Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Media, elites UPDATED (and link fixed)

Via Ned Resnikoff, a fascinating, depressing, tale of journalism today. Alexandra Kimball hits all the key points, really, including why an aspiring writer might end up in a PhD program for financial reasons. Long story short: entry-level is no longer paid, making actual office jobs at publications the financial equivalent of what 'trying to make it as a writer' while staring at a wall in one's garret/mingling with one's fellow decadent aristocrats used to be. This is important to keep in mind, because it's easy to think of "writer" as a job like "actor," one that's always been a long shot. When, back in the day, that may have been true of poets, novelists, that sort of thing, but journalism was an actual career path, perhaps even a way to pay the bills while trying to make it as a writer. It could be - and this is my own guess - that now that journalism's taken a confessional turn, and most-read might be something about parenting a child with body-image issues, not reporting on Afghanistan or Medicare, "journalism" gets lumped in with other forms of writing for which one needs no particular qualification other than the ability to write well and to know the right people. More thoughts on this later, maybe, but back to the article...

Kimball, who grew up working-class and graduated with debt, decided to really pursue a career as a writer already well into adulthood, upon getting an inheritance. She uses this to conclude that privilege is what allows a young person to pursue a career in journalism, which is understandable but ultimately misleading. An unanticipated, no-strings-attached inheritance is quite different from dependence on one's parents as an older adolescent and adult child - what "privilege" usually refers to in this context. A kid who wasn't handed everything (but wasn't massively underprivileged, either) might well be more likely to succeed, in journalism or anywhere else, than someone who feels entitled to income from some other source than his or her own work. There are individual cases where a lack of debt and a bit of post-college parental support provide the launching pad for a creative career, but too much of that sort of thing can be a real motivation-killer. It's not that the rich don't get richer - they do - but that they do so when they teach their kids how to do as they did but more so. Go-forth-and-find-yourself approaches may be what bring us the rare (or not?) examples of regression to the mean.

Kimball repeats the conventional wisdom about journalism these days: that unpaid internships make the field inaccessible to all but the wealthy, and that this is just one more example of privilege doing its thing. But I'm still not sure what unpaid internships provide those "privileged" enough to take them. Most obviously, do they lead to paid work? Work that pays enough to live on (and $15k in New York at age 40 doesn't count)? Unless whichever outside source of income that allows you to work unpaid for six months (i.e. family money) will also provide for you for the rest of your life, this is something to consider. Kimball sensibly enough does not provide us with a spreadsheet of her finances, but it's tough to see how, with a modest inheritance, she'd now be free from the constraints of a field where salaries take a good long while to hit $30k.

As for "media elitism," which is where Kimball leaves us, as Palin-ish as it rings, there is something to be said for that interpretation. If the only people with influence (and here, we're talking political, not fashion, journalism) are those who can afford to work for nothing, that's absolutely going to impact the stories that get reported. And this matters even if most unpaid interns get nowhere paid-work-wise in the field. They're still writing articles and so forth, still contributing, still tilting things in a certain direction.


There exists, in this world, a listing for an unpaid internship that would be ideal for an "aspiring personal assistant." Dream big, kids.

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