Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

This guy was wrongly and somewhat insanely accused of sexual impropriety by two neo-puritans; stories about individual injustice can be interesting, but this one seems like an embodiment of a larger trend, and, although the story is long and some of the author’s assumptions are dubious, I think there’s a different, conceivably better, takeaway than the one implied: don’t go into academia (at least the humanities) or journalism. Both fields are fiercely, insanely combative for very small amounts of money; because the money is so bad, many people get or stay in them for non-monetary ideological reasons, almost the way priests, pastors, or other religious figures used to choose low incomes and high purpose (or “purpose” if we’re feeling cynical). Not only that, but clerics often know the answer to the question before the question has even been asked, and they don’t need free inquiry because the answers are already available—attributes that are very bad, yet seem to be increasingly common, in journalism and academia.

Obviously journalism and academia have never been great fields for getting rich, but the business model for both has fallen apart in the last 20 years. The people willing to tolerate the low pay and awful conditions must have other motives (a few are independently wealthy) to go into them. I’m not arguing that other motives have never existed, but today you’d have to be absurdly committed to those other motives. That there are new secular religions is not an observation original to me, but once I heard that idea a lot of other strange-seeming things about modern culture clicked into place. Low pay, low status, and low prestige occupations must do something for the people who go into them.

Once an individual enters the highly mimetic and extremely ideological space, he becomes a good target for destruction—and makes a good scapegoat for anyone who is not getting the money or recognition they think they deserve. Or for anyone who is simply angry or feels ill-used. The people who are robust or anti-fragile stay out of this space.

Meanwhile, less ideological and much wealthier professions may not have been, or be, immune from the cultural psychosis in a few media and academic fields, but they’re much less susceptible to mimetic contagions and ripping-downs. The people in them have greater incomes and resources. They have a greater sense of doing something in the world that is not primarily intellectual, and thus probably not primarily mimetic and ideological.

There’s a personal dimension to these observations, because I was attracted to both journalism and academia, but the former has shed at least half its jobs over the last two decades and the latter became untenable post-2008. I’ve enough interaction with both fields to get the cultural tenor of them, and smart people largely choose more lucrative and less crazy industries. Like many people attracted to journalism, I read books like All the President’s Men in high school and wanted to model Woodward and Bernstein. But almost no reporters today are like Woodward and Bernstein. They’re more likely to be writing Buzzfeed clickbait, and nothing generates more clicks than outrage. Smart people interested in journalism can do a minimal amount of research and realize that the field is oversubscribed and should be avoided.

When I hear students say they’re majoring in journalism, I look at them cockeyed, regardless of gender; there’s fierce competition coupled with few rewards. The journalism industry has evolved to take advantage of youthful idealism, much like fashion, publishing, film, and a few other industries. Perhaps that is why these industries attract so many writers to insider satires: the gap between idealistic expectation and cynical reality is very wide.

Even if thousands of people read this and follow its advice, thousands more persons will keep attempting to claw their way into journalism or academia. It is an unwise move. We have people like David Graeber buying into the innuendo and career attack culture. Smart people look at this and do something else, something where a random smear is less likely to cost an entire career.

We’re in the midst of a new-puritan revival and yet large parts of the media ecosystem are ignoring this idea, often because they’re part of it.

It is grimly funny to have read the first story linked next to a piece that quotes Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . it is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions.” Ideology is back, and destruction is easier the construction. Our cultural immune system seems to have failed to figure this out, yet. Short-form social media like Facebook and Twitter arguably encourage black and white thinking, because there’s not enough space to develop nuance. There is enough space, however, to say that the bad guy is right over there, and we should go attack that bad guy for whatever thought crimes or wrongthink they may have committed.

Ideally, academics and journalists come to a given situation or set of facts and don’t know the answer in advance. In an ideal world, they try to figure out what’s true and why. “Ideal” is repeated twice because, historically, departures from the ideal is common, but having ideological neutrality and an investigatory posture is preferable to knowing the answer in advance and judging people based on demographic characteristics and prearranged prejudices, yet those traits seem to have seeped into the academic and journalistic cultures.

Combine this with present-day youth culture that equates feelings with facts and felt harm with real harm, and you get a pretty toxic stew—”toxic” being a favorite word of the new clerics. See further, America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. If you feel it’s wrong, it must be wrong, and probably illegal; if you feel it’s right, it must be right, and therefore desirable. This kind of thinking has generated some backlash, but not enough to save some of the demographic undesirables who wander into the kill zone of journalism or academia. Meanwhile, loneliness seems to be more acute than ever, and we’re stuck wondering why.

Links: Modern sex dynamics, making American literature, journalism, morality, ideology, and more

* The Making of American Literature: The correspondence of editor, critic, and Lost Generation chronicler Malcolm Cowley. I’m not sure that I’ve even heard of Cowley before this article.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality: Evolution didn’t equip us for modern judgments. Or, for that matter, many diffuse, modern threats. The book concerns Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which is very good—just not quite as good as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both answer a lot of fundamental questions about morality, group thinking, and ideology.

