not just the young, whom Murdoch emphasized—gather their own information and parse it out as they see fit. And they find it insulting that anyone would tell them what to think about issues or events as they occur.

The Sheltered Newspaper Editor

Now, it should not have been necessary for Rupert Murdoch to give this speech. But editors, particularly those running regional newspapers in cities and counties across the country—the dominant, if not the monopoly news outlets in their local markets—lead cloistered lives. They are the same folks who once declared that newspapers would always be around because you could “read them in the can.” They think “bloggers” are interesting but are pretty sure they don’t have any in their communities. The few who have recently come to the idea that on-line writing has value seem to have decided that bloggers aren’t reporters or writers but a new money-saving device: high-tech stringers who will cover Little League games or late-night school board meetings they’re already attending. This whole on-line thing is interesting, they think, but they want to make sure they’re dealing with responsible people, not cranks.

I wish I were exaggerating about the cloistering and ignorance at work in the news business. The day after Murdoch’s speech, some smarty-parts put a picture of Craig Newmark up at ASNE. Although his photo appears on page 80 of last week’s Time (one of the world’s “most influential people”) only a few editors recognized the man who—with a staff of 14 and a lot of computers — ate the San Francisco Chronicle’s ad business. Even more startling: Only a few in the room had ever heard of his phenomenally successful CraigsList, the free on-line classified site that exists in every major U.S. city.

It’s worse than you think. About a year ago, I did a brief piece for Fortune about Craigslist and estimated it had annual gross revenues of between $7 million and $10 million. A profile done a few weeks later in the Los Angeles Times mocked my estimates. To do that sort of business, the writer said, Craigslist would have to carry 93,000 employment ads (for which it charges a modest $75 a week) a year. Well, if you go to the site and count a week’s worth of ad postings—as the LA Times reporter should have done—you’ll see that Craigslist is booking hundreds of ads every day. And they’re not classified. They’re the more lucrative employment display ads that newspapers treasure. That’s why the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News are hurting. The free classifieds at Craigslist give people just one more excuse not to turn to their paper. But, as the company’s CEO Jim Buckmaster pointed out this week, that’s not the only reason readers aren’t reading the paper anymore.

What’s this got to do with stand alone journalism?

Plenty. First, it’s a snapshot of the underlying economics, the way news editors have ignored changes in how their work and their payrolls are supported. How can any daily newspaper editor call himself a newshound when he or she isn’t aware of a seismic change in the classified ad business, once the bedrock of a paper’s service to readers?

This willful ignorance is a great example of newspaper editors remaining, as Murdoch said, out of touch with the world around them. It’s one of the many reasons why stand alone journalists have followed the news and left the building. It’s also why many talented writers and reporters are choosing to strike out on the web instead of getting newsroom jobs. Not that there are that many jobs to be had, of course.

Defining the Stand Alones

These are not bloggers. They are people who are using blogging technology—software that allows them to quickly publish their work and broadcast it on the Internet—to find and attract users. They understand that the barrier to entry in this new business isn’t getting published; anyone can do that. The barrier to entry is finding an audience. That’s why their editorial product is consistent, reliable and known. Readers have expectations and stand alone journalists understand this and put that understanding into practice.

So what—exactly—is a stand alone journalist? That’s a definition that’s going to vary with the person, of course, just as no group or reporters can really agree on what makes a “journalist.” For me, the stand alone journalist succeeds in getting stories told in an honest and forthright manner without benefit of working for a larger news outlet. That doesn’t mean they’re objective or impartial; it means they’re honest about their points of view or assumptions. A stand alone journalist understands that the main job is to inform readers; and the ethics that salaried journalists have when it comes to fairness, accuracy and honesty aren’t just phrases. They’re a discipline for doing the work that needs to be done: getting your facts right, your assumptions validated, your arguments well grounded.

The result is as varied as the individuals at the keyboard. Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo is a great example of this phenomenon for serious political junkies. But so is Roxanne Cooper whose “write your own caption” posts bring a standing newsroom joke to a whole new audience. These writers employ the same standards that newspaper people use to crank out their stories. Their style, however, is different. It’s more personable. It shares. It doesn’t hesitate to refer to other writers, even those in competition, to make a point, raise a question, to clarify a thought or idea. This is not news writing as we know it but it is informative and useful and it counts on the reader to participate, to argue and discuss. It believes in competition and different points of view; it’s flexible and open to reader comment and criticism. It can adapt easily. And people—thousands of them visiting these sites every day—love the more open style, in the same way they used to love their daily paper. The audience is growing every day. A technology called RSS—really simple syndication—makes distribution easy, too. We have our own printing press, RSS gives us our own delivery trucks or satellite feeds.

