I’m looking forward to attending “The Future of Freelancing,” a conference this week at Stanford University. Co-sponsored by the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the conference’s goal is to “help freelancers explore their evolving careers and stay inspired.” Well, I know many freelancers that are not only uninspired these days, they are downright desperate. In fact, the conference title might be more fitting if it had a question mark at the end. Because many of my colleagues doubt journalism, much less freelance journalism, has a future.
I’m convinced it does. But it’s going to be so different from what we’re used to that we aren’t even capable of conceiving it yet. A source for one of my stories on digital publishing points out that when the automobile first came out, people called it the horseless carriage. The only way they could define these early cars was by relating them to a familiar mode of transportation. That’s the kind of disconnect we have in the publishing business. The whole world has changed, and we don’t understand the new world well enough yet to see where and how we’ll fit in. And many of us are terrified that we are selling buggy whips.
The terror has been building steadily this year. A couple of months ago, I participated in a lively LinkedIn discussion. The thread was started by a post by freelance colleague Polly Traylor, who lamented the state of the freelance business on her blog. It didn’t take long for many of us to chime in – and the opinions ranged from: it’s a brand new world and “those who learn to adapt and embrace the change may actually find a lot of opportunity in it” to “freelance journalism is dead” and all that’s left to do is “put fresh flowers on its grave.” (You can read the discussion here.)
It’s clear that no one – including the biggest media companies – has a clue. Consider these two news reports from just this week. First, News Corp. announced strategic moves toward its promised strategy of charging readers for online content. It bought Skiff LLC , which makes an e-reader and a digital publishing platform. News Corp. also invested in Journalism Online, a startup by Steven Brill and other media executives that aims to offer a way for publishers to charge readers for online news.
In contrast, Forbes.com is going in the other direction, apparently planning to use thousands of unpaid contributors instead of professional journalists, according to a report by Paul Carr on TechCrunch. At a recent staff meeting Lewis Dvorkin, who oversees Forbes editorial, said that “Forbes editors will increasingly become curators of talent,” according to Carr. As my colleague Howard Baldwin has pointed out, that comment makes us freelancers feel like we belong in a museum. (Getting old is a theme for Howard. See his blog, “Middle-Age Cranky.”)
Meanwhile, social media consultant Paul Gillin recently passed along this trailer to an upcoming documentary, “Fit to Print,” on the dying news business. While melodramatic, what this clip does not exaggerate is the level of fear among professional journalists.
It’s the end of the journalism world as we know it. The big question is: what’s next? I hope this conference gives me at least some possible answers. Tune in next week to find out.