Like Valenti, my younger journalist friends and colleagues imagine a kaleidoscopic future where the hoarier codes of journalism are put to rest: goodbye inverted pyramid, hello a nearly reckless immediacy; goodbye measured commentary, hello pungent or radical or vulgar commentary. Yet beyond style, the new reality is that there is no clear, long-term career plan for Found Media-ites—or even for most of the rest of us. We’re in the sort of moment in history that some people will say they were glad to witness, but only twenty years hence.
Found Media-ite David Cohn, twenty-six, started on the traditional path when he attended Columbia’s journalism school. He began to see himself as a journalistic entrepreneur rather than a writer, however. Technology, Cohn said, is about organizing information. “Telling a story is not enough anymore,” he says. While journalists have always organized information, what Cohn and others like him mean by this is a different way of thinking about what we do—rubbing off some of our collective grandiosity and seeing ourselves more simply, as workers who gather and filter data.
Another potential Found Media model is the reader-funded journalism initiatives like MyDD.com: in 2006, readers donated money so the site’s writers could afford to cover a congressional race. A more likely scheme is the one used by Federated Media Publishing, a company that helps independent journalists and other writers monetize their Web sites by selling advertising for them and splitting the revenue. These are the sort of businesses and models that, in Cohn’s eyes, Lost Media people should start to consider. As Cohn puts it, Found Media people are wondering, “Why are we not changing things” in the newspaper and magazine industry while “older journalists are blaming market forces” for decline. In fact, in my interviews, the younger the writers were, the less bewildered they seemed—an inversion of the usual state of things. I asked ProPublica’s Steiger why almost all the Found Media-ites were young. Was it just the ability to master technology? “The environment right now is much better for young people than for people in their fifties and sixties,” he said. “It is also better for the young than for people in their forties and thirties. Young people can survive on starvation wages.” But what of the sustainability of these nascent young careers over the long run? After all, the collapse of economic models for journalism affects Lost Media and Found Media folk alike. Valenti, for instance, while thankful for the attention all of her cheap labor gets her, wonders when she’ll get a decent check for her efforts. Although Feministing makes some money through ad sales, she hasn’t yet wound up at New York magazine, where many of the best and/or most aggressive New York-area bloggers seem to go to cash in their maverick chits for establishment checks. She has, however, leapfrogged to being an author who gets book contracts and writes for magazines that her relatives have heard about, and is paying her bills by consulting for various organizations on blogging. In a paradox familiar to the stars of Found Media, she gets called to be on The Colbert Report, yet she still writes out of her kitchen in Astoria, Queens.
Of course, not all younger writers have let go and learned to love the blogs. Kiyoshi Martinez is twenty-three years old and the founder of AngryJournalist.com, a Web site for irked and neglected reporters to vent anonymously. Despite his youth, Martinez has already given up reporting to write press releases for the Illinois Senate Republican staff—a young man embittered by the newspaper business before he has reached the natural age of bitterness (forty, by my lights). “My generation is now inheriting a lot of problems created by those before them who didn’t realize how the Internet would change editorial content, sales, and marketing,” he told me in a phone interview, while driving past cornfields in Illinois. Martinez has tapped an empire of irate journalists, who post things like: “I’m angry that newspaper owners who routinely expected at least 20 percent margins (7 percent is the average for U.S. companies) are now crying about real competition and are dumbing down and slashing to compete.” Welcome to Lost Media, at its darkest and most hostile.