Tag Archives: Journalism

The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

In a semi-sympathetic article about unions organizing professional workers, a Chicago Tribune/Los Angeles Times reporter last month provided the following, colossally wrong, picture of American workers: “Professionals account for 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 15 percent in 1977.”

It’s true that “professional and related occupations” have grown a lot in the past 35 years when they were, as reported, about 15% of the workforce.  But today they are about 22% of the entire workforce (including part-time workers) and 24% of full-time workers – not 62% or anywhere close to that!

If nearly 2/3rds of all U.S. jobs were “professional” – with its connotations of well-paid autonomy at work, requiring high levels of education — the median annual salary of American workers would be in the $50,000 range instead of the $30,000 range.  And that would mean that income inequality would be dramatically reduced – from the top 10% getting half of all adjusted gross income now to them getting maybe only a quarter.  It would also be likely that 2/3rds of the adult population would have bachelor’s degrees vs. less than 1/3rd now, and it would mean that many more entry-level jobs would require that degree.  Now only 20% of jobs require a bachelor’s and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that isn’t going to change much in the next decade.

In other words, this report turns the American job structure upside down.  Michael Zweig’s most recent analysis of occupations, for example, finds that The Working Class Majority is now 63%, slightly larger than a decade ago.

This is a huge reporting error, and it’s clear in the context that it was not a typo.  I emailed the reporter, calling attention to the error, but haven’t heard back, and there has been no printed correction.   Factual misreporting like this occurs all the time in American newspapers, especially at second-tier outfits like the Tribune. Economist Dean Baker provides a delightfully smart-ass (and clear) daily blog, Beat the Press, that calls attention to errors of fact and reasoning in the top tier of newspapers – and he is never at a loss for material.  But there is often a pattern to these errors, one that reflects the limited worldview and social experience of both reporters and the “upscale” audiences advertisers encourage them to address.

Though I have rarely seen numerical misreporting of this sort, most mainstream and elite discussion of “the knowledge economy,” its “knowledge workers,” and “the creative class” clearly assumes this kind of disproportionate misunderstanding of the jobs most Americans actually do.  Likewise, President Obama’s repetitive (and uncontested) insistence on the need for everybody to go to college so they can do “the jobs of the 21st Century” must be based on a similar misunderstanding.  (For more detail on this see previous Working-Class Perspectives blogs by Sherry Linkon and me.)

The conspiracy-minded could make a good argument, I think, that our elite opinion-makers and leading politicians are deliberately lying to us in order to flood the labor market with college-educated workers who can then be paid less and bossed around more because their supply is so much greater than the demand for them.   But the scope and scale of such a conspiracy makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.     My guess is that the spectacular magnitude of this particular reporting error reflects the increasingly extreme class segregation of American life – not only in residential life, as dramatically documented in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, but in social interaction and experience.  Besides, it is almost comforting to think that our ruling class and its elite professional middle-class opinion-makers actually know the truth and are hiding it from us — rather than to realize that the captains and crew of the ship of state are navigating with such a faulty map of the actually existing American people and the work we do.

How could they, the “data-driven” best and brightest, be so woefully misguided?  Here’s my guess:

Imagine the children of two professional workers – a doctor and lawyer, for example, or a university professor and an accountant – who go to one of the many excellent public schools in the dozens of affluent (not rich-richy, just comfortably “middle class”) suburbs around most American cities.  Their highly dedicated parents schedule them for a wide variety of activities that cultivate social and cultural skills while insisting on their getting good grades in school.  These children, both the” over-achievers” and the just-plain-achievers, then go on to one of the better colleges and universities, which are populated for the most part by the offspring of professional workers from affluent suburbs like theirs.   Assuming they have done well in college, upon graduation these young people get entry-level professional jobs from which they launch careers that, like their parents, are both high stress and high reward.   After some years enjoying life in the city, they marry, have children and move to a suburb with an excellent public school.

