I’m a newspaper reporter, so I’ve witnessed the upheaval that the digital world wrought on my industry. Reading Alan Rusbridger’s speech Newspapers in the Age of Blogs struck my interest because i also freelance for a digital music Website called soultracks.com.
I started working for Soultracks in 2007, which is around the time when the world economic crisis squeezed newspaper profits. The South Bend Tribune’s management worried about revenue and “sacked journalists” and cut salaries. The incidents that encapsulated the divergent fortunes of The Tribune and soultracks.com happened between 2008 and 2011. In 2008, layoffs took place for the first time in the paper’s 136 year history. Management also slashed salaries by five percent.
Freelancing at soultracks started as a way to earn some mad money writing about a topic that I enjoy. My freelance reimbursement rate jumped as my Tribune salary stagnated and declined. By 2011, I needed the Soulracks money.
That August, Tribune management enacted more layoffs and announced that there would be no raises (the company did raise salaries in 2012 and 2013, restoring a portion of the 2008 pay cuts.) A week later, Soultracks owner Chris Rizik raised my freelance rate to $50 a review. I received $20 a review in 2007 – a 60 percent increase in four years. He didn’t increase my pay solely because he’s a nice guy. The site was profitable.
Soultracks is an easy to navigate site. The site collaborates with cable network TV One to show past episodes of “Unsung,” which is “a where are they” now music documentary. Soultracks fills a market need because thousands of soul music fans want to learn more about legacy acts such as Aretha Franklin and independent artists like Eric Roberson. The site received constant updates on breaking news, such as the passing of soul music artists Fontella Bass and Damon Harris.
Consequently, soultracks.com is the Web’s most popular soul/R&B site. That translates into advertising revenue. Ads occupy the portion of the soultracks’ landscape not holding links to music reviews, videos, and music news stories.
The Tribune and other papers made plenty of mistakes in the web age. The biggest error was training readers to expect to get content for free. Folks will eventually stop paying for the cow if they get the milk for free. Now papers are erecting pay walls to charge readers for content. This may be too little, too late.
Newspapers face problems that pay walls and user-friendly web pages won’t solve. The Tribune lives in the brick and mortar world. The paper has expenses for newsprint, health benefits and salaries for its large staff. Only a fraction of that staff writes the stories you see in the paper and on the web page. The Tribune spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to heat, cool, maintain its massive physical plant and deliver the paper. Chris doesn’t have any of those expenses, and that’s why he could afford to raise my pay percent between 2007 and 2011 while The Tribune slashed staff and payrolls.