Many successful people in the media view the industry as a ladder. You start at the bottom and climb up, leaving your humble past behind. This is a comforting illusion. In fact, we’re all in a big, stormy sea together. Nobody will save us from drowning but us.
For anyone working in journalism, there is nothing more charmingly excruciating than speaking to someone of an older generation who is still under the impression that a stable hierarchy exists in this industry: maybe you start out at a local paper, then a regional paper, then on up to the New York Times, and maybe get a sweet gig at a national magazine one day... Ha! Little do they know that everyone trying to “get a foot in the door” now is just freelancing for Vice and waiting tables on the side and hoping their Instagram stories go viral enough to land a gig at Medium until it runs out of money. (And then maybe the New York Times???)
It’s all sloshed together now. Media, more than almost any other industry, is constantly subject to the forces of creative and non-creative destruction, thanks to rapid and ongoing technological change that is forever launching new outlets and casting aside old ones, accompanied by horrifying economic upheaval that has seen an incredible portion of the revenue that used to flow into news be captured by tech platforms, leaving us all scrambling around for the remaining crumbs.
If it was just the composition of the media changing—print media jobs moving to online media—that wouldn’t be such a big deal. But the destruction of the newspaper industry combined with the economic capture of news revenue by tech companies means that the actual quantity of jobs in journalism is cratering. There is just less news being produced today. The decline has not been balanced out by an increase elsewhere. Not by a long shot. In the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, overall newsroom employment has dropped by 25%. See here:
Everyone working in media is competing for fewer jobs. Not only that, but the economic pressures are causing more and more media companies to try to shrink their full time staff as much as possible and move the tasks they were doing over to freelancers. Most people who work in journalism are attracted to it by a sense of mission. But the times are hard, and the money is short, and the companies feel pressured, and when that happens, it is the workers who always get squeezed. For many, they get squeezed into poverty, or right out of the industry altogether.
If you have a relatively stable, full time journalism job that pays a decent salary, you are one of the lucky ones. (This includes me and my colleagues. For now!) If you are a big name, well known “media star” or prestige writer or cable news host or famous columnist who is under the impression that you have gotten everything you have by earning it: you are wrong. You are lucky as shit. There are ten good writers for every decent job. If you are under the impression that there is a qualitative difference between freelance journalists and those with full time jobs: you are wrong. The only difference is the full timers have thus far been lucky enough not to be laid off and subsequently have a hard time finding a new full time job. Any of us can be a freelancer tomorrow. If you are at the top of this industry, enjoy it, and also be very aware that it can be taken away from you tomorrow by technological and economic forces far beyond your control.
The TV journalists, and the newspaper journalists, and the magazine journalists, and the online journalists, and the radio journalists, and the freelancers—we are all one. We are all trying to do journalism for a living in a very precarious industry. We are all in this together. The only safety net that we have is our own collective power. The only way we can strengthen that safety net is to organize, together. It is good that the online media unionized. It is good that traditional media unionized. It is good that freelance journalists are organizing. It is good that journalists across America who have not yet unionized are now seriously considering it. It is not about which union or organization you are in. Every single one of us, from CNN anchors to New Yorker writers to New York Times stars to Splinter not quite as much stars to struggling freelancers trying to make the rent are all in the same industry, with the same forces arrayed against us, and we better fucking pool our power and work together if we want to have any hope of making a stable career out of all this.
Practically speaking, that means the people at the top, and the unions that are strong, use their clout to secure gains for the people at the bottom. Any one of us could be at the bottom tomorrow. It also means that we must all keep in mind at all times that our true competitors are millionaire owners and billionaire investors, much more than that one person you find annoying who got that job. (Of course, none of this should be interpreted as saying that you can no longer critique the awful editorial output of our worst colleagues in the media. What are we protecting, if not editorial freedom?)
Unionizing our newsrooms is a first step. The next step is demonstrating that we can all exercise solidarity on an industry-wide level. That means setting industry standards for salaries, and benefits, and improving diversity, and getting rid of fucking noncompetes and non-disparagement bullshit, and paying freelancers properly, and generally raising the floor in this industry out of its current location in the basement. We can do that by exercising collective power. We can do that by embracing the realization that some of us are lucky and some of us are not, but all of us deserve to make a damn living. Except Bret Stephens.