This may be a bit of a caricature, but it is by no means uncommon.  Even adding some complexity, it will be very difficult for such people, particularly the high-achievers among them, to understand that America is mostly populated with people who are very unlike them.  Yes, there may have been working-class and even poor kids in their high school or at college, but they are a relatively small minority.  Likewise, at work they are aware of clerical workers and maybe even the janitorial staff as they leave work in the evening, but that’s not where their focus is as they go about their daily work routine.   At restaurants and in other leisure activities, they interact with non-professional workers, but they hardly notice the ones who are not directly serving them.   Everything in their lives fosters the illusion that their lives are “typical” or “normal” and that poorly paid nonprofessional workers who get bossed around are a small and declining group.

These professionals may be conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats.  They may be arrogant, self-absorbed, status-anxious climbers or large-spirited, generous and even nurturing leaders and mentors who do volunteer work among “the less fortunate.”  But what is there in their lives – in their direct observation and experience – that would challenge the idea that we are a “knowledge economy” full of well-educated knowledge workers?   And if they were a reporter, a copy editor, or a well-educated reader of the daily press, what would make them slap their heads in disbelief at the idea that a substantial majority of American workers are “professionals” like them?   Not much – and especially when our elite institutions of cultural production and reproduction (media, universities, politicians and their staffs) are peopled by folks with similar life trajectories who naturally recycle and confirm these professional notions of their own disproportionality.

Zweig’s The Working Class Majority is subtitled America’s Best Kept Secret, and despite the substantial attention the book received more than a decade ago, its recent new edition justifiably retained that subtitle.   But it and all the other work of Working-Class Studies are up against formidable cultural odds.  If the captains and crew of our ship of state are navigating with a terribly faulty map of who we are and what we do, only a large-scale and sustained mutiny can break through the professional bubble.  Hopefully, the newly protesting Walmart retail and warehouse workers and the spreading intermittent strikes of fast-food workers may be the beginnings of such a mutiny.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

Working Labor Back into the News

In her last post, CWCS affiliate Denise Narcisse looked at the Pew Center’s latest research on the digital divide in America and noted the ways in which digital deprivation for poorer and working-class families amounts to a form of social and economic disenfranchisement.

To be sure, one of the most serious implications of the digital divide is the barriers to information lower income and working-class citizens need to fully participate in the political and social spheres of their communities and of the nation. But, even if working-class and poor Americans were to gain regular access to digital news and information sources, I wonder what kind of news and information they would find. For as traditional commercial news organizations migrate to the web, too many are replicating the structures and agendas that have elided the experiences and interests of the poor and working classes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It is certainly not news to note that commercial mainstream news media abandoned the working class quite some time ago.  The reasons for this desertion are numerous and widely cited: advertisers increasingly want to appeal to more affluent readers, reporters and editors no longer come from working-class backgrounds, and corporate media ownership encourages an ethic of business.

These factors, combined with the steady downsizing in newsrooms that began long before the crisis of competition with online news, resulted in the replacement of substantive issues stories in mainstream commercial media (the sources relied upon by most working-class people according to Nielsen) with cheap-to-produce stories about celebrities and scandals. For example, The Pew Research Center found that in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq, that Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith received more extensive coverage than the war, noting that, “During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered.”

One result of this is that Americans who rely solely on commercial media for political knowledge and hard news are being denied critical information and analyses of the national and international events that may ultimately affect their daily lives.

In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols cite a recent study by a group of communications researchers that finds Americans with a high school education or less who rely on commercial media for news, score just above the 20th percentile in political knowledge of international and right at the 40th percentile for domestic hard news, compared to the next lowest group, British news consumers, who score just above 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. For McChesney and Nichols, the data suggest that American “commercial media systems tend to marginalize the poor and working class,” endangering the very purpose of a free press system.

Furthering the disenfranchisement of the working class is the skewing of coverage of workers issues, part of the mainstream media pursuit of an affluent consumer base designed to appeal to advertisers.