* “Does journalism have a future?” When I graduated from high school, I guessed not and have lived my life accordingly. I’m glad I made the choices I did in this regard. Instead of making the mistake of trying to be a journalist, I’ve made different mistakes.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture. Paglia is giving many interviews lately though not because she has another book out. She’s also in the WSJ on the end “suicide of a civilization.” Though I would ask: Suicide, or evolution?

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a truer article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* “More ominous than a strike,” a post responding to Dr. Helen’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters. The book is okay but is more a collection of blog post blockquotes than a real book. Nonetheless it’s somewhat useful for people who just started thinking about modern gender dynamics but haven’t done much reading on the subject.

Journalism, physics and other glamor professions as hobbies

The short version of this Atlantic post by Alex C. Madrigal is “Don’t be a journalist,” and, by the way, “The Atlantic.com thinks it can get writers to work for free” (I’m not quoting directly because the article isn’t worth quoting). Apparently The Atlantic is getting writers to work for free, because many writers are capable of producing decent-quality work, and the number of paying outlets are shrinking. Anyone reading this and contemplating journalism as a profession should know that they need to seek another way of making money.

The basic problems journalism faces, however, are obvious and have been for a long time. In 2001, I was the co-editor-and-chief of my high school newspaper and thought about going into journalism. But it was clear that the Internet was going to destroy a lot of careers in journalism. It has. The only thing I still find puzzling is that some people want to major in journalism in college, or attempt to be “freelance writers.”

Friends who know about my background ask why I don’t do freelance writing. When I tell them that there’s less money in it than getting a job at Wal-Mart they look at me like I’m a little crazy—they don’t really believe that’s true, even when I ask them how many newspapers they subscribe to (median and mode answer: zero). Many, however, spend hours reading stuff for free online.

In important ways I’m part of the problem, because on this blog I’m doing something that used to be paid most of the time: reviewing books. Granted, I write erratically and idiosyncratically, usually eschewing the standard practices of book reviews (dull, two-paragraph plot summaries are stupid in my view, for instance), but I nonetheless do it and often do it better than actual newspapers or magazines, which I can say with confidence because I’ve read so many dry little book reports in major or once-major newspapers. Not every review I write is a critical gem, but I like doing it and thus do it. Many of my posts also start life as e-mails to friends (as this one did). I also commit far more typos than a decently edited newspaper or magazine. Which I do correct when you point them out.

The trajectory of journalism is indicative of other trends in American society and indeed the industrialized world. For example, a friend debating whether he should consider physics grad school wrote this to me recently: “I think physics is something that is fun to study for fun, but to try to become a professional physicist is almost like too much of a good thing.” He’s right. Doing physics for fun, rather than trying to get a tenure-track job, makes more sense from a lifestyle standpoint.

A growing number of what used to occupations seem to be moving in this direction. Artists got here first, but others are making their way here. I’m actually going to write a post about how journalism increasingly looks like this too. The obvious question is how far this trend will go—what happens when many jobs that used to be paid become un-paid?

Tyler Cowen thinks we might be headed towards a guaranteed annual income, an idea that was last popular in the 60s and 70s. When I asked Cowen his opinions about guaranteed annual incomes, he wrote back to say that he’d address the issue in a forthcoming book. The book hasn’t arrived yet, but I look forward to reading it. As a side not, apparently Britain has, or had, a concept called the “Dole,” which many people went on, especially poor artists. Geoff Dyer wrote about this some in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The Dole subsidized a lot of people who didn’t do much, but it also subsidized a lot of artists, which is pretty sweet; one can see student loans and grad school serving analogous roles in the U.S. today.

IMG_1469-1Even in programming, which is now the canonical “Thar be jobs!” (pirate voice intentional) profession, some parts of programming—like languages and language development—basically aren’t remunerative. Too many people will do it free because it’s fun, like amateur porn. In the 80s there were many language and library vendors, but nearly all have died, and libraries have become either open source or rolled into a few large companies like Apple and Microsoft. Some aspects of language development are cross-subsidized in various ways, like professors doing research, or companies paying for specific components or maintenance, but it’s one field that has, in some ways, become like photography, or writing, or physics, even though programming jobs as a whole are still pretty good.

I’m not convinced that the artist lifestyle of living cheap and being poor in the pursuit of some larger goal or glamor profession seems is good or bad, but I do think it is (that we have a lot of good cheap stuff out there, and especially cheap stuff in the form of consumer electronics, may help: it’s possible to buy or acquire a nearly free, five-year-old computer that works perfectly well as a writing box).* Of course, many starving artists adopt that as a pose—they think it’s cool to say they’re working on a novel or photography project or “a series of shorts” or whatever, but don’t actually do anything, while many people with jobs put out astonishing work. Or at least work, which is usually a precursor to astonishing work.

