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.
Even 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.