How It Might Work

Stand alone journalists are the next iteration of on-line news professionals. They stand alone because they aren’t salaried by existing news outlets. They aren’t part of an institution but seek to become one. They may be freelancers—many are—but the work they do on the web isn’t under contract for a larger entity. Right now, they are working for themselves by themselves or with other like-minded souls. Oh, and this won’t be limited to print, or I should say, type. The Internet can carry anything digital as long as it can ride the TCP/IP protocols that allow computer to talk to each other. Radio reporters will podcast their shows. TV reporters will V-for video-cast their work.

I don’t know if stand alone journalists will replace traditional news outlets entirely. They’re more likely to supplement the work of cash-strapped established news outlets. The New York Times isn’t going to give up its dominance of national or international news coverage. Nor should it. But its editors could start taking website posts—as they are written on the sites—from stand alone journalists as part of its news packages, for on-line and print. Enterprising niche sites, iVillage, for instance, might feature the regular writing of a stay-at-home mother. She’ll post to her own site and iVillage will take her posts as a centerpiece for discussion and comments by a larger audience she might not normally reach. IVillage will pay her (or her syndication service) for her posts which may well come at odd times and weird hours when she—like her audience—gets a rare chance to sit and think.

Some of these writers might already have posted their stuff on-line when the editor IMs—sends an instant message—or calls. Some might be assigned pieces, some may call the paper and pitch a story idea. Others might offer their work via special RSS feeds to clients in newsrooms and around the ‘net. They’ll offer stories but they’ll also offer a new skill. As conversations about the news become and accepted part of interpreting events, everyone is going to need editorial talent that can happily engage in debate or moderate an on-line discussion group. This is the unique mix that stand alone journalists will bring to their business. Because they are growing up outside the newsroom, they can be inside the attitudes readers have always had toward the high church of news.

Why will all this happen? Because there aren’t enough people (and there aren’t enough talented people) inside news organizations today. It’s bad now. It’s going to get worse. Payrolls, cut to the bone in many papers, are going to shrink even more as ad revenue falls as circulation hits new lows. Newspaper owners decided long ago that they were going to push down costs by cutting staff. As Craiglist’s Buckmaster has pointed out, they have destroyed their product—reporting and writing. But smart writers and reporters haven’t forgotten how it’s done; and they will sell their skills to news outlets, lots and lots of news outlets, maybe even to individual readers.

The critic Terry Teachout, another stand alone journalist, has this to say about the current state of journalism. He, too, was deeply impressed with Murdoch’s speech.

I‚ve said this before, but it can’t be said often enough: the mainstream media aren’t especially interested in serious art, and such interest as they do have is diminishing daily. If you’re looking to big-city newspapers to start reviewing more literary fiction, or to PBS to telecast more ballet and modern dance, or to your local radio station to continue carrying the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday broadcasts, you’re kidding yourself. They don’t care. Which leaves you with two options. You can sit around complaining about their indifference, or you can do an end run around them and use the new media to reach out directly to your audience, both existing and potential.

Teachout’s talking to artists. But he could easily be talking to any writer and reporter interested in covering—but seriously covering— the arts. The problems are the same, the solutions similar: Leave the building. Go off on your own.

Stand alone journalists will carry the desire for good, well-written journalism beyond the economic reality of newsrooms today. Where will they end up? Anywhere they’re wanted. And they will be wanted in many, many places because readers aren’t going to be tied to one news outlet, that paper that lands on the doorstep every morning or the 6 p.m. evening news cast. They’re going to wander around the web, looking for things they find interesting. Or they’re going to wander around the world looking for interesting things to put on the web. It’s unlikely that stand alone journalists will concentrate on who-what-when-where of breaking news. That’s a free service now for almost everyone; or it’s the result of being able—like the New York Times— to throw bodies at big stories.

It’s What You Have to Say

But I do think some of the best stand alone journalists will be our next generation of investigative reporters, following their noses where the story goes, supporting themselves with daily work on their sites while piecing together the big stories. This, too, is economics. Only the big, big papers—all three of them—are willing to spend the money on experienced reporters, often those best qualified to write and report long-term projects or complicated stories.

Stand alone journalists will also provide what we now label feature and opinion writing for large on-line sites like Yahoo, which are going to need to mix up their offerings to keep readers beyond their emphasis on breaking news. As we’ve seen, news is easy. But it’s hard to find a thoughtful voice who can gather herself in a timely manner, do the research and make the phone call that leads to an insight no one’s had. Yahoo and its competitors—who have built a news site but certainly don’t want to build newsrooms—will be better served by adding those writers. As we all know, all news and no color makes for a dull, dull read.