McChesney and Nichols cite Christopher Martin’s benchmark analysis, Upscale News Audiences and the Transformation of Labour News, which documents the emergence of news coverage targeted at an “upscale” readership, in which he charts the shift in labor coverage in the U.S. and Canada evidenced by content analyses of coverage of transportation strikes in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. Martin chronicles the movement in news accounts of the strikes from accounts of legitimate disputes between workers and management to tales of inconveniences suffered by the majority of consumers using transportation services. For Martin, this reconfiguration of news is related to the increasing consolidation of media and its adoption of the practices and ethic of big business, and this adoption is apparent in the narrative frames, and even in the language, in which the strikes are presented, notably in the commonplace phrasing that management makes “offers” while unions make “demands” or, as Mc Chesney and Nichols observe, “Poor and working-class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people” (51).

And, while the burgeoning economy of online news sites and blogs has led to increased awareness of working-class lives and struggles (as evidenced by this site) these issues often remain relegated to specialized sites and targeted user searches. Many mainstream sites still foreground the business beat at the expense of the labor beat and the former rarely represents the interests of the latter in a way different from what Martin describes. And too often, when working-class people are featured in mainstream accounts, they serve as anecdotes or catchy narrative leads to pave a colorful path to the “experts,” the real sources for the story.

There are of course, exceptions. Some excellent examples of stories that chronicle the lives and issues of working class Americans have emerged in the major dailies, particularly since the start of the Great Recession. Anne Hull of the Washington Post has written about the struggles of working class Americans with precision and detail, and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports on the complexities of labor, economics and politics in a way that connects policies with people.

Yet, with the opportunities of the internet and the demand for news organizations to reinvent themselves comes the opportunity for the profession to further rediscover its working-class roots and mission– if news producers can see both a means and a benefit for undoing the damage, for as John Nerone notes in a 2009 article for Journalism:

The past half-century of neglect leaves a lot to overcome: the media have worked hard to encourage ordinary people to think of themselves as consumers rather than as workers, and to regard any overt appeal to the working class as not just biased but old, dreary, and boring.

Nerone believes, however, that there exists potential for news organizations to reconnect to their working-class readers, and that because traditional filters and gatekeepers are falling away in the new media economy, that such a reconnection is not only possible but beneficial, because in today’s economy, more and more people self-identify as workers. Indeed, with the most recent Labor Department data showing that 80 percent of the economy is tied to the service sector, Nerone may be on to something.

If news outlets continue to try to rely on advertising for revenue, which Nerone believes is probable, but McChesney and Nichols do not, then in theory, news sites can rely on advertisers who now recognize the importance of reaching the working-class, an appealing proposition, particularly for local news outlets, which many agree might be best positioned to carve out a niche in the online economy. In fact, People magazine has recently begun developing stories about working class people, telling CWCS co-director John Russo, that they understand that most of their readers are working class women.

Endorsing this rather optimistic view, Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review lists the five most important beats for a local newspaper/newssite, and included in this list is the Labor Beat:

We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?

For both Niles and Nerone, the resurgence of the labor/work beats would, at a local level, help to refranchise working class news consumers. And, if these stories were done in a way that explains the relationship between state, national, and international policies and the everyday lives of the working citizens, news sites could do much to return to the mission of journalism and to remedy the deficits in democratic participation.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working-Class Journalism: A Model for Teaching

Among seemingly endless reports, studies and speculations that have almost unanimously heralded the death of the newspaper, the Columbia Journalism Review’s recent study stands out as both incisive and constructive for its detailed summation of the conditions that have caused our current media “crisis,” and also for its outlining of possible solutions.

In the report, aptly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, endorse a claim that we have made in previous blogs, that while some of the implications for the future of American journalism in the current financial and technological storm are downright scary, emerging energies and fresh ideas about news and news practice offer significant hope. As Downie and Schudson find,

Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers, but freelancers, university faculty members, students, and citizens. Financial support for reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from foundations, individual philanthropists, academic and government budgets, special interests, and voluntary contributions from readers and viewers. There is increased competition among the different kinds of news gatherers, but there also is more cooperation, a willingness to share resources and reporting with former competitors. That increases the value and impact of the news they produce, and creates new identities for reporting while keeping old, familiar ones alive.