For some people, the growing ability of people to disseminate ideas and art forms even without being paid is a real win. In the old days, if you wanted to write something and get it out there, you needed an editor or editors to agree with you. Now we have a direct way of resolving questions about what people actually want to read. Of course, the downside is that whole payment thing, but that’s the general downside of the new world in which we live, and, frankly it’s one that I don’t have a society-wide solution for.

In writing, my best guess is that more people are going to book-ify blogs, and try to sell the book for $1 – $5, under the (probably correct) assumption that very few people want to go back and read a blog’s entire archives, but an ebook could collect and organize the material of those archives. If I read a powerful post by someone who seemed interesting, I’d buy a $4 ebook that covers their greatest hits or introduced me to their broader thinking.

This is tied into other issues around what people spend their time doing. My friend also wrote that he read “a couple of articles on Keynes’ predictions of utopia and declining work hours,” but he noted that work still takes up a huge amount of most people’s lives. He’s right, but most reports show that median hours worked in the U.S. has declined, and male labor force participation has declined precipitously. Labor force participation in general is surprisingly low. Ross Douthat has been discussing this issue in The New York Times (a paid gig I might add), and, like, most reasonable people he has a nuanced take on what’s happening. See also this Wikipedia link on working time for some arguments that working time has declined overall.

Working time, however, probably hasn’t decreased for everyone. My guess is that working time has increased for some smallish number of people at the top of their professors (think lawyers, doctors, programmers, writers, business founders), with people at the bottom often relying more on government or gray market income sources. Douthat starts his essay by saying that we might expect working hours among the rich to decline first, so they can pursue more leisure, but he points out that the rich are working more than ever.

Though I am tempted to put “working” in scare quotes, because it seems like many of the rich are doing things they would enjoy doing on some level anyway; certainly a lot of programmers say they would keep programming even if they were millionaires, and many of them become millionaires and keep programming. The same is true of writers (though fewer become millionaires). Is writing a leisure or work activity for me? Both, depending. If I self-publish Asking Anna tomorrow and make a zillion dollars, the day after I’ll still be writing something. I would like to get paid but some of the work I do for fun isn’t contingent on me getting paid.

Turning blogs into books and self-publishing probably won’t replace the salaries that news organizations used to pay, but it’s one means for writers or would-be writers to get some traction.

Incidentally, the hobby-ification of many professions makes me feel pretty good about working as a grant writing consultant. No one think when they’re 14, “I want to be a grant writer like Isaac and Jake Seliger!”, while lots of people want to be like famous actors, musicians, or journalists. There is no glamor, and grant writing is an example of the classic aphorism, “Where there’s shit, there’s gold” at work.

Grant writing is also challenging. Very few people have the weird intersection of skills necessary to be good, and it’s a decade-long process to build those skills—especially for people who aren’t good writers already. The field is perpetually mutating, with new RFPs appearing and old ones disappearing, so that we’re not competing with proposals written two years ago (where many novelists, for example, are in effect still competing with their peers from the 20s or 60s or 90s).

To return to journalism as a specific example, I can think of one situation in which I’d want The Atlantic or another big publisher to publish my work: if I was worried about being sued. Journalism is replete with stories about heroic reporters being threatened by entrenched interests; Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are the best-known examples, but even small-town papers turn up corruption in city hall and so forth. As centralized organizations decline, individuals are to some extent picking up the slack, but individuals are also more susceptible to legal and other threats. If you discovered something nasty about a major corporation and knew they’d tie up your life in legal bullshit for the next ten years, would you publish, or would you listen to your wife telling you to think of the kids, or your parents telling you to think about your career and future? Most of us are not martyrs. But it’s much harder for Mega Corp or Mega Individual to threaten The Atlantic and similar outlets.

The power and wealth of a big media company has its uses.

But such a use is definitely a niche case. I could imagine some of the bigger foundations, like ProPublica, offering a legal umbrella to bloggers and other muckrakers to mitigate such risks.

I have intentionally elided the question of what people are going to do if their industries turn towards hobbies. That’s for a couple reasons: as I said above, I don’t have a good solution. In addition, the parts of the economy I’m discussing here are pretty small, and small problems don’t necessarily need “solutions,” per se. People who want to turn their hours into a lot of income should try to find ways and skills to do that, and people who want to turn their hours into fun products like writing or movies should try to find ways to do that too. Crying over industry loss or change isn’t going to turn back the clock, and just because someone could make a career as a journalist doesn’t mean they can today.


