The Costs of Becoming a Journalist

A report by the British Cabinet Office released this summer offers stark evidence of the disappearance of the working class from the journalism profession, and the study offers some relevant observations for American media as well.

The report, Unleashing Aspirations, notes, among other things, that journalists born since 1970 predominantly come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds.  And Journalism ranks third in the list of the most socially exclusive professions, just behind doctors and lawyers.

The study finds that:

Between the 1958 and the 1970 birth cohorts, the biggest decline in social mobility occurred in the professions of journalism and accountancy. For example, journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families with an income of around 5.5% above that of the average family; but this rose to 42.4% for the generation of journalists and broadcasters born in 1970.

The National Union of Journalists told the panel compiling the report that a 2002 Journalism Training Forum poll showed that fewer than 10 per cent of new journalists came from a working-class background and only three per cent came from homes headed by semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

One of the many troubling findings of the report, and the one most readily applicable to the profession here in the US, is that a prerequisite for entrance into a career in journalism is at least one internship experience, and that many, if not most, are unpaid. A cursory glance at available internships here in the US reveals that of 50 intern opportunities listed on journalismjobs.com, only 15 offer pay. Of the 50 internships posted, another 15 offer no pay but college credit, which at many universities, ours included, means that doing an internship actually costs a student tuition money.  Here at YSU, students can earn six hours maximum for internships, but at many universities, 12 to 16 are allowed, paving the way for students to spend several thousand dollars (at least) to get an entire academic semester of work experience.  .

If the student can afford this luxury and the cost of living in the city in which he or she interns, s/he in theory gains the passkey to an entry-level position somewhere upon graduation. Of course, many of the most prestigious internships are located in the media hubs of New York and Washington D.C. where the costs of living are beyond the reach of a student from an average, let alone below average wage earning household.

Of the 15 internships listed that offer pay, the average salary is just under $250 per week for an average of 35 hours, before taxes. If a student is working to pay his or her tuition and rent and also, in many cases, supporting a family while going to school, even the paid internship is an impossibility.

This means, of course, that only students who can afford to work for free for several months are gaining the credentials to access their chosen profession.

The broader implications of this exclusion from the journalism profession are obvious and have been documented by ourselves and others—fewer opportunities for working- class students to enter the profession equals fewer journalists attuned to the complex issues facing the working class and fewer stories about the issues facing working-class people.

Of course, the best-case scenario to remedy this inequity would be if news organizations paid living wages to interns, but in the current media market, one in which many outlets are struggling to survive, this seems unlikely.

And, if the current enrollment trends in journalism programs continue, there will be ample supply of candidates ready to pay to work or work for no pay. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that despite the dismal outlook for jobs upon graduation, more and more students are choosing journalism majors, increasing the competition for scarce jobs and furthering the entrenchment of unpaid internships as a means to gain a leg up on the competition.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson even suggests that while the current practice is clearly exclusionary, “It’s not the responsibility or the interest of the businesses like magazines and non-profits who operate on slim budgets and narrow margins to design an internship that can accommodate even the least fortunate.” Rather Thompson argues that colleges should instead expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide financing.

Some schools, like Dartmouth College, have done just that by providing financing for students to complete internships. The college has grants available for students to take on unpaid internships, and offers additional funds for financial aid recipients based on need.

But for working-class students at colleges and universities that lack the deep pockets of Dartmouth the choice still most often comes down to an unpaid internship that will drive them deeper into debt or a job that allows them to pay another year’s expenses– not much of a choice.

The consequences of this increasing social exclusivity of the profession are dire, and more complex than a matter of equal class representation within the ranks of professional journalists for the sake of equality or diversity.

If journalists increasingly come from a more privileged social class or segment of society, even the best of them will likely not question the master narratives that have victimized the working class for decades: maximum profit takes precedence over fair and equitable treatment, what’s good for business is always good for America, and so on.

The end result will be more stories that fail to question these fundamental assumptions, stories that inevitably reduce the worker to a trite anecdotal device, a narrative stepping stone to “really important” people and issues.

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

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18 responses to “The Costs of Becoming a Journalist

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  5. The decline of the labor press is also no doubt a large factor, as fewer publications are hiring based on the journalist possessing a good understanding of working class concerns and perspectives.

    Progressive unions and labor organizations ought to promote and support more labor journalism, including print, broadcast, and web publishing.

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  9. While not directly relating to working-class issues, a recent article by journalism professor Robert Jensen discusses the political role of the journalism classroom.

    “Can Journalism Schools Be Relevant In A World On The Brink?”

    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/09/14-3

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  10. I’m a PhD with a blue collar background, who had a number of classmates from similar backgrounds–they’re worse snobs about education and social background than people from more priviliged backgrounds. This is not uncommon—“improving oneself” is part of what drives social mobility. A more important question is whether the academic training is valuable at all for the task. A curious person who writes well may be more capable than someone who went to an ivy.

    Another consideration, though, is that college boy/girl professionalism has been one of the problems with progressive causes in recent years. People get stick in their single issue world and don’t connect to real people–the kind who shop at Wal-Mart or Sears. The women’s movement and enviros have been particularly bad about this. Certainly the journalism we get from mainstream media is guilty of something analogous. It’s all about teh concerns of a clubby little world that never talks to the other people in line at Cosi or Safeway, let alone people who don’t live in a limited slice ofnGreater Washington, and I would guess that this gets replicated on a smaller scale locally in many cities.

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  11. Steve, do you have statistics on how many are working class?

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  12. Please know that the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism offers paid summer internships to all of our students. If the employer does not pay them, the CUNY J-School does — at least $3,000 for the summer. We have raised the money for this program from foundations and private sources.

    For the last three years, all of our students have participated, and many of these internships have led to jobs. Our school is very diverse — 45% of the 82 students who entered this fall for the M.A. degree are members of minority groups and many others are immigrants or come from working class backgrounds.

    Stephen B. Shepard, Founding Dean

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  13. This is a interesting study with provocative implications. If you stepped into The Plain Dealer’s newsroom, you would probably see evidence of the divide the paper addresses.

    I’m 62 and retiring this month. There are a handful of fellow Newspaper Guild members here around my age but not many and a very small number of editors of my generation. Many of the older people here are from working-class backgrounds, often the first in our families to go to college — generally state universities, not private schools. That’s certainly true of me. I can promise you my family’s income was a lot more than 5.5 percent lower than that for the average family of four, even in Florida, where I grew up. It was more like 55 percent lower, I’d guess.

    I married at 18, became a father at 19 and worked at a meat-packing plant, a Frigidaire parts warehouse, restaurant kitchens and a shoe store to finish college and start grad school (in literature, not journalism). Most of my younger colleagues grew up in suburban settings and enjoyed more conventional college experiences, moving quickly into jobs that offered them career mobility.

    At Youngstown State and Kent State, you will still find journalism students — and students of all kinds — whose parents are nurses, cops, teachers, food servers, metal benders and unemployed. But who knows how far they’ll go in their careers. It’s clear there’s a divide between the aspirations and, later, material success of kids growing up in working-class households and those whose families had more secure economic circumstances, never mind those who were quite comfortable or rich. This study considers what that means in the information-gatekeeper field. The consequences seem troubling.

    I think that, generall speaking, journalists who haven’t intimate experience with working-class life are less empathetic toward the struggle of working people in our current economic situation. I see it in a thousand small ways. Your work suggests that might become more the norm in the future.

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