Around the same time that we began contributing to this blog, we were beginning a project here at Youngstown State centered on a collaborative news gathering model, a news service that partnered a public “working-class” university and its journalism students with a commercial newspaper and a public radio station.

Our goals for the project are ambitious:

* To provide students guided practical experience with reporting and producing news stories

* To provide students who might not be able to afford non-paid internships a chance to earn internship-level experience

* To help media organizations acquire content that they would not ordinarily be compelled to obtain and to act as an intermediary resource for collaboration amongst competing media

* To produce research to study media collaboration and content decisions.

We started with the idea that journalism students need both theory and guided practice.  Unlike traditional internships where students often leave their communities, our students gain hands-on experience in the local area.  Because they becme immersed in the urban community that surrounds the university—a relationship that is rarely cultivated by our largely suburban commuter student population—student reporters learned that the plight of the city so often reviled by suburbanites and slighted by the profit-driven media is an inextricable part of the region they call home.

Media professionals from our two partner organizations, The Vindicator and WYSU-FM, joined us in the classrooms frequently during the semester and worked one-on-one with students. In class sessions in The Vindicator newsroom, news service students presented their work, talking with us and newspaper editors about possible story directions and generally immersing themselves in the newsroom and city culture. A WYSU-FM manager spent several hours each week working with students in the radio production lab, helping them to produce their stories and gain a deeper understanding of what makes good public radio.  With one semester completed, it is still too soon to judge the overall success of the endeavor, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we think the news service model has merit.

Most of the stories that our students are reporting deal with issues of importance to those who live in or precariously close to urban poverty — the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in most neighborhood stores,  or the challenges of public transportation in a city where many of the most basic goods and services have migrated beyond the walkable core neighborhoods into the sprawling suburbs.

Many of these issues have been slighted by the local mainstream media as they increasingly cater content toward their suburban clientele, and we believe that this news project, while small in scope, may yield results that will be of interest to media managers who make content decisions. Our operating premise is that traditional media may actually benefit by running such stories, which may attract new readers, and that with collaboration comes a unique opportunity to inform, enlighten, and ultimately encourage social responsibility.

In addition, our students are learning how to draw upon one another’s strengths. For example, by working with a grandmother with deep roots in the city community, a young male student who commutes from the suburbs gained access to people and resources that might otherwise have remained untapped and under-represented; two other students got  clearer perspectives on the complexities of school funding and performance by visiting and comparing a drastically under-achieving city school with a high performing suburban one located only a few miles away, while still another pair of students chronicled a neighborhood’s efforts to reverse the crime and economic despair that has been plaguing it for decades.  These stories address important issues and trends in the community that entrenched local media, suffering from the same economic challenges plaguing all traditional media, might not have covered.

Even when the story “hook” is not specifically about a problem or an issue, we are encouraging students to be curious about and attuned to the lives and stories of the members of our predominantly working-class community. For example, a recent radio report builds on our earlier Worker Portraits project with a profile of a man who has spent most of his working life as a gravedigger.

We are excited about the long-range possibilities of the news service, because it strengthens our students’ reporting abilities, helps bolster local media, and most of all, gives all of us a chance to experiment with media collaboration and different types of content. These values are essential to the mission of a strong university journalism program, and they encourage the local media be more responsive to the information needs of those who are not well-served by traditional media, including the working class.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Education, Business, and Perpetuating the Class Hierarchy

In our last blog, we noted the increasing absence of working-class writers from the Journalism profession, due in part to the proliferation of the unpaid internship as the requisite for a career in the field. While the financial consequences of this requirement are obvious, the less visible and more complex results of this practice may be far more wide reaching. For example, Anya Kamenetz notes that the wholesale acceptance of the unpaid internship leads to “over-identification” with employers: “I make sacrifices, to work free, therefore I must love my work.” She cites a University of Washington study of a coping strategy of interns in communications industries that study authors Gina Neff and Giovanni Arata label “performative passion.” They suggest that this “becomes a justification for the lack of pay and need for sacrifice.”  As these findings show, journalists who literally buy into this system will be less likely to question the assumptions and structures that always privilege business and the employer over individual and social needs.

