|Felix Fenon, At La Revue Blanche (1940)
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.” 
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
- Policy work (which mostly means think tanks, and occasionally means working on the Hill, for DoD, or so forth)
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. 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.
 Gerry Smith, “Journalism Job Cuts Haven’t Been This Bad Since the Recession,” Bloomberg (1 July 2019).
 I might add activists to this group, but here I must admit ignorance of the labor economics of that profession.