PLAYTIME

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.

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27 Responses to “PLAYTIME”

  1. Ubu Imperator Says:

    Bearing in mind, of course, that the compensation that academics like you (and me) receive is predicated in part on our own ability as Writers, which does not really exist in any significant monetary form. I recently co-edited a book for a major university press. It's sold nearly 1000 copies in hardback and e-book form; it's going to be released as a paperback in the fall. My total royalties to date? $0.00. How anyone with pretensions to being a serious scholar can actually make a go of it without either academy or spousal support is a constant mystery to me.

  2. bago Says:

    Well, Tucker Carlson.

  3. wetcasements Says:

    Cf. also museum work, non-profits, and of course, the academy.

    A PhD program generally means sacrificing 5-10 years of your life _not_making any money and not advancing professionally while your peers do — gaining experience, making connections, etc.

    Indeed, Shit Is Fucked Up And Bullshit.

    And another field where trust funds are pretty much a necessity? Rock music. Seriously, for all the skinny ripped jeans and second-hand leather jackets, show me a contemporary rock act and I'll show you four or five bros who are bankrolled by their parents, Bruce Springsteen-John Lennon-Working Class Hero-mythology be damned.

  4. Talisker Says:

    It's never been easy to make a living as an artist. Franz Kafka had a day job at an insurance company. Lord Byron was a layabout aristocrat who could write all the poetry he wanted because he didn't have to work for a living. Such is life.

    As for journalism, I think three or four national newspapers in the USA will survive and continue to employ journalists on a reasonable salary. The revenue from newspaper readers is a tiny fraction of what it once was, but distribution costs have fallen as well, so if you split the cake between a handful of newspapers instead of several hundred the survivors can be profitable. Wire services such as Reuters and Bloomberg will probably survive too — they have always had a different business model from newspapers, and have done fairly well in the internet era.

    This is fine for stories of national or international importance, but it will kill news gathering on local issues. The activities of the mayor and city council probably have a much more direct effect on your life than the United States Congress, but there's no money in sending someone to report on them. This does not bode well for the quality of local government.

  5. Middle Seaman Says:

    No scholarship is called for to notice that US media is of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. Even electronic rags of the liberal persuasion hardly ever mention unions and workers. Heck, most liberals cannot spell blue collar.

    So far, no clear modern paradigm for the old media has emerged. What we have is islands of different sizes and height. That reality in turn makes payment for media writing iffy.

    Compensation, to put it realistically, measures your ability to blackmail your employer. Good engineering schools pay their better profs nice 6 figures annual salaries. The reason is simple: a prof may bring grants way in excess of the prof's salary. Do you want the prof to leave and take the 7 figures grant to another school?

  6. anotherbozo Says:

    It occurred to me more recently than I want to admit that the goods and services I used to enjoy haven't disappeared; I'm just supposed to pay 10 or 20 times what I used to for them. Want the same comfort you used to enjoy in economy class? Buy a business seat. Want a TV program that isn't embarrassingly bad? Pay the premium for HBO or SHO. For the good, insightful journalism I used to take for granted, I now have to pay, not the buck or so that a paper used to cost, but $20 for a goddam book.
    Journalists of any caliber, I suggest, have taken refuge in hardback examinations of contemporary issues. Often they are mere articles drawn out, padded to book length, but seem to appear mere days after a major crisis has inspired them. If we wonder how these tomes can make money before being consigned to the remaindered bin, I suppose the price has to be as inflated as the content.
    I don't fly business class, don't get Premium Cable, and have to content myself with journalists' flogging their new books on the Daily Show. And, oh yes, Ed and Charles Pierce. And a few other other freebies on the internets who sometimes provide an overview, study patterns and causes of the daily carnage and criminality that we define as The Public Sphere.

  7. Major Kong Says:

    There are plenty of people making a living as writers: at Koch-funded think tanks and media outlets.

    Only my last few shreds of integrity prevent me from pretending to be a conservative and sucking up some of that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare.

  8. democommie Says:

    @Major Kong:

    If you're REALLY good, you can have that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare and STILL strike a blow for the common man.

    You simply have to write so well that you can insult the fuckers, biting the hand that feeds you while convincing them to pay you more than they want to.

    No, I can't do that; if I could I would be rollin' in their filthy lucre.

  9. Misterben Says:

    On a related note: my brother is a professional musician. He both tours with national acts as a sideman, and takes whatever local gigs he can get.

    Recently, he explained to me that the biggest problem for professional musicians is not gigs that pay less every year, or competition from younger generations of musicians willing to work for less. The biggest problem is competition from amateur/hobbyist bands, willing to work for NOTHING, hired by booking managers who see the enhancement to the venue's bottom line and don't care about the quality of the music. He jokes that someday he'd like to become an optometrist and open up shop just outside another optometrist's office (who happens to be a musician-hobbyist), offering optometry services for free.