But this isn’t just an issue for Journalism.  The over-identification with the employer, or employers in general, has become a guiding principle for higher education, particularly at working-class institutions, and this contributes to the institutional missions and student attitudes that Sherry Linkon outlined in her last two blogs. At universities across the nation, internships are just one peg of a larger strategy to match college education to the needs of specific employment sectors. A brief look at Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Higher Education provides a clear example of the transformation of higher education into vocational training. In a section titled “Relationship With Business Community,” the document recommends measuring the success of higher education across the state by surveying business leaders to find out “whether business is satisfied with the product of higher education.” Such a survey, the report claims, “will be a powerful tool in helping institutions and the Board of Regents exercise this public trust.”

Aside from the alarming rhetoric of product and consumer, the plan is generally organized around a claim that has become a siren call to educators and politicians across the country—that colleges and universities are not graduating enough students in STEM fields to compete in the “21st century” economy. In Ohio, the remedy for this deficit and the key to economic regeneration is, predictably, to emphasize and fund STEM programs and develop more internships in STEM fields, often at the expense of other fields—especially the liberal arts. Elsewhere, the Ohio plan calls for targeting resources toward programs that directly foster economic development (read STEM and business) and rewarding universities that align curriculum with the needs of employers.

And yet, it turns out that the long accepted truism that the US suffers from a shortage of graduates in science engineering and technology might not be so true. A recent study by Rutgers University finds that there are plenty of graduates in STEM fields, confirming an earlier study done by RAND in 2005 that found the shortage was more the product of “special interests” seeking a labor surplus than statistical reality. As Joe Smydo reports in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Sloan Foundation, which focuses on STEM and economic issues, noted two years ago that the shortage cry was sounded by “’interest groups and their lobbyists,’ including employers who want to increase the labor pools and keep labor costs down; universities seeking an influx of grant money and graduate students; and others who see STEM advocacy as a way to attract funding.”

Most engaged in the debate agree the alarm over the lack of STEM talent seems to be cyclical, sparked decades ago by Sputnik, and more recently by the rise of India and China. Such events spur the fear that the US will be left behind in the tech race, and politicians are quick to throw money and resources at the educational “problem” in an effort to produce more and more tech workers.

Rather than improving conditions and fostering growth in the workplace, this approach increases the number of available applicants. Indeed, Harold Salzman and B. Lindsey Howell, the authors of the Rutgers study, suggest that the glut in STEM graduates has resulted in stagnant wages in science and technology fields.  Because of this, newly credentialed grads are taking their skills elsewhere—specifically to more lucrative careers in finance, management, and consulting.

The problem is not specific to STEM disciplines; rather the example shows the dangers of university missions that focus too narrowly on the vocational mission and creating job specific educational “products.”  Of course, this is exactly what’s happening in Journalism.  When colleges and universities are too willing to tailor curriculum to the market, or even the technology, we risk setting in place long-term educational policy based on transient factors.

At our university, and others like it, we proudly roll out degree problems as quickly as possible based on predictions of shortages, too often without carefully examining the validity of these claims or, worse, the broader implications for degree seeking students.

For while higher education is a means to a better job, we should be careful not to make our emphasis on degrees too narrowly focused.  Trends and technologies change, and a meaningful education should equip students to understand the bigger picture and adapt to new situations and knowledge.

