On the Angst of American Journalists

Felix Fenon, At La Revue Blanche (1940)
Image source.

It is a common observation that internet life and real life don’t really match. Spend a few hours on twitter and you will think America is a 21st century Weimar Republic. But spend time talking with neighbors and friends in the flesh and you find that this feeling ebbs away. The economy is doing well. People are getting paid bounding sums. Nothing seems so fraught as the online hordes would have you fear.

I have a hypothesis for why this might be.

For the last few months I have tried my hand at earning most of my income through writing. This has been an interesting experience. One of the wake up calls to me happened at the turn of month. I had not been paid like I expected to. The publications in question were not late in payment; they are late in publishing. I met deadline for both, but the publications have held onto the pieces now for some weeks. I have confidence they will eventually get around to them.

For them it does not make much a difference; none of the submitted pieces were especially time sensitive. They can be saved for a lull in the newsroom. But for me the difference is between getting paid in July and getting paid in September.

This might not be a business I can afford to be in much longer.

This post is not really about me. I relate this vignette because it is an interesting slice on an industry in crisis. To get into this industry you must spend several years free-lancing, usually for $150-$500 per piece, or come in with sterling connections and internships as the top. But neither a successful reporting record or the best connections in the world will guarantee you much.

Here was a report in Bloomberg from last month:

The news business is on pace for its worst job losses in a decade as about 3,000 people have been laid off or been offered buyouts in the first five months of this year…. The level of attrition is the highest since 2009, when the industry saw 7,914 job cuts in the first five months of that year in the wake of the financial crisis, according to data compiled by Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., an outplacement and executive coaching firm.

With the U.S. unemployment rate the lowest since 1969, the journalism job market is one of the rare weak spots, said Andrew Challenger, the firm’s vice president.
“In most industries, employers can’t find enough people to fill the jobs they have open,” he said. “In news, it has been the opposite story. And it seems to have been accelerating.” 

The cuts have created a competitive job market where the number of out-of-work journalists often exceeds the number of openings. When Bklyner, a local news site in Brooklyn, said in May it was looking for a new political reporter, 16 journalists emailed their resumes within a few hours, said Liena Zagare, Bklyner’s editor and publisher. Many had prior work experience at national media outlets such as CNN, Reuters and New York Magazine

“I was looking at my inbox like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Zagare said in an interview. “It was beyond what I’ve seen before ⁠— the kind of people looking to work for us and the speed that their applications were coming in. To me, it was incredibly depressing. It says something about this industry that we can’t employ these people.” [1]

You can read the full thing here. Spend some time contemplating their graphics. The upshot? Unlike for the rest of the country, for the news media the recession never ended. They are still living in 2009. For them, the economic hardship and uncertainty that gripped us all in the Great Recession never stopped.

How do you imagine that colors how these people see the world? Or how they report on it?

Political twitter is dominated by people from a few professional backgrounds. These backgrounds are not surprising. If you have an interest in public affairs—an interest strong enough to make a career out of it—these are the sort of fields you tend to end up in:

  • Journalism and the media
  • Academia
  • Policy work (which mostly means think tanks, and occasionally means working on the Hill, for DoD, or so forth)
  • Law  

To succeed in any of these careers you need a fairly high IQ, strong writing and verbal skills, and a network of contacts and connections in your field of choice. These are the default career paths for people who are good with words.

Each is something of a mess. I will not cover them all in depth; the stories are well known. Academia produces thousands and thousands of adjuncts working far below the average American wage. To get to that stage  you must spend five to eight years laboring as a graduate student, again working under the average wage. Only a fraction of those who go through this experience end up securing a stable university job because of it. This instability matches what you see in the policy world; I recently saw a well placed researcher brag on Twitter that they had completed six unpaid internships in order to climb to their current position. Six! Lawyers, for their part, earn an average wage high above these other two groups, but that number deceives. The wages lawyers make fall into a bimodal distribution. A small percentage at the top gets paid a lot straight out of law school; a smaller group gets paid just about the American mean—but the American mean household does not have to worry about law school debt.

About four years ago a GenX friend with more worldly experience than my own admitted he had limited sympathy for the generations below them. His generation also had struggled in their 20s, but at the end of the day all of the kids with top-30 degrees that were crowding Washington DC turned out just fine. For all the gnashing of teeth he heard then, pictures of newly purchased houses just outside the beltway are seen now. Things would work out the same for the next batch of insecure 20 somethings start out at the bottom.

This view was more defensible in 2015 than 2019. The journalism jobs have only been cut further, tenured faculty positions continue to decline, and competition in the big city law firms has not abated. These industries simply have more talented applicants than positions. Those who pursue them have committed themselves to a decade of economic risk and financial uncertainty. These men and women have grounded their identities in one of the few careers whose prospects have declined as the rest of the country has gotten better.

