Journicide: A looming, lost generation of scribes
Vanishing employment opportunities and shrinking freelance compensation threaten to wipe out a substantial percentage of the next generation of professional journalists.
This journicide, to coin a term, is not merely going to be difficult and disappointing for the affected young people, who mostly will move on to find rewarding careers in other endeavors.
But the loss of a substantial portion of what would have been the next generation of journalists also will be tragic for society. The loss will deprive citizens in the future with the insights that only can be delivered by dedicated professionals with the time, skills and motivation to dig deeply into difficult stories.
Bloggers and other bloviators, this writer expressly included, will not take up the slack. Absent some miracle that motivates someone, anyone, to start fairly compensating journalists again, we are going to lose something that has been very important to our democracy throughout the life of the nation. I can’t imagine what it will be like without professional journalists, but I don’t think we will like the outcome.
Journicide has been under way since newspapers and other mainstream media began losing their formidable revenue-generating juju in 2006. The elimination of full-time professional journalism jobs since then has been so relentless that it has become remarkably, depressingly commonplace.
Paper Cuts reports that nearly 15,000 newspaper jobs were eliminated so far this year, putting the industry on track to rival, or potentially surpass, the nearly 16,000 jobs axed in 2008. Last month, the Associated Press zapped 90 positions to cut 10% of its payroll costs, and BusinessWeek pink-slipped a reported 130 individuals, or approximately a third of its staff.
As bad as things are for still-working and formerly employed journalists – and they are bad – the opportunities are even worse for journalists seeking their first gigs. There are two reasons:
First, young journalists trying to land entry-level jobs find themselves competing with seasoned pros who have been knocked off perches higher up in the food chain.
Second, the miserable state of the media business has combined with a sharp increase in the supply of available journalists to reduce compensation to humiliatingly low levels.
As a consequence, young journalists looking for opportunities to start careers – even the idealistic eager ones celebrated here by David Carr – are looking at an almost universally bleak economic landscape.
Salaried, entry-level positions at traditional news organizations are almost entirely unavailable, because the organizations are trying to avoid laying off any more staffers than they already have.
This leaves phalanxes of young journalists to compete among themselves for low- or no-pay internships and highly exploitive freelance opportunities that typically promise rich “exposure” but scant, if any, hard cash.
In one of the choicest positions I found recently when visiting industry job boards and Craig’s List in a number of markets, Wired Magazine is offering interns $12 an hour in San Francisco. This about two bucks better than the mandated minimum wage in the city but probably two bucks less (including tips) than you can make frothing macchiatos at Starbuck’s.
In the case of freelance opportunities, the pay rate ranges from a pittance to zero.
WeekInRewind.com is seeking unpaid “interns” in New York to write two to three reviews per week of no less than 400 words. “You must be a superb writer to qualify,” enthused its ad. “We want you to be a star….” They just don’t want to pay you.
SportsMixed.Com, a new site in Minnesota, is seeking budding Red Smiths. “Currently this position is unpaid, however compensation should become available in the future,” says its chipper ad. “For now, we offer the chance for writers to circulate their name, practice blogging style, break into a new sport and develop a following.” That’s generous of them.
A soon-to-launch stealth site promising “to showcase everything hip” in Los Angeles is recruiting people to write about restaurants, concerts, movies, clothing stores and people. The proffered compensation is: “Opportunity to get published and invited to hip parties in LA + eventual monetary compensation!” Wow!
A notch above being compensated in hip-titude is being paid piecework-style. A site called Gather.Com suggests in its ad that writers could earn “up to $500” per month. But the fine print explains that per-article payments will range from $25 to $100 “for any articles posted on Gather that receive a minimum of 250 unique page views.”
Significantly, almost none of the available entry-level jobs involves anything that could be remotely described as public-affairs journalism. The publishers hiring today seem to be far more fixated on shopping, entertainment and lifestyle coverage than actual news.
One refreshing exception emerged last month. Provoices, which aims to hire serious scribes “displaced” by the recent contraction of the news industry, was launched by Allvoices.Com, a site that to date has grown through the contributions of volunteer writers across the globe.
Provoices will be headed by someone who feels the pain of fellow journalists, too. She is Lynda Gorov, a former national and international correspondent for the Boston Globe who until last week was an involuntary freelancer for the better part of five years.
“People no longer want to pay you to write,” said Gorov in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she was dispatched by the Globe before her position was eliminated in one of its early cutbacks. “It’s not just that freelance rates have gone down. It’s that they don’t exist. ‘We’ll give you exposure’ is the phrase we hear now.”
Provoices will pay writers from $50 to $250 a story. “I don’t see dinosaur journalists who used to make $90,000 a year writing for $250,” she acknowledged. “But this is a chance for a lot of people scrambling to get a start at making a career in journalism or to continue working as a foreign correspondent in a country where $25o is a lot of money.”
She hopes to provide a modicum of the mentorship that most young journalists otherwise would never know. “When I walked into the newsroom of the Chicago Sun-Times years ago as a 23-year-old, I thought I had entered the Holy Land,” she said. “I learned my craft from the 60-year-old rewritemen and fed off the energy of my peers – and the fear of being mocked by them.”
But Provoices, like most news start-ups these days, will be virtual, existing only in the Internet cloud. “There are no newsrooms today for young journalists,” said Gorov. “They will never have that experience.”
Where does the lack of community and opportunity leave the serious journalist looking to make a name for herself? Often, manning an espresso machine while trying find time to tend a blog, hone a manuscript or tweak a YouTube video.
The starving-artist lifestyle may be colorful and appealing for a while, but it gets old fast if you are bunking on a friend’s sofa, living under the same roof you did in junior high and lying awake at night wondering how you are going to repay your staggering five-figure student loan.
If nothing changes, the next generation of journalists will give up and move on to entirely different pursuits. And you can’t blame them.
How many journalistas do you think will be satisfied having to make ends meet by working as baristas?