Killed It Again

Via Kos, I see there’s really nothing I can do to stop it anymore:

The advance of the web, and the flip side
decline of newspapers, has occasioned a lot of discussion about the
value of content. Not all content is suffering; despite rampant piracy,
Hollywood box office is up, and the movies just had their first
billion-dollar January. Yet judging from what I paid this morning to
read a slew of expert reporting and commentary online, the value of
journalistic writing in the marketplace is not at all high.

Everyone knows the consequences of that for newspapers—it’s killing them.


The Internet has brought the newspaper business
to its knees. Some serious magazines are undergoing stress tests of
their own. Maybe a certain kind of writing about the world, informed by
underdog experience and lower-class perspective, will also prove to be
a relic of the dead-tree era. Such writing wasn’t in great supply
before. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors
all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard
of get paid?

I’m not sure if this guy’s ever heard of the enduring tradition of unpaid newspaper internships, whereby inexperienced people work for either a pittance or entirely for free in order to gain “experience” before they’re deemed worthy of a paycheck. That practice, along with such legalized slavery as the Chicago Tribune’s 2-year “residency” program (after which they kick your ass to the curb), has been around for several decades at least, but it’s the Internet once again that’s destroyed the value of words.

(I won’t go into the corporate greed argument again, you all know it, I’m tired of reiterating it, and anyway newspapers have always paid for shit and told people it’s part of the romantic charm of the job. Half the time we believed it, too.)

I’ve got news for Mr. Wilkinson. You want to know how writers who don’t have a trust fund do it? We have day jobs, for the love of God. Until we hit that six-figure deal (which, paid in installments, after taxes, spread out over 12 months, is a good living but not a great one by today’s greedy standards) we’re office workers, bartenders, waitresses, whatever else will pay the mortgage and keep us in typewriter ribbons. I suppose in his mind that makes us hobbyists, but hey, it keeps the lights on.

It’s not that his concerns aren’t valid, journalism needs to be more of a trade than a profession anyway, but is there anything more useless than a column bemoaning elitism? You want to talk about how to preserve writing as an occupation for the poor, how about talking about reforming elementary education in cities and poorer suburbs, and remaking college journalism so as to conform less to theoretical wankery and more to practical training?You could start by pointing people toward a cause or two that, if they were all that concerned about helping kids get into this literary life (sigh), they could contribute to. That might be helpful.

As opposed to bitching about how the Internet once again is screwing everything up.


7 thoughts on “Killed It Again

  1. Hi Athenae. The “value of journalistic writing” is fairly imprecise. Certain kinds – analysis and opinion in particular – have definitely come down, though I would argue part of the reason is the continued employment of and reverence for the likes of Bill “Still Trying to be Right For the First Fucking Time in This Goddamned Millenium” Kristol and not the postings of Elle the Newspaper Killer.
    There still is, however, a market for actual reporting – where people go to city council meetings with a tape recorder or laptop, pore through public records, etc. The commentary here (and, I would humbly add, my site and numerous others) is better than at least half of what gets vomited up on the WaPo OpEd pages every day. The days of a readership paying for that are numbered. But the less glamorous, more labor intensive drudge-type work of tracking and recording what goes on in the public sphere will soldier on. It will probably need to find new models to support it as you’ve been saying, but unlike the unhinged ravings of George Will it provides an actual service. The market for it will remain, and when a new model for monetizing it evolves (which it will) people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

  2. A., are you still using typewriter ribbons? Give me a couple of days and I might come up with a money saving idea for you. It’s right on the tip of my tongue, you know?

  3. But movie stars, business executives, even accomplished authors all write for free these days. Why should some kid nobody’s ever heard of get paid?
    Good point. George Clooney’s reporting from Baghdad was breathtaking. Oh, and Jack Welch’s series on the decline of inner-city hospitals? I’m thinking Pulitzer.
    Athenae still uses typewriter ribbons because she knows the Internet will just fuck everything up.

  4. hoppy, step off my Underwood.
    (Seriously, I only ever use it for letters, gift tags and other such bits that look cool with the typewritten text, but I love it and you can have it when you pry it from my cold dead hands.)

  5. Jesus. Talk about a wilful misunderstanding of the current situation. Every working writer I know personally (and I know a fair number of writers) who broke into the business later than about 1980 —every single one — has a “day job.” The only exceptions I can think of are the wingnut welfare recipients, this week’s fresh, 22-year-old face of “fun feminism,” and whatever hot property the book packagers have gotten their claws on this month. Even J.K. Rowling was on fuckingwelfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter book; she didn’t get some huge advance from it, and really only started to make money from it when it became a surprise bestseller.
    Even Stephen King, one of the richest fiction writers on the planet (and who started writing in theearly 1970s), spent a lot of years grinding out $200 space-fillers for shitty little men’s magazines before hitting the big time withCarrie. He wasn’t making his living from writing back then; he was working in an industrial laundry and then teaching. It took him almost a decade to really make it big, and that was back when there were a lot more markets for things like short stories, and it was a lot easier to get a novel published (and continue to publish novels after the first one) than it is today. Those men’s magazines he used to make a substantial supplementary income from — gone, every one.
    Considering that it sometimes takes years to break through to commercial success from writing (if it happens at all) — they say “It takes eleven years to become an ‘overnight success,'” after all — and that this boom in writing (for free or otherwise) has been going on for less than ten years, I’m not surprised that nobody much is making money…yet. On the other hand, talk to me about everyone who gets their server fees paid by their blog’s grateful audience, or people who’ve gone from blogging to writing for money (like Duncan Black), or people who are using their blogs to kick-start their careers (like Spocko).
    Give it a while, and then get back to me on that one…

  6. It strikes me that newspaper and TV news, especially the major outlets, have destroyed themselves.
    In every presidential election that I can remember the vast majority of MSM have endorsed the Republican candidate. When you consider how truly horrible the Bush I, Dole, and McCain candidacies and campaigns were, such a one sided tilt cannot be seen as “unprejudiced.”
    Despite Nixon’s whining to the contrary, the pro-Nixon Theodore White’s, account of Nixon’s second presidential campaign stated that 80 some % of major news papers endorsed Nixon. Yet Nixon and his gang of thugs constantly whined that the press was out to get Nixon.
    That trend continued until McCain proved himself incapable of leadership, and stunningly bad judgement last fall, to such an extent that many if not most major news outlets did endorse Obama.
    Most voting Americans are liberal about some issues and conservative about others. MSM would not seem to be speaking to main stream Americans, at least as regards presidential candidates.
    To find a more representative balance of opinions and articles, I, and many Americans, have turned to the multitude of internet news and blog sites.
    That is both good and bad as we might now cherry pick sites that reflect us, rather than inform us.
    But as I look at the lead stories and editorial pages of the news papers that I read on line I see a paucity of fairness, and facts, and even in the “news” items, so much more opinion and cheap comedy than factual reporting, that I too am no longer supporting my local newspaper.

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