Journalism & Meritocracy
I grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which means I spent my formative years under a comet-adorned poster that said “Reach for the Stars!” Still, I didn’t think my goals were stratospheric. I understood that my life would look nothing like the lives of my rich classmates, who were poised for business, medicine, or law—avenues that required connections and expensive professional degrees. Instead, I’d graduate from university, get an entry-level job at a newspaper or magazine, and “work my way up.” The world of newspapers and magazines seemed just the place for a typical working-class kid, strong-headed and mouthy, used to observing things from the outside.
During my years of undergrad—years that were more about juggling waitress jobs than enjoying campus life—I began to hear that journalism was changing, becoming more competitive. But, naive as I was, I thought that meant I’d be OK: as long as I worked hard, I could compete. It wasn’t until a few months after graduation, during a long, fruitless string of informational interviews at Toronto magazines, that I began to understand what “competitive” really meant.
“This is becoming something of a glamour industry,” said one editor, leafing through my clippings behind his cluttered desk. He looked genuinely sorry about it, but that didn’t stop me from hating him as he explained how the internet had eviscerated the field. Entire departments were being laid off, he explained, and entry-level positions were becoming obsolete, or going exclusively to graduates from internship programs. “Which I encourage you to apply for,” he urged, his voice brightening. As if this were a moment of hope.
He went on, but I wasn’t listening anymore. There was no way I could do an unpaid internship. Three months of unpaid work would cost at least $4,000; after a B.A. and a Master’s, my student loan debt already totalled $50,000. My monthly payments were $600, and rent in Toronto would be the same—I was avoiding the latter burden for the time being by living with my mother, but she was a receptionist, and couldn’t reasonably support me for much longer. Plus, there was no way I could ask her to get on board with my taking a job with no salary, especially when it didn’t promise a real position—just a chance to apply for one.
You see what she’s getting at. If journalism interns have a leg up on hiring versus their competitors — and they do, for understandable reasons — and increasingly, the only way to get an internship is to be willing to work for free, then the only sort of people who will be able to go into professional journalism will be those with wealthy parents.
Is this the kind of journalism that we want? Is this the kind of journalism we need? I can’t see it. There’s no way I ever would have been able to get a start in journalism under this system.
Yet having seen it from the inside, at least at the newspaper level, it’s very, very hard to come up with the resources to pay interns. Papers and magazines are laying off experienced journalists; it’s hard to justify spending money on seeding the next generation of reporters and editors when you’re besieged by a business model that doesn’t work anymore, and that no one has figured out how to replace. If young people are willing to work for free, why would you, the employer, not take that offer? So the newsrooms fill with the young sons and daughters of the one percent, or at least the 10 percent. The media elite will start out as elites.
What’s a better way? What’s a better way that’s also realistic?