These are also the people who drive the national conversation on twitter. Academics, journalists, policy hands, and lawyers.[2] The people who form the narratives that we understand our country have been frustrated by fate. They live uncertain, precarious lives; even the most successful and secure are surrounded by defeated legions. Each old college friend is a reminder of what they could have been or might soon be. They are more likely to be stressed by circumstance. Do you think that stress does not carry over into their perceptions of the country writ large?

My hypothesis is that it does. The national conversation seems dangerously off kilter because it is dominated by the voices of those whose lives actually are off kilter. The online world is awash with frantic insecure chattering because the chattering classes have spent the last decade living frantic, insecure lives. That sort of life takes a toll on you. What we have discovered over the last few years is that this toll is paid by the rest of us too.

If you found this post on the sociological source of our narratives was worth reading, you might also like the posts”Why is the Fight For Free Speech Led by the Psychologists?,” and “On Words and Weapons.”  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Gerry Smith, “Journalism Job Cuts Haven’t Been This Bad Since the Recession,” Bloomberg (1 July 2019).

[2] I might add activists to this group, but here I must admit ignorance of the labor economics of that profession. 

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An alternate reading of similar data is that the fate of journalists is an excellent reason to be anxious about the health of our polity. I'd argue that worse than being a canary in the coal mine, journalists are honey bee in the field of flowers. If they fare poorly there are tolls on the rest of us well beyond their tone.

If journalism is a key mediating institution in democracy, the collapse of local journalism and the increasing pressures on national journalism undercuts a critical part of social life. And I'd argue that there's good reason to believe it is, for example studies on levels of local corruption when papers shut down. Likewise, even if local journalism is in large part fairly banal rather than investigative reporting, merely having a range of trusted local sources of news can contribute to the nationalization and polarization of politics.

None of this contradicts your hypothesis, which seems plausible to me. But if many people, like you, decide that they cannot afford to be in the business, the supply of writers would drop and perhaps those who keep writing may be a bit less anxious. However, while that may improve the anxiety level of journalist themselves, it would still be an equilibrium where we have lost an important public good that the companies that mastered online advertising and disrupted the journalism industry is not prepare to take on the labor-intensive costs of providing.

This seems right to me. It probably also explains why we see such a labor media focus on "precarity" and the ostensible rise of increasingly insecure employment (I say "ostensible" because the evidence for rising precarity is weak, but why it gets so much attention makes sense given what you said about their own economic situation).

The recession never ended for newspapers, but online media did have its own little boomlet in the early 2010s as venture capitalists funded a bunch of "new media" startups. The foundering of those overly optimistic plans is forcing a lot of Twitter-heavy writers into freelance writing these days.

I think your assessment is correct. But I think that there's another point worth adding: it's not necessarily the case that "outside of Twitter, everything is basically fine." What I mean is, a big part of why outrage media is effective is because *the precariousness of the chattering classes is also shared by their audience.*

The public affairs sphere could not be so effective in imparting social and economic panic to the rest of society if they were the only or even the bulk of society's precarious classes. Rather, in giving voice to their own precariousness, the chattering classes found a ready audience in Americans long part of the precariat before the chattering classes joined them. A fast food worker working multiple jobs to make ends meet is part of the precariat as are working class people in de-industrialized Midwestern towns or migrant laborers who live on the edge of society. The existence of this underclass is something journalists, academics, and pundits from all political sides and backgrounds seem to acknowledge (which subsection they focus on varies).

So are the precariat the 'norm' or are the relatively comfortable middle and upper classes, the ones who do have the ability to say "I'm done with politics, it's so divisive these days, I'm swearing off Twitter, hopefully permanently" the norm? I think there's pretty good reason to believe that the precariat is.

I'm not saying that "ack-shually, journalists, academics, and lawyers are pretty well off" but the median annual personal income, at least in 2016, for all Americans was $31000 (fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEPAINUSA672N). For journalists, the median salary is apparently somewhat higher, about $39000 (work.chron.com/starting-salary-journalist-10809.html). Normal caveats about applying nationwide figures to a country with wildly divergent cost of living apply, and ofc, this figure may not reflect the real experience of professional writers because of factors you describe like irregular income and lack of positions. But my point is, while the typical writer is deep in the ranks of the economically precarious, they’re probably still more secure than most of the working class precariat, especially factoring in how most writers *do* have much stronger social and professional networks (being a professional requirement in these jobs), and getting there implies a safety net stronger than that of the average member of the American underclass (after all almost all writers got through college somehow). What I'm getting at is, if the constant panic mode of the economically precarious chattering classes has found a ready audience in the American people, it's probably because a huge proportion of them find themselves in similar or worse circumstances already.

There is, I'll admit, one problem with the point I'm making here. The economic underclass *almost certainly* is not the primary audience of the public discourse precariat. In fact, they probably are the people least likely to be tuned into things like outrage Twitter, online mobs, or the President’s latest outrage. In fact, it's the comfortable classes who are likely to be constantly tuned into these things, who, as you note, by rights ought to be (and often are) the people *least* likely to suffer from a pervading sense of doom. The precariat OTOH is too busy literally keeping the wolf from the door.

