Magazines, particularly those of a certain stripe, have exclusion in their DNA. Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ are all, on some level, aspirational. They are all trying to project some high life that you really should be living. The Atlantic is not that much different, except we’re more “Here’s what the cool kids are thinking” or some such. Consumer magazines are (generally) in the business of taste-making. Some restrict themselves to fashion, others to food, and still others to ideas.
For decades, the people doing that taste-making have been, by and large, white. And actually “white,” as a descriptor, doesn’t even cut it. If I had to construct the typical magazine editor he would be a white male, who’d gone to an Ivy, and lived in either Boston, New York, or D.C. So the profile for the magazine industry — especially when you compare it to the broader field of journalism — is really thin, and unrepresentative of America, though arguably very representative of American aspiration.
Now take that thin profile and put it under severe economic duress. It was always a privileged life to be able to support oneself writing for magazines. Now it is an almost unheard of life. (Observe the medium through which I am speaking to you right now.) Even in the halcyon days of Gay Talese, I would bet that many of the writers supplemented their income by doing something else. So while it is true that there are few black magazine writers, or Latino magazine writers, or women magazine writers, or Asian-American magazine writers, it’s also true that, at this point in history, there are very few people, in general, doing this sort of work.
He adds, with a nod toward the extreme economic pressure magazines (and, I would add, newspapers) face:
Under such circumstances, it becomes really hard to have a conversation about diversity because we are all facing a world in which there is nothing to diversify.
Very, very true. It is hard to overstate how important “diversity” has been for a long time to the professional media. The thing people outside the industry don’t understand — and something that diversity ideology blinds industry insiders to — is that there is no such thing as an equal demographic distribution of labor within the journalism profession. You can’t force people to go into a profession. It’s true that liberals are overrepresented in journalism, and it is true that some American newsrooms are generally unfriendly territory for conservatives. But the truth is that for whatever reason, more liberals are drawn to the vocation of journalism than are conservatives. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true.
I am confident that a disproportionately low number of blacks and Hispanics (for example) seek careers in journalism. Why might this be? TNC offers a couple of reasons. Here’s another: proportionately fewer blacks and Hispanics read newspapers. I’ve found that a good predictor of whether or not someone will have a successful career in journalism is whether or not they grew up reading newspapers or magazines. A friend of mine’s daughter started college not long ago majoring in journalism. She’s going to change her major, I’m sure, because today she never reads the newspaper, and, according to my newspaper-reading friend, his daughter rarely read it when she was growing up.
Some years back, I edited the Sunday commentary section at The Dallas Morning News. Part of my assignment was to make sure there was ideological diversity in the pages, but also to work toward publishing a proportionately diverse number of columns by women and minorities. This was hard to do. It was hard to do in part because we had a very, very limited budget, which radically reduced our options. But it was also true that there simply wasn’t much editorial/essay material written by black, Hispanic, or Asian writers. Trust me, I looked. And I looked, and I looked, and I looked. Given the focus of the Sunday op-ed section, I drew heavily from opinion magazines that published analyses of political, economic, and cultural issues, and from those sources, there was a disproportionate amount of Sunday op-ed material written by white males — especially Jewish white males.
So what? As far as I was concerned, the quality of the analysis and the writing were the only thing that mattered. The point, though, is that for whatever reason or reasons, a lot more white people than black, Hispanic, or Asian people, were doing magazine and long-form non-fiction analyses, and among these, Jewish males were disproportionately represented. Again: so what? Did I wish there had been a greater variety of writers from different backgrounds doing this kind of writing? Yes, of course. And I do wish this were so. But you can’t conjure these people out of thin air, and you can’t pretend that someone’s ethnic background compensates for a lack of analytic skill, writing ability, or experience. (Well, actually you can, and many publications do, but they aren’t fooling anyone but themselves.)
Anyway, TNC is absolutely right about the folly of having a conversation about diversity in media in a time and place when there is increasingly little media left to diversify. I think again about the point we were discussing in this spot sometime in the past couple of weeks — the thing about how unpaid internships are the best way into media jobs. The only people who can afford unpaid internships are young people whose parents are wealthy enough to support them while they work for free. That being the case, we are going to get a media that is more elitist and monocultural. Not a good thing … but what’s the alternative? Newspapers and magazines are struggling mightily just to survive. If you are a publisher trying to keep your publication afloat amid sinking circulation and plummeting advertising revenues, and you have the choice of having entry-level people work for you for free, or paying them to do so, which will you opt for?
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