That’s also why the things we call now newspapers are going to need a similar sort of feature and opinion writing on their web and paper pages. It’s going to be writing—and writing well, not news gathering—that sets them apart. Newspapers will need folks who can turn a phrase or hold forth on an area of expertise; and they’ll rely on stand-alone journalists to fill in the gaps in their staffing, to write that color story, craft the profile, interpret the news.

Like their newsroom counterparts who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the state of the press that puts their words on paper, stand alone journalist are going to use technology to do their work instead of letting technology dominate the way they do their work. Much of what’s called blogging is, I’m afraid, a stress on the widgets and gizmos, not on content and context. In journalism, it’s not how you say it, it’s what you have to say. Stand alone’ers, the good ones, will acquire even more of the credibility and authority automatically afforded their salaried counterparts.

How long will this equal standing take? “The secret’s out,” wrote Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle. “The stand-alone journalists are here, and they are digging out facts and leading crusades. They are also printing gossip and distorting facts — but hey, so are we.”

If editors and publishers take off their blinkers and stop doing focus groups and market tests and instead listen—really pay attention to what readers are saying and doing—things will change more quickly. If the folks in the building want to insist that what they do has some sort of magical quality, well, today’s stand alone journalists have an even better chance of becoming the next generation’s most trusted names—plural—in news.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

“So, fuck it. I quit.” Writer, Thinker, Big Name blogger David Weinberger Stands Alone at MSNBC. He had been appearing on-air in a special segment for bloggers…

I just couldn’t face implicitly confirming the idea that the blogosphere consists of big voices arguing with one another — spit fights! — instead of 10 million real voices engaged in every variety of human conversation and delight.

So, fuck it. I quit.

Austin Bay responds to this post:

Ben Franklin called himself a printer, but he was also a writer and editor. Now the Internet and blogware allow a writer-editor-publisher to reach a global audience and do so cheaply. Moreover, the talented writer-editor-publisher can circumvent the political hierarchy of the news organization. The game of “who you know” remains in play—- but demonstrating “who you can reach” via the Internet has made the political gamesmanship of “the news business” or “the publishing business” less determinative.

Technology has leapfrogged traditional print and broadcast organizations —much the way cell phone technology in East Africa has circumvented the old “land line” phone network.

Bay’s sketch suggests that writers who are largely self-published, in business for themselves, will drop in and out of journalism, in a pattern eluding the old hierarchy, which produced the kind of career path described by Adelle Waldman:

Being a reporter typically means moving from city to city, smaller paper to bigger paper, as you work your way up from the Smalltown Weekly to a major metropolitan daily. It’s the journalism equivalent of a doctor’s residency after medical school — you are simultaneously learning the skills you need to hone your craft and paying your dues.

Austin Bay’s point is there are different ways of paying your dues. “Demonstrating who you can reach via the Internet” is one way of disrupting the hierarchy that sets the rules.

Chris Nolan explains why we needed a term like stand alone journalist. From It’s not just blogging any more (June 22, 2004):

For a while I, and many others have been dissatisfied with the term “web logging.” That focuses on the technology, not on what the technology produces. So, after a little thought, I’m calling what I and others do Stand-Alone Journalism. Why Stand-Alone Journalism? Well, it’s accurate. A journalist – or a small group of reporters – can work on the web to produce what they want as they find it appropriate. And readers are equally free to read the work of individual journalist as they see fit, on their time, not on schedules set by TV networks or the newspapers.

Dan Gillmor: “It’s a catchy phrase, but an incomplete one. Even the best solo blogger doesn’t stand truly alone. We are all building on each others’ work, and learning from each other and our communities. The stand-alone journalist who misses this — and Chris certainly gets it — will not be standing long.” Gillmor’s edit: ‘Stand-Alone’ Journalism in a Connected Age.

Look what happens when stand alone book critcs stand together. “Book club for blogging world.”

Classy debut for BusinessWeek’s new blogging venture. They took their time, faced the learning curve, and did it right. Blogspotting: Where the worlds of business, media and blogs collide. Bares watching. Welcome, Stephen Baker and Heather Green. Plus: the cover story: Blogs Will Change Your Business.

Paul Conley says it’s happening already in the trade press: “These new ‘stand alone’ journalists are most likely to come from the specialized business press, where customers will pay high rates for quality information… traditional B2B publishers need to be aware of the competitive threat posed by their readers. Thousands of people in the B2B audience already have the tools to launch a competitive product — expertise, sources and publishing software.”

Ethan Zuckerman: Is Christian Science Monitor the World’s Bloggiest Newspaper? Highly recommended for the newspaper geek in all of us.