I freely admit that I have *zero* direct experience as a member of either the precarious public discourse class or the precarious underclass. It’s something I have literally never experienced for even a day of my life. I'm inferring everything I wrote entirely from the experiences of my own friends and acquaintances IRL who belong to one class or the other. I welcome any correction if something I have said above is inaccurate.

(Also, I'm a long-time lurker of this blog and a pretty huge fan generally, and I hope to comment more on here in time)

This hypothesis seems tenuous when confronted with reality.

The fundamental fact is Editors and Media boards/Owners set the spectrum of the agenda at the end of the day.

Western media space (since that is the context for this debate for the time being) is not some utopia in contrast to say places like China. Propaganda and brainwashing happens, it taking different route/manifestation is the core difference.

And the atmosphere you describe is not limited to Twitter/current-blogosphere. It is in all public media, TV, print, Online. Official or semi-Independent or what not. Everyone is doing this so called, "World is on fire angle". And the powers that be allow it.

Why they do could be having multiple reasons. Probably it sells better which will have its own analysis or maybe that is how it really is or maybe this is a smoke screen, etc.

But the argument doesn't hold that these Media apparatus's only have access to a glut of these so called Journalists who view the world a certain way(the section brought up in this article). It doesn't matter, the way Western Media works is the selection pressure is tuned a certain way which is very effective and streamlined.

Meaning if someone at the top wants a Anti/Pro-XYZ narrative piece or a collection of them, they will get the journalist/writer/think-tank/organisation/NGO for that. And the diversity in West for these people is such that these are never going to go away anytime soon.

Meaning the end writer/journalist/source isn't the locus or important entity, the Editor or Leader in the organisation at the top is, they set the agenda for what is/will go out. And they aren't desperate or struggling, socio-economically or otherwise, in the manner laid out in the article. They ARE the Elites.

Hence this hypothesis is too weak. It fundamentally assumes the pre-condition that Western Journalists and media space writers have Near-Total practical agency of influence and relevance. They don't. That is the fundamental flawed assumption in this. Media is a power center like Politics, Culture, Military, Finance, etc. One doesn't just get free access to lead it or have a great chunk of it at your disposal, you get that because someone hands it to you and those doing the selection have plenty of choices.

It is thus an illusion that too many near broke and disappointed journos/writers are leading the global discourse or in some way having an effect. They aren't. They just feel like they are. That detachment from reality and well-being leads to this delusion of over-exaggerated self-worth and relevance.

All you have to do is look at where the real wages of the blue collar worker has gone since the 1970s (or 1980s depending on your metrics) to see that the precariout are only now getting to where others have already gone.

That economic issues have hit the chattering classes just means that they are being broadcast more, not that they overstated.

I would feel much better about the fate of the Americans if all those kids from the top 30 schools had given up on making their way inside the beltway and returned or went to flyover country where the real people live. Instead the system found a way to expand and accommodate them and if your friend is right it will expand and accommodate the current crop. They prosper now and may in the future by inflicting their educations and enthusiasms upon the rest of us. That hasn't benefited us proles much but still the system continues.

More or less the same thing applies to the big city law firms and the high in the sky universities. I do wish their were some Pat O'Brien type local reporters around though. It would be nice to know how many people actually pay to ride the light rail.

Interesting piece.

I don’t think this analysis can be complete without reference to the impact on the fourth estate by the ‘attention economy’ business model of big social media platforms.

This model, which rewards ‘engagement’ basically promotes more extreme content. Social media users (and humans generally) are less attracted by mundane / analytical / serious content than they are with fanatical / sensational / extreme / outrageous content. So that’s exactly what the social recommendation algos throw in your face and that’s what drives their ad revenue under the ‘human attention as a commodity’ business model. See ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem’.

One of the (multitude of very serious issues) this causes is that it corrupts the incentives of the fourth estate. As the smartphone became ubiquitous, and as journalism migrated from print to web, the fourth estate began to face a dichotomy; also promote extreme content to grab attention/engagement (at the expense of doing good journalism); or do good, sober journalism and don’t win engagement.

Take a guess which way they went…

So now the fourth estate is not only failing to fulfil it’s essential purpose, but it is complicit in the promotion of simplified/extreme content, which drives polarization etc. Until we can find a way to realign these industry incentives, we can expect:

– human attention spans to dwindle
– the capacity of society to engage in complex & nuanced subjects reduced
– the destruction of our ability to establish consensus
– good journalism to lose out to virality-chasing content

Disclaimer: this is not aimed at individual journalists/writers – thankfully many good ones still remain. This is a note on the incentives faced by an industry, which if gone unchecked, will hollow out what remains of good journalism.