* To some extent I’ve subsidized other people’s computers, because Macs hold their value surprisingly well and can be sold for a quarter to half of their original purchase price three to five years after they’ve been bought. Every computer replaced by my family or our business has been sold on Craigslist. Its also possible, with a little knowledge and some online guides, to add RAM and an SSD to most computers made in the last couple of years, which will make them feel much more responsive.

How bloggers are made:

“A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist.”

That’s Louis Menand, in “Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald’s war on Midcult.” Bloggers come from somewhere similar but adjacent—like the relationship between Vancouver and Seattle—though too few have well-developed senses of curiosity and skepticism.

The rest of the article is boring and historical, but one reason to read the New Yorker is that one never knows when a fabulous sentence worth stealing will appear. The article about Timothy Ferris, for example, says of his dwelling: “There was, inevitably, a framed arty photograph of a naked woman.” He sounds capitally tedious. That word, “inevitably:” it’s perfect. We get the author’s skepticism. We know exactly the kind of person Ferris is (and, I wonder: the kind of person I am?). The skepticism of the word “arty” is perfect; so is picking “naked,” which makes one sound merely revealed and pornographic, over “nude,” which glistens with the sheen of art instead of the sheen of Playboy magazine. The sentence is so good I stole a variant on it for a novel (no one notices if you steal in small proportions, except for James Wood, and if I’m at the point where James Wood notices such theft, I’ll consider myself lucky). In fact, speaking of Wood, there’s a section of How Fiction Works where he speaks of “a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’:”

‘He was a gentlemen with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ [Ford Maddox] Ford comments: ‘that gentlemen is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’

Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and – a corollary of this – the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines.

Yes, yes, yes, yes: I worry so much about making sure characters are gotten in now, but it’s never quite right, is it? I can imagine Rebecca Mead, who wrote about Ferris, or Menand above, sweating over those sentences, wondering: are they right? Do you put a comma between “framed” and “arty?” Is “outsized” the right word? The comma question could go either way. “Outsized” could be “severe,” like a storm warning. But those sentences still feel so wonderfully, deliciously right, even embedded in articles that otherwise let one flip to the next, searching, as a surfer will flit from blog to blog.

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Questionable Journalism

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment is a somewhat dumb article about women who earn more than their partners, or who earn enough to apparently “scare off” guys with inferiority complexes or generalized fear; I started laughing when I read this bit: “Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: [. . .] And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.”

I sent this to a couple friends, one of whom replied, “Perhaps men are simply afraid of someone named Ms. Domscheit-Berg. I bet she yells Achtung! in bed….. just saying.”

Besides, who really cares if one’s partner earns more, as long as you yourself are doing real work (that might, of course, just be the artist in me). The quality of one’s life is seldom measured in dollars, or dollars alone.

Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.

I suspect a couple of things: 1) that, to the extent this is a real problem and not another bogus trend story in the New York Times (well-documented at the link), the women involved aren’t unhappy about money, per se, but that they feel like they’re dating a guy who’s too much of a beta for them. 2) The guys involved are not actually worried about money, per se, but about something else, and are using money as an excuse for something else.

The “bogus trend story” issue, however, is a real one, because the most conspicuous absence in this article is data. Katrin Bennhold writes, “There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate [. . .]” but cites no evidence that this is true. So romance might be alive, but journalism, on the other hand. . .

The unlamented death of Portfolio Magazine

In Condé Bust: Why Portfolio [magazine] folded, Slate cites reasons like retro style and a high cost structure—which was no doubt was the largest immediate cause of death—combined with a fiercely competitive marketplace. But the article should have paid more attention to the “high cost structure issue;” as Paul Graham says in “Could VC be a Casualty of the Recession?“:

Someone running a startup is always calculating in the back of their mind how much “runway” they have—how long they have till the money in the bank runs out and they either have to be profitable, raise more money, or go out of business. Once you cross the threshold of profitability, however low, your runway becomes infinite.

I, however, would like to speculate on another Portfolio problem: it wasn’t very good. For a while, they sent me free issues, as described here, but the chief function of those free issues was to convince me not to subscribe.

I like smart magazines but have been burned too many times by unfortunate subscriptions to try more of the wannabes or the ones I just don’t have time for. The New York Review of Books can be great on literature but is often erratic, and its knee-jerk politics leave much to be desired; I’d rather read it at the library than pay for it, especially given how often it acts as a somnolent rather than stimulant. Not long ago, a string of interesting articles in New York and the low subscription price—$20 seemed reasonable—inspired yet another bad gamble for a magazine without content. I like the Economist but find it expensive and, in trying to read it every week, oppressive, and too broad: the minutia of the political situation in random country X might be fascinating, but not fascinating enough. Its business and technology features often don’t surpass those linked by Hacker News, where I also sometimes learn of unusual books I wouldn’t otherwise.

Given all that, the hurdle for a new magazine is high, and it’s especially high if it’s not going to stand out. Portfolio didn’t.

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