Amoeba Flunks Media

In his post for yesterday (23 November 2009), O‘ahu blogger Ian Lind, among other things, relates a story about how reporters who used to work for a newspaper in Seattle are having a tough time finding paying jobs in journalism.

Lind is himself a ‘former’ journalist who used to do reporting for one of Honolulu’s two major newspapers. Well, they used to be major newspapers. One of them is now a tabloid, while the other, though it’s folded like a traditional newspaper, is about half as big and is printed on toilet tissue. So it’s no surprise that the travails of career journalists, and indeed of journalism as a career, have gotten his attention.

But it’s not like these travails come as a surprise to Quilly and me.

Y’see, both of us, had interest in, even dreams of, careers as reporters, once upon a time.

Quilly’s tale is hers to tell, if and as she should choose to tell it. Suffice to say here that an editor sent Quilly out for an interview, and when that interview didn’t yield gossip that would allow the editor to crucify the interviewee on his paper’s pages, facts be damned, he sacked Quilly, and a dream ended.

Oh – did I mention that this took place in the context of a university course in journalism?

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba’s dream was broadcast journalism, specifically radio – television requiring that one’s appearance doesn’t instantly turn viewers to stone, thus depriving the station of advertising revenue. It was not a serious enough dream to displace the prime directive – an academic career in the sciences – but it was an itch to be scratched in the music, news, and sports departments of campus radio stations. On occasion, it even provided some minimum-wage, graveyard-shift income.

And it came to pass that the campus radio station of a Division I university in a major market chose (and obtained permission) to broadcast home basketball games, live. For one glorious season, an amoeba provided color commentary on men’s games – including one contest with Wooden U. where the crowd was so loud, it was impossible to hear oneself think, never mind speak.

That same amoeba was also the play-by-play “voice” of women’s basketball. I studied charts and stats, interviewed coaches and players, and was having a blast.

Then, at the end of the year, the team collapsed, embroiled in catfights between players and coaches, with (if I remember correctly) intimations of physical wrongdoing on the part of at least one coach.

And I was blindsided. Heard exactly nothing about it until the story broke on “real” media.

Unlike in Quilly’s case, no program director descended on me, irate that I didn’t ‘get the dirt’. None had to: I sacked myself. It dawned on me, finally, that I wasn’t doing any kind of job as a reporter (though in my defense, this was campus radio, essentially a club, and I was at the time supposed to be 100% engaged in getting my Ph.D.), and that I wasn’t getting any pay for being a shill. Another dream ended.

Six months later, I left that major-market city. And, except for occasional interviews in my capacity as a working scientist, I never again stepped in front of a microphone.

Both of us, Quilly and I, had run afoul of the ‘dirty laundry syndrome’. Journalism died for us because neither was willing to chase after the gossip, the racier the better, that is the only stuff for which most readers/listeners/viewers will pay. (Oh – did I mention that both of our stories took place 25-30 years ago?)

One of the laid-off journalists quoted by Ian Lind wrote:

There are very few opportunities to do the sort of important work that the old [newspaper] invested in, because it is expensive and unsexy. The point that it is important to society has become irrelevant.

On reading this, I could only think that here is a baby boomer, one of the aging children who grew up thinking the media is the message and are only now figuring out that media and message are not about what the messenger wishes to say, but about what the customer wishes to buy.

As you most likely know, Quilly’s blog is partially for hire. The sponsored posts she writes bring in a few pennies here and there. Not long ago, she was presented with an offer that would pay her more than usual. She investigated – and discovered that the opportunity was linked to a full-time blogger who runs nearly 30 sites.

All of them pornography.

When challenged on this, the blogger responded (I paraphrase):

These sites make money. If you’re serious about making a living writing online, this is where you need to be.

One begins to understand how societies throughout history have moved to ban activities such as this.

Such bans provide journalists something profitable to write about that isn’t T&A.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. Not to go all Pollyanna, but I’m inclined to think real journalism is in transition, not necessarily dying. The smart folks who run the business end of the business need to figure out a new way of getting people who want real reporting to pay for it, like we used to with a newspaper subscription. We’ll see, and I expect bloggers to keep us up to date.

    • I think, Dawg, that that’s the idea behind some of the “new online journalism” concepts that are beginning to crop up. Like this one, for instance. But, like most startups, they consist of highly dedicated people working for dirt. No, make that “for peanuts”. The people who are working for dirt are driving Hummers.

  2. It wasn’t REAL journalism, but I was a monthly commentator on Hawaii Public Radio for 15 months, 2003-2005. Unpaid, of course.

    I had to give it up when HPR decided to try NEW community voices. And that’s show biz…

  3. I always thought having a radio show would be so much fun—I’ve had a few columns in newspapers over the years and when interviewed on radio, I’ve had a good time at it. But then as I got closer I discovered more about the whole industry and realised that I just wasn’t going to like the ‘big picture’, at all, and you summed it up exactly.

    So I ended up writing instead. In fiction writing, 5000 words of literary genius earns perhaps $5 + contributor’s copy, while 5000 words of kinky erotica can earn $100 and a book contract.

    Not that I know anything about the veracity of the second part of that equation, it’s just what I’ve, er, heard, you know…

    • Wow, Susan! You got five bucks?! How’d you do it, huh? Whom did you have to … uh, never mind. Sigh.

      Five years ago, a scientific study showed that monkeys – rhesus macaques, to be precise – will pay to see pictures of cute lady monkey butts, and the faces of the Big Monkeys On Campus. In other words, we can’t help ourselves. Playboy and People are in our genes.

      And I can’t see how anybody can continue to argue, with a straight face, that humans are a special creation of God. Unless God has a really sick sense of humor.

  4. I must be a genetic fauxpas! Playboy and People are neither in my genes, nor in my home! And I’m very glad that neither you nor Quilly actually became a newspaper or broadcast journalist! I’m glad you became blogging journalists! Have I mentioned anytime recently – within the last month or so how much I HATE the media!? Yes… in a word association test, given the word “press” – my response would be “evil”. And that’s sad… because once upon a time, I really enjoyed the news. Like… in the days of Walter Cronkite!

  5. I find that when my blood pressure is high and my temper is frayed, it is due to over indulgence in flipping on talk radio in the car. So I cure it by flipping to either the all-Christian music station or all Rock-N-Roll…I go back and forth between them because I can’t OD on either one for too long.

    Sometimes I listen to silence but since my car is a hybrid it’s so quiet the road sounds are creepy!

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