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Rethinking Work: journalism as labor

Let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class.

That was Barbara Ehrenreich, addressing the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism this year. In a country where daily newspapers are in what one of my own graduate journalism professors called a death spiral, laying off thousands, and TV seems to have given up the idea of doing journalism entirely, Ehrenreich’s warning might even sound overly optimistic.

Yet journalists are working around the country and the world, whether or not they’re formally employed as staffers at a publication (print, web) or broadcast outlet. Journalism is changing. Bloggers are scooping legacy news organizations with millions in corporate cash, and TV stations are spending their money paying talking heads to endlessly parse the latest press release from the powerful.
The reputation of our legacy media has taken a well-deserved beating in the states, especially lately.

Newspapers and broadcast media alike rolled over for an Administration bent on going to another war, and the lefty blogosphere arose in righteous anger in response. The right-wing press critique in particular always focused attention on individual reporters, not corporate ownership, as the flawed ones in the system—cries of ”liberal bias” used as a bludgeon—but as Ehrenreich notes, individual reporters have little power on their own. It’s sort of like blaming the autoworkers for crises in car-buying.

Clay Shirky noted,

Because journalism has always been subsidized, and because the public can increasingly get involved in activities too complex for loose groups to take on before the current era, journalism is seeping into the population at large, with the models of subsidy being altered to fit that shift. The transition here is like the spread of the ability to drive, from paid chauffeurs to the whole population. We still pay people to drive, from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.

His analogy is a good one for noting that legions of bloggers and “citizen journalists” who write or photograph or even take cell-phone video in the time they can spare are different from trained professionals who do the hard work full-time—even most journalism organizations that harness the wisdom of crowds employ at least a few editors and reporters to sift out the good from the useless. And as many media scholars, including John Nichols and Robert McChesney in their latest book The Death and Life of American Journalism, note, the Internet did not kill journalism—profit-seeking did.

Like most other corporate business models, the corporate press was built on a model of wringing the most out of cheap labor and maximizing profits—though like the art world, media companies often also relied on a few big-name stars, whether reporters, op-ed columnists or in the age of broadcast, star anchors and pundits. The average reporter got paid dirt and knew it and was supposed to accept it in exchange for doing a job that was fun and was valuable as a social good, more valuable than the monetary reward usually associated with it.

We have now a false tension created between professional journalists and bloggers—Matthew Yglesias, a blogger and pundit in his own right, wrote of certain TV pundits:

[W]e’re providing what we hope is an informative, entertaining product that’s fundamentally derivative of work being done by other people. But a passel of TV chatters and newspaper columnists and guys are accustomed to basking in the glow offered by people doing real reporting. There’s a lot of status anxiety.

The cries of “exploitation” by the blogosphere are indeed pretty funny when they come from people who get paid ridiculous sums to give their opinions on TV. They’re less funny when they come from working reporters whose salaries are shrinking or disappearing entirely, and who are expected to work for less and less money for freelance pieces. The problem, of course, is that the people really doing the exploitation are the same ones it’s always been: the owners, who are willing to lay off their best workers in service of 20% profit margins.

Journalism, as Shirky noted, isn’t becoming obsolete. It’s becoming a skill that more and more people have, in fact—and this is a good thing. But if I can extend his analogy a step further, we don’t want to have the only paid drivers be chauffeurs, supported only by the rich. We need public transit drivers too, people who provide a much-needed service to those who can’t afford their own car and who certainly work too hard at their own jobs to be doing their own journalism after hours.

Yasmin Nair noted:

To be clear, I think it is always a good thing if people want to write more. The problem is that the apparent democratization of writing today comes along with a profound devaluing of its worth as labor that ought to be fairly compensated.

There’s a big difference, after all, from starting your own blog, writing what you want and when you want, and not making money off it, and writing on assignment for someone else, with the expectation of deadlines met, certain guidelines fulfilled, and that someone else making the advertising dollars—however few they may be—off that work. A byline and readers won’t pay the rent.

Communication, conversation, is inherently a good thing—more people having access to the tools to do that is as well. News organizations get scooped all the time without going out of business—getting scooped by bloggers occasionally won’t drive them further into the red. Indeed, it might drive them to wonder why so many people want to read that blog instead of their paper.

But the hard work of public interest reporting is too important to leave up to whims and volunteers, and if left solely to the market, will be done the same way much professional driving is done now: in service of the wealthy and powerful.

In their book, Nichols and McChesney make an eloquent argument for saving journalism through public funding. I won’t reiterate their argument here—the whole book is worth reading, or you can get a sense of what’s in it in their recent article at The Nation. Instead, I’ll note that proper public support for journalism requires not only a cultural recognition of the value of the end product, the news, but the value of those who do the producing.

Ehrenreich is right: journalism is a working-class profession, and should remain so in order to truly live up to its mission of afflicting the comfortable, holding those in power accountable. Like all working-class fields, it is deserving of respect, support, and fair compensation.

One thought on “Rethinking Work: journalism as labor

  1. Good piece. I am one of those that is insanely frustrated in trying to break through. I am employed in the Sales department of a local television station, coordinating the advertisements. This is not the career path that I want to be on and have been trying to shift my path for a little while now. I started my own blog and contribute to a local independent website that gives the area “news and views”. I cover local events, write on all kinds of topics, and even shoot video on occasion of local speakers, protests, etc. I try to go where the silence is and cover items that are ignored by the “mainstream” media.

    This is what I enjoy doing and what I think I am good at. The only problem of course is that I am forced to do what I love in my “spare time” and for zero compensation which in turn limits what I am able to cover. As so many have, I have been applying and applying for well over a year and am trying desperately to change my career path into doing the work that I want to do. I am young (26) and try to stay optimistic that I will get a break at some point, but I can certainly see how some would get discouraged and not want to put in the effort to stick it out.

    Nichols and McChesney are correct that if we are not careful, we are going to lose a whole generation of young journalists. I am one of them and I am saying that I am willing, ready, and able to cover important stories and advance the quality journalism. I am screaming “Sign me up!” The only problem at this point in time, is that I feel like I am screaming in a sound-proof room.

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