Phil Boas, deputy editorial page editor at The Arizona Republic, seems ready for the stand alone era. From The Masthead, magazine of the editorial writers association. (Via Powerline.)

…When you no longer need the millions of dollars in capital, the multi-million dollar press, the network of delivery people fanning out across the land, to start a newspaper, the door opens to competition.

If great gobs of capital will no longer separate you from that competition, what will? Information. Or rather, the quality of your information.

We are headed to the Web in a big way and our readers, especially our most engaged readers – the bloggers - are going with us. They are giving us a taste now of what our new environment will be like. They will challenge and cajole us to confront our biases and our mistakes. And if we don’t confront them, they’ll clean our clocks.

They’ll be our competitors and our colleagues and they’ll force us to dig deeper into issues, think harder about them. They’ll show us how to coalesce expertise on a breaking story and drill deeper for the more complete truth. They’re already teaching us today how to own up to our mistakes.

Very similar to Chris Nolan’s vision. Meanwhile, Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters responds to Nolan (April 21, 2005):

Perhaps the better way to create distinctions isn’t by labelling the blog or the blogger but the post or the thread. There are times when I perform stand-alone journalism; other times, I’m a self-published pundit; the small amount left amounts to a very poorly secured diary. The revolution in newsroom thinking won’t be an acknowledgement that a handful of bloggers are stand-alone journalists. It will come when people finally realize that all bloggers can be stand-alone journalists if and when they choose to be.

Silicon Valley Watcher (Sep. 20, 2004): Mike Magee—successful “stand alone journalist.”

Joe Gandelman says for all the hot air about citizen journalists, most bloggers are “citizen op ed,” which is no revolution, even though it is fun for all involved. Then he asks why don’t we see more interviews like this one from The Talking Dog. It adds original information. But it’s rare. Gandlesman wants to know: is blogging living up to its potential? See the discussion in his comments too.

Bloggers are pretty good at this, though.

Jeff Jarvis posts his links on citizen journalism for the presentation he made to the Radio & Television News Directors Association meeting in Vegas. Helpful if you are new to the subject.

In Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15, 2005), I described one reason to bet on the stand alones.

Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation— for the user’s trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There’s a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times “brand,” and creating it from scratch. Bloggers are “building their reputations from the ground up,” as Hiler said, and to do this they have to focus on users. They have to be in dialogue. They have to point to others and say: listen to him! The connection between what they do and whether they are trusted is much alive and apparent. In journalism that connection has been harder to find lately. Journalists don’t know much about it.

Steve Rubel at Micropersuasion (June 23, 2004): “In my view, a stand-alone journalist is exactly what it says - someone who has quit writing professionally for an established media outlet to earn their living almost exclusively from blogging/personal journalism via ads and subscription. Rafat Ali at is the perfect example of a stand-alone journalist. Robert Scoble is not.”

I just came across this fantastic bibliography of major articles online about weblogs and blogging, put together by Kairos News. It includes articles back to 1999.

Clay Shirky from ‘02, Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing (Oct. 3, 2002).

A lot of people in the weblog world are asking “How can we make money doing this?” The answer is that most of us can’t. Weblogs are not a new kind of publishing that requires a new system of financial reward. Instead, weblogs mark a radical break. They are such an efficient tool for distributing the written word that they make publishing a financially worthless activity. It’s intuitively appealing to believe that by making the connection between writer and reader more direct, weblogs will improve the environment for direct payments as well, but the opposite is true. By removing the barriers to publishing, weblogs ensure that the few people who earn anything from their weblogs will make their money indirectly.

The search for direct fees is driven by the belief that, since weblogs make publishing easy, they should lower the barriers to becoming a professional writer. This assumption has it backwards, because mass professionalization is an oxymoron; a professional class implies a minority of members. The principal effect of weblogs is instead mass amateurization.

The Difficult Life of David Shaw
The Los Angeles Times’s “ideas correspondent.”
National Review Online, Apr. 22, 2005

Cathy Seipp, in her “From the Left Coast” column, has a suggestion for the wizards at the Los Angeles Times. It concerns media writer David Shaw, with whom PressThink has occasional business. “I don’t know why the Times doesn’t just retire Shaw from his bland, fakely objective phoning-it-in media critic’s beat and let him expand the food column — in which he compellingly reveals the various pet peeves and recurring annoyances that vex his remarkably soft life — into a full-time wallow.”

The article suggests that Shaw was supposed to turn into some kind of “ideas correspondent” but didn’t get the memo that media wasn’t really his beat.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 21, 2005 1:12 AM