Does anyone make a living as a journalist anymore? Once you get past the top tier of media personalities, I'm starting to doubt it. Sure, the few Old Media outlets left standing are probably paying their writers something that approaches a livable salary for the incredibly expensive cities in which they are located, but the vast majority of the New Media is getting the millions of words it needs to Generate Hits every day for nothing or close to it.
Despite being a staggering failure myself, I happen to know a lot of people who are successful. Some of these people are Writers. And through these friendships I've kept abreast of what one is paid to write for Big New Media sites. Major sites that you have heard of and might even visit regularly. The figures are not inspiring. They border on insulting. Of course as we talked about in Friday's post using a record low amount of subtlety, payment in "experience" and "exposure" is common. As best I can tell this simply leads to opportunities to write without compensation for more media outlets.
I'm at the point where the phrase "I'm a writer!" immediately is filter-translated to "I live in San Francisco / NYC / DC / etc and play writer into my thirties because my parents are still supporting me or I haven't burned through the trust fund yet." There's just no way people are actually making a living – especially the kind of lifestyle that most New York "writers" live – writing for Slate and Rolling Stone and Politico and all these other content mills.
Part of the problem, as Thomas Frank and the original Baffler people used to talk about extensively, is that the realities of journalism as an industry during the dying days of the Old Media era virtually eliminated all but the children of the rich from contention. Working a beat for a newspaper used to be a blue collar profession, but when newspapers started bleeding money in the late 90s and early 00s, the barrier to entry to the profession was raised to multiple years of (unpaid, exploitative) "internships" before finally being granted a low-paying entry level staff position. When you require two or three years of living in the most expensive cities in the country without compensation – hell, even a few months in NYC would financially drain most normal 22 year olds – you're effectively guaranteeing that journalism, even when it pays, is not a profession but a pastime for people who don't need to worry about earning a living.
Of course this has all sorts of consequences for the content and tone of media coverage – Doris Graber is among a number of media scholars who have shown that upper-middle class issues are overemphasized in the media because, not surprisingly, most reporters are upper-middle class either by professional success or by birth. Today, there are so many Writers out there trying to earn a living and so few media outlets paying enough to support them that whatever remnants of the working or true middle classes remain in journalism will probably go extinct in the next decade or two.
Not being a Professional Writer, and in fact never having been compensated to write anything, I may need to stand corrected here. Maybe there are gobs of money being made out there in ways that remain a mystery to amateurs. From this perspective, however, it looks like the media is inventing new ways to generate content a lot faster than it is inventing new ways to pay for it.