  10. Misterben Says:

    I've been a "sustaining member" of my local NPR station for 15 years now, as I've moved and lived in four different cities. It's one of the basic steps I follow when I set up in a new place: power, water, gas, public radio membership. But I've always been reluctant to pay for access to the New York Times, or something like that – I feel like I don't actually know where my money would be going.

    I wonder if there's a way to tweak the NPR-subscription-model to make it work for things like Gin and Tacos – that is, platforms for the kind of writing people like us want to read every day?

  11. lord karnage Says:

    @misterben: much of what you wrote resonates with me. long time NPR funder, though i have come to be surprised at their suggested giving levels. It's a lot less "national" than it used to be when suggested annual giving is between $250 and $500. one of the "luxuries" I allow myself is a subscription to the new yorker. i really enjoy the quality of the writing in that magazine. the thing is that I refuse to pay anything close to what they want to charge. I am sure their costs of production and operation are high, and i value good writing, but $7-$8 per issue is crazy. I often find that I simply let my subscription expire and wait. and I wait. and i wait. they send me offer after offer, with the price per week dropping from $2.50 to $1.75, then in approximately $0.25 increments until they send me something between $0.50 and $0.75 per issue. and then i subscribe. i am sure I am part of the problem.

  12. c u n d gulag Says:

    Slightly OT:
    I went to see my 83 year-old aunt and 89 year-old uncle yesterday, in NY City – one of the cities with the most wealthy people living and working in a 90 miles in this country, if not the world.

    You should see the roads and bridges!
    They're in terrible shape! Potholes, and rust, all over the place!
    And garbage all over the sides of the roadways.

    Nobody wants to pay for anything, anymore.

    The working people aren't earning nearly enough to help pay to fix and maintain our infrastructure, while the rich don't want to pay taxes, when they can afford to.
    Besides, they can helicopter in, and take limo's with tinted windows, so they don't have to see that everything is falling apart.

    They want to keep what they make, and screw everyone else.
    They got theirs, and keep getting theirs – you go and get yours!

    So, it's the same in media – particularly newspapers – the less upper management has to pay others, the more they get to keep for themselves.
    They got theirs, and keep getting theirs – you go and get yours!

  13. Rich Says:

    The bleeding of red ink often has come from debt loads not because old media are necessarily unprofitable. The problem has been the endless and buying and selling of media companies. In foreign countries, dead tree media seem to be doing much better because they haven't been bought and sold by the Mitt Romneys of the world.

    As for writing, the "good old days" often have never existed. I've subscribed to a variety of middle brow to elite publications over time: The New Republic, The Nation, Esquire, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and probably others I've forgotten. They've all had ups and downs. The New Republic hit a nadir under Andrew Sullivan and more recently before its sale. The Atlantic always seems to find room for really silly articles like HIV being transmitted by mosquitos. The Nation suffered from too much Cockburn and Hitchens. the list goes on. I've kept The New Yorker for years although I almost cancelled during the early Tina Brown years.

    The real decline has been among newspapers, although frnkjly, many papers always have been awful and reflected the parochial interests and views of their owners. The suburban/exurban papers in the Cleveland area always have been this way, while the daily city paper has had long periods of ups and downs. The real poroblem is that once quite good papers like the Chicago Tribune (it's recent incarnation not the McCormick right wing rag) and the LA Times (also its recent incarnation, not the old rightwing one) were bled dry by buying and selling.

    Being a writer has always been a difficult profession and its often fallen to some relative of the rich to be able to make a go of it–people like George Plimpton or Ben Bradlee. Sometimes they've been poor relations of rich families, but they still had the family connections to do background and write stories.

    The standards of journalism also have tended to be weak. In technical areas like health and science, there are a relative handful of writers and publications that do credible work while many elite rags like the Washington Post produce laughable junk, often based on university or drug company press releases.

    Many people lament the decline of CNN but they've always sucked. They've alwasy been best at things like following OJs white Bronco. Even BBC, which is 10x better has shown blind spots–they tip toe around the GOP and their reporting on the troubles in Northern Ireland never mentioned the Protestant militia.

    So…writingf and journalism always have sucked and had sucky pay. Have things gotten worse, somewhat. But its probably the investment banker domination of the business and the accompanying consolidation that ave played the biggest role.

  14. democommie Says:

    "They want to keep what they make, and screw everyone else.
    They got theirs, and keep getting theirs – you go and get yours!"

    Actually they want to keep what YOU make and what I make and what EVERYONE but them makes and to that end, the Kochsucker Bro's.

  15. anotherbozo Says:

    @Misterben: I wonder if there's a way to tweak the NPR-subscription-model to make it work for things like Gin and Tacos – that is, platforms for the kind of writing people like us want to read every day?"

    Go—as I did yesterday—type in "contribute" to the search slot, and voila! a list of ways you can contribute to GinandTacos. No amount too small, I suspect…

    Thoughts on music and other arts: I was recollecting just this morning that however cheaply I priced the small paintings from my last show, collector-friends STILL wanted to negotiate with the dealer for bargains. They could easily have paid double without depleting their petty cash. But consideration that I was also getting screwed when the price was lowered never occurred to them. It's the nature of the beast.

