Getting a Degree in Endentured Servitude

With the massive losses in the publishing industry over the past several years, to the tune of 40% or so of overall business, we’ve seen a massive down-sizing in the number of writers actually earning gainful employment getting their names in print.  But at the same time, we’ve also seen massive numbers of new students enrolling in expensive journalism schools, evidently paying top dollar to be trained in a field that’s quickly disappearing.  Who ever said higher education made you smarter?

Now, as newsrooms continue to shrink, we have the emergence of this unholy alliance between publishers and journalism schools. Basically, the article focuses on an increasing trend where newspapers are soliciting work from j-school students for no pay to supplement their operations, make up for the loss of actual paid professionals they’ve cut out of the budgets, and even opening new hyper-local (publisher buzzword of the year) avenues of coverage for their business.  And the institutions of higher learning are only too happy to help out.

It’s a win-win for everyone.  Well, except the students.  By accepting this kind of work, young students are helping publishers continue to cut corners on their content, as well as compensate for eliminating paid staff of the very type they’re going to school to become, trading an actual possible future for a few unpaid bylines in the New York Times.  That may play for an energetic 21 or 22 year old just starting out, but by the time they get to be an indebted 27 or 28 year old living in Mom and Dad’s basement and driving a 1989 Toyota with no muffler, trust me, the “prestige” of that byline won’t quite seem so shiny.

The schools should be ashamed of themselves.  Not only are they willingly sucking these kids (and their parents) dry, preparing them for work in a field that has none, they are setting themselves up as pimps for idealistic twenty-somethings as a constantly revolving door of unpaid labor to the newspaper industry.  Of course, why should we be surprised?  College, after all, is the most impressive money racket ever conceived, and it has been done in concert with industry, providing a steady stream of fresh meat for the corporate grinder for decades now.  We’re even telling our youngest children that college is the path to the future.  Sure, if that future includes crushing debt at age 25, and a diploma that will look good hanging on the wall at the Starbucks most of you will end up working for.

Just imagine it:  give these kids the skills, set them up at an impressionable age to do work for “credibility” or “attention” and not expect to be paid, and fill their young heads full of delusions of higher callings and the civic responsibility of journalism so they will be prepared to do the job for little or no money.  It’s a sweet racket, if you can get it.  The publishers get all the free or low-paid labor they could hope for, the schools get boatloads in tuition fees, and the students get the honor of being a journalist.  In a few years, they’ll be teaching courses directing students to take a journalist’s vow of poverty.  Just you wait.

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Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. WAAAAY back in the 60s I eked out a living putting words on paper. (Remember paper manuscripts?) I worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and hospital public relations hack. I was also impaled on my own free lance. Back then freelancing paid about the equivalent of minimum wages IF you could get the publishers to actually cut a check and mail it to you. Writing on spec and payment upon publication. The worst part of it is this: dig up an old Writer’s Markets from those days and a current one some 40 years later and you’ll find that the pay and terms of payment are almost exactly the same. Writers haven’t had a pay raise in nearly half a century.

    • If anything, we’ve had a pay cut, especially lately. And that doesn’t even account for inflation in terms of actual dollar figures. I’ve always thought it was a little odd that we earned our livings putting out publications but the lowest rung on the expense ladder is the people who actually produce the material we used, and they were always the first line item to take cuts when the corporate office was maximizing its margins. From strictly a writer’s point of view, what’s going on today to publishers is a much deserved and long overdue correction to decades of profiteering. From an employees standpoint, it sucks because there’s no work. Before long, publishing companies aren’t going to be anything but a group of well-paid managers with a tiny skeleton crew of people worked to the bone for table scraps. Wait a minute, I think we’re already there.


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