A fascinating find is going around on tumblr as a response to Nate Thayer’s justified takedown of the exploitative and exclusionary world of journalism. My mother quit journalism when she started to sense it was turning into something less of a public service and vital part of civil life and more of a money-making venture. For sure, someone has always made good money off of journalism, whether it’s a state run or a private venture, but journalists were paid as well. Now that the great labor squeeze has hit the papers, seasoned journalists like Nate Thayer, who does great work and has for many years, are suddenly competing with young upstarts who are willing to do the work for free, or perhaps re-purpose someone else’s. While the pros might accuse the new kids of engaging in scab behavior – they are in a way – both are exploited and both end up losing out in the end. Even the publications that come out in support for Nate admit they publish work they got for free and employ part-time temps (like myself).
As more professional journalists find their living in new concepts like “content marketing” (the magazine I temp for has recently added three to the roster) and more are willing to write for less, the quality of journalism degrades and the democratizing promises of the internet instead further pools the power and income at the top – where it has always gone – while culling smaller and more diverse magazines and newspapers. The message gets more reverberation, and the origin of the content becomes more obfuscated. Mix that around with some pay-for-play schemes at already established papers, and our version of truth becomes more watered down, more unknowable.
Meanwhile, labor is further fractured and sent scrambling for crumbs. Few who are not endowed with a trust fund paycheck can afford to go do the legwork needed to really dig into a story. What is journalistic integrity? Even the piece that Nate Thayer was arguing about with The Atlantic was originally sold to NKNews, a news site on North Korea that is incredibly opaque itself (the editor board is not listed, nor their source of income) and has possible links to LiNK, a non profit dedicated to introducing “Liberty” to North Korea, among other organizations based in Washington D.C.
It seems I got a little sidetracked. The link I quoted at the beginning is a story from 1999 exploring the new labor economy based on the internet, of which journalism is now part and parcel. Entitled “Why Your Fabulous Job Sucks” it sort of illustrates how this generation got duped into low paying jobs that have little to no chance of unionization for the promise of a “pick your own hours” kind of lifestyle. Of course, no one told us that if we don’t “pick” to work all of them, we get none of them. The promise of freelance – “be your own boss!” – becomes a struggle to undercut the unseen competition, even if that means writing for free.
I was offered journalism jobs when I was living in Palestine – all of them were for no pay and all of them promised me a great opportunity to get exposure and build a portfolio. I never took one of them, something I sometimes regret as I sit where I am. Yet – what would I have been buying into? It’s nice to think of yourself as the next Seymour Hersh, but if you ever want to make money by writing, you’re better off going into content marketing or shilling for the big boys more directly over twitter.
I write what I do for free because I feel I have to. Oh, and the “feed me” button is located here.