  16. Anonymouse Says:

    @gulag; I had the opposite revelation this weekend while dealing with the local branch of my public library. I contacted them about an overdue book (my fault) and got some fantastic, stellar service, including the librarian checking the status of books I'd like to read that are not in yet. I got off the phone and realized that this is why I pay taxes. My county happens to have a very good library system that's beneficial to everyone regardless of their ability to pay for it. That afternoon I got a bunch of flyers (it's election season!) from idiots insisting that should I elect them, they'll make sure I don't have to pay any taxes ever. Taxes pay for civilization.

  17. nate Says:

    Maybe this is so obvious as not to bear mentioning, but if everyone in reporting and disseminating the news is wealthy, what does that do to coverage of class-based issues?

    That's been true on television media for as long as I can remember. Nothing makes my gorge rise like watching Mrs. Alan Greenspan admonish the lower classes about their need to sacrifice social security benefits "for the good of the country."

  18. Townsend Harris Says:

    "and in fact never having been compensated to write anything,"
    Anyone in the tenure stream is, by definition, compensated to write. It's called "publish or perish".

  19. Barry Says:

    "Maybe this is so obvious as not to bear mentioning, but if everyone in reporting and disseminating the news is wealthy, what does that do to coverage of class-based issues?"

    As pointed out up above, it makes the priorities and goals highly skewed.

    As somebody said once, all newspapers have a 'business' section; none have a 'labor' section.

  20. anotherbozo Says:

    @Barry: the "labor" section is the Want Ads.

  21. democommie Says:

    @anotherbozo (1st comment):

    I quit putting art on walls for sale. People used to ask me how much I would "Really" sell it for. At that point I would tell them that they couldn't buy it. Some people actually got pretty ugly about it. They hated that they were being seen for the cheapskate fuckbags that they are.

  22. MS Says:

    NBC is paying Chelsea Clinton $600,000/year to do a few reports. Who are you to say you can't make money in journalism?!?!?! Just follow these few easy steps:

    – work hard

    – look presentable

    – be born to Bill Clinton

    And you're done! Of course, finding the cash for her means that ten regular journalists have to be fired and replaced with interns, but that's not a problem, right?

  23. mothra Says:

    Franz Kafka had a day job at an insurance company.

    Well that explains a lot.

  24. Kaleberg Says:

    I've known people who make good livings as writers. One was a best selling fiction author and the other was an Emmy award winning writer specializing in screenplays for animated shorts and features. I'm sure luck had something to do with it, but they are both hard working and talented, and they have good agents.

    Journalism was always known for its low pay, cheap bosses and corrupt owners. There is still some money there. We subscribe to one national paper online, one paper in the nearest city and to our own small town paper which probably survives, like so many small papers, because the county and various other parties are required to publish various notices in the local paper of record for various legal reasons. (For example, requests for proposals, certain land use decisions, abandonment notices and the like.)

    Basically, I agree with Rich. The newspapers are bleeding from all those acquisitions in the 1990s. I actually looked up some 10Ks and, wow, they were writing off goodwill like crazy having paid ridiculous prices to take over other papers. Ignoring that, they were fairly profitable businesses, though not as profitable as in the golden days of newspaper advertising. There was also no real golden age, just periods when some publications were particularly good, often thanks to a particular editor. I still miss Diana Vreeland and Grace Mirabella's Vogue from way back when.

  25. bjk Says:

    Not just spouses and trust funds, but at some point all of the writers will be attached to universities or think tanks or funded by bloomberg terminals, cable tv, radio, satellite tv, amazon, netflix, wealthy benefactor or sports franchise. The people actually supported by the revenue from their own writing is pretty small. See the universal consensus on immigration as an example. Whatever your opinion on immigration, you can't deny that all of the good and the great have decided that there is only one side of the issue, and US workers can be safely ignored (though we are usually assured that US workers are totally on board with immigration, not that it matters).

  26. bago Says:

    Dominic Holden of TheStranger is doing alright. Not TV alright, but he's a beat reporter who covers local affairs in a very aggressive way, picking fights with Police Union, haranguing the City Council and swearing a lot in his writing. It helps that this is Seattle and they also have Dan Savage, but that paper is pretty much Seattle defined. Their web efforts are amazing of course, because you can't walk a block in this town without passing 10 web developers, or spend a decade without dating more than a few.

    What I'm trying to say is that there's always going to be a market for those with a voice, who check their facts, issue retractions loudly when wrong, and bug politicians, instead of sucking up to them. When reporters cozy up to the rich and the powerful, they write for the rich and the powerful. When you need volume to sell adspace, and most people don't read because the writing isn't for the people who can buy a cheap/free paper, you lose subscribers, you lose eyeballs, you lose revenue, you lose business.

    Who's gonna get off the bus, grab a copy of the stranger and check out the bands playing this week sitting at a diner if the articles are all about curating your lawn?

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