My second birthday — I’m still standing (and so is journalism)

Kelly Sikkema / Creative Commons (click for original)
Kelly Sikkema / Creative Commons (click for original)

It is so wonderful to be here.

Two years ago, I left NBC News and set out my own shingle as an independent journalist at BobSullivan.net. I’m still standing, still writing about gotchas and the economy and the unexpected consequences of technology.   Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading, and interacting, and supporting me in ways large and small. I want to give you all a little update on how I’m doing, and how the notion of “sustainable journalism” is doing.

I’m primarily trying to continue the work I began with The Red Tape Chronicles, of course.  I always have a pile of stories to write that’s dozens of tales deep — scams, gotchas, and systemic economic problems. But in my own very humble way, I’m also trying to prove that journalism has a future.  We all know traditional media companies are engaged in an existential struggle, and it’s not at all clear how or if they will survive.  We also all know that journalism MUST survive if the Republic is to be saved.

I hope that out of the embers of our times will grow dozens of new business models for producing and sharing news.  I hope that what I’m doing, something I’ve called sustainable journalism, is part of the solution. (Click here for my description of what sustainable journalism is.)  If you don’t have time, it’s simply this: Is there a way that solo journalists can make enough money to perform their craft and not need the support of a large organization?

So far, so good. I am more than holding my own, though I realize that my 20-year career in traditional journalism gives me a head start over other would-be independent reporters.  That’s why I’ve been talking to people across the industry in an attempt to set up structures that might encourage the category.  We need legal help. We need business model help. We need research.  We need apps that make our lives easier so we can get back to doing what we are trained to do — talk to people and tell their stories.

I’m incredibly proud to report that help may be on the way. This week, a group of like-minded journalists will gather with me at the University of Georgia, with the help of Professor Keith Herndon there, as a first step towards creating such structures.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, a little update on BobSullivan.net.  When I left a full-time job at traditional journalism two years ago, many of my colleagues asked me with fear for my career, “How will you do it?” Since then, as life has gotten harder and harder at big media companies, many have asked me, “How can I do it, too?”   I’m happy to share more details with any journalist who wants to consider going solo.  Briefly, I still earn about half my money from what would be considered traditional free-lancing, but an increasing amount of my income comes from this website and derivatives, such as syndication of BobSullivan.net stories. A mix is really important, as all my income would be considered volatile.

My biggest fear when doing this was that I would disappear.  I hope you can tell that I care deeply about the stories I tell — whether it’s a little guy fighting for justice against a misbehaving corporation, or folks trying to make their way in an increasingly restless and unfair economic structure.  Many of these stories wouldn’t ever be told if I didn’t tell them.  But if a story is published on a website that no one reads, is it really told?  My biggest fear was that the awesome platform MSNBC.com gave me with the Red Tape Chronicles would disappear.

There were moments when seemed possible. Plenty of stories I posted early on were read by….well, let’s just say there’s 8 people in my immediate family, and not all of them clicked.

But I am out of those woods now.   About a half-million people have visited my site, and I can count on 30,000-50,000 each month now, give or take a good scoop.  I just served my 1 millionth ad impression, Google tells me.

More important, I can cause action.  Two stories I did in recent months had serious impact.  When I wrote about hackers taking advantage of the way Starbucks gift cards work with the Starbucks app, tens of millions of readers saw the story, as it was picked up by nearly every major media outlet, and Starbucks changed the way its app worked.  Victims had a little easier time getting refunds, too. And when I wrote about changes to PayPal’s terms of service that would have permitted robocalls, the Federal Communications Commission reacted quickly, got PayPal to back down, and ended up codifying new rights for consumers.

More than anything, these stories, and dozens of other smaller but similar incidents, tell me what I am doing is working. It can work.  Journalism can emerge from this dark time with a bright future. We just have to find out way in the dark and haze.  I hope you will consider helping me.  How? Primarily by reading my stories, and sharing them if you care to.  Criticize them if you want to, that’s always welcome. Clicking on an ad would help a little, too (a very little – but every penny counts!).  Signing up for my email newsletter would help even more.

But most of all, stay curious.  Read and watch a lot. Get news from places outside your Facebook wall. Be open to new sources of information. Support independent journalists the way you support local businesses, or farmer’s markets, or artists.  A free press is essential to the function of a democracy.

You’ve all heard this Jefferson quote, but it can’t be repeated enough in our time:

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Right now, I am worried we have chosen the former. We’re going to have to do something to change that miscalculation, and I’m trying. I hope you’ll help.

Thanks for your indulgence today.  If I could steal one more moment, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Michael Schreiber and Adam Levin at Credit.com for their continued support for me, this site, and my stories.  They’ve helped me every step of the way. Credit.com puts out some of the best personal finance journalism you’ll find anywhere, under the careful editing hands of Kali Geldis, and you should really have a look. Thanks to Jennifer Barrett at CNBC.com, who deftly steers me in the direction of stories about the working life of Americans that really matter. I’m grateful that I am still a contributor for NBC.  Also thanks to partners like Geekwire.com, ThirdCertainty.com, MoneyTalksNews who help get the word out when I publish.

Now, back to trying to explain the words of money and technology to people.

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About Bob Sullivan 1403 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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