I am a nationally syndicated op-ed columnist. My column runs, I’m told, in nearly 90 newspapers each week and it just turned 2 years old. You might assume this means I went to journalism school, started at a paper and worked my way up. You might assume I’m a product of a Washington Think Tank. You might also assume I’m part of the media elite.
You would be wrong on all counts.
I started life as a political comedian (a fact my detractors use as proof my opinions are, in fact, a joke). As anyone who writes topical humor knows, the shelf life of material is very short. When I began submitting my cheery diatribes to newspapers around the country and they got printed, I was thrilled. One of my columns won a writing contest, which put me in front of editors who started giving me assignments. In 2008, I cut my teeth covering (hilarious) land use issues for the LA Weekly. That year, 16,000 jobs were hemorrhaged out of the newspaper industry. Another 15,000 went in 2009. It was then that I got a job covering media for Mediabistro’s FishbowlLA. One of my first regular gigs was reporting on the bloodletting of the general newspaper’s staff.
As much as I would have liked to see myself as the tiny mammal watching the dinosaurs die out — I wasn’t making any money either. I received $15 per post at FishbowlLA and few other assignments banked me more than $600. I made $19,595 in 2009. I claimed $9,279 of that for expenses. (A 9-5 minimum wage job will bank you $15,000 a year).
I waged a YouTube campaign against the Tampa Tribune for running my column without paying me. I asked for $75, the standard rate for that content, and the video went viral. It took me 12 hours to shoot and edit, but they sent me $75 shortly thereafter. I did it to make a point, to expose the ugly truth of the Internet age: Publications don’t pay.
Those journalists who lost their jobs, many mid- to late-career reporters, stepped into a freelance market where a paycheck was replaced by “exposure.” Instead of being paid to write the payment became the privilege of being read. Compensation was the proverbial carrot and if you just worked long enough and hard enough for free there would be a pay off. Your ship would come in. Keep feeding coins into that machine, man. Just one more.
This all while rent is due, the Dodge needs a new muffler and the electric bill is pink.
We go to farmers’ markets to chat with the folks who grow our favorite kale, but we have very little interest in where we get our news. We hear about gender and ethnic diversity in the media. Studies are dedicated to our development on that front. But what’s not discussed is economic diversity.
Here’s why you should care: If writing doesn’t pay journalists then special interests will. If reporting doesn’t pay writers then only the well-off will report. Newsroom variety is being boiled off and we are allowing journalism to become an avocation for the curious, a pulpit for the pampered. We have to incentivize economic diversity in the media. This means it has to be a career people from all backgrounds can make a living at.
My first managing editing gig was at the blue-collar mega-blog Crooks and Liars. There, writers talk about politics the way they do on the shop floor. My favorite swipe at the Beltway Press is to refer to them as “Villagers.” It pretty much sums them up: They all went to the same schools, know the same people and care about the same things. They get giddy about stories that don’t matter to working Americans and ignore issues that do. That’s why they obsess over the debt limit and the 2016 presidential race while children get knocked out of preschool and roads to the middle-class become unpaved. It’s Villagers gossiping about other Villagers.
The way to combat this is to make journalism pay the bills again. If more people who know what it’s like to work for a living — what it’s like to struggle — are curating our news maybe it’ll make the Villager pool a little less shallow.
It’d be good news ... or at least better.