An overly vocational focus also perhaps inadvertently reinforces the class and status divides within higher education. For while students at the most prestigious schools are learning broad concepts and acquiring intellectual and ethical frameworks for processing complex, multiple, and shifting realities, too often students at lower “tier” institutions are being trained to perform tasks, with one career or vocation the sole goal of their education.

One group will likely become the innovators and the entrepreneurs, the other the workers.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

The Political Parabola, the Media, and the Direction of Working-Class Populism

Media pundits regularly describe American politics in terms of a spectrum, from far right to far left.  It’s time to recognize that this simplistic model has lost some of its explanatory value. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t adequately describe what is happening politically in the country.

Rather, I have been using the term political parabola. For those who are geometrically-impaired, a parabola looks like the cables on a suspension bridge or half of the McDonald’s golden arches. In the political parabola of American cultural politics, the right meets left politically. The ends of the so-called spectrum – right and left — are closer to each other than they are to the middle. This concept clarifies much current political discourse as well as the way working-class people are represented and are participating in the debates.

People on the political margins have a lot in common these days. For example, many Catholics are at once anti-war and anti-abortion. Here in Youngstown, our former Congressman and newly-released prisoner, James Traficant, is a cross between a West-Texas populist and a member of Posse Comitatas.  Like many liberal commentators, he deploys class and cultural resentments over the economy, government bailouts, foreign policy and a myriad of social issues, often expressed in highly emotional terms.

Meanwhile, on the right, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are increasing their populist rhetoric as they decry the impact of high unemployment and economic crisis on the working class.  O’Reilly goes in further in Who’s Looking Out for You? He begins by using economist Michael Zweig’s definition of the working class, according to which over 60% of US families are working class, and he goes on to claim that he, O’Reilly, is their best representative.

The result is a growing American style of populism that has a cross-class appeal and important political implications. As Frank Rich has suggested, “The recession-spawned anger that (Glenn) Beck has tapped into on the right could yet find a more mainstream outlet in populist revolt from the left and the center.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are aware of the growing politics of resentment on both ends of the parabola.  It’s hard to determine just how deep this discontent runs, just as it is uncertain how it could influence voting patterns.  At this point, both parties are trying to mobilize the discontent and influence current debates. But as many Democrats have faltered and caved to corporate interests on the health care debate and corporate bailouts, Republicans seem to be winning the battle for the populist hearts and minds. If nothing else, they’re making a lot more noise.  Just look at this summer’s tea parties and town hall meetings.

But where does the working class fit in this emerging populism?  While the protesters’ politics may seem conservative, their social class is not clear.  Some liberal commentators can’t seem to figure out whether to dismiss them as privileged elites (or would-be elites) fighting to protect their own tax breaks or as working-class dupes who don’t understand their economic interests.  Of course, no one asks about income, education, or occupation at these rallies, so it’s hard to know who’s really turning out.

Still, amid their high anxieties about Obama’s citizenship and socialist plots, they do have one thing right:  neither the political debate nor media reports are paying enough attention to how the economic crisis is affecting ordinary Americans.  A recent poll by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism indicates that economic news pays more attention to banking and finance, the auto crisis, and the stimulus package than to the impact of the economic down turn on housing, unemployment, and the lives of working Americans. To help improve reporting on the current economic crisis, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism has even initiated a new Nieman Watchdog project entitled “Reporting on the Collapse.”

Class confusion is nothing new in America, but given the current state of affairs, we need to keep in mind a few key points about working-class populism.  One, the working class is diverse culturally, politically, and geographically.  That means that the “working-class position” is always complex and contested.  Second, the recession has added large numbers to the working class, as people who once thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class struggle to recover from the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement accounts. Consequently, any analysis that views the working class as dupes or no longer relevant economically or electorally may be short-sighted. Today’s working class is probably both larger and better educated than at any point in American history. Third, as unemployment grows, working-class populists may push even conservatives to view government spending more positively. We’ve seen this recently with conservative politicians in Texas who initially refused to accept stimulus funds but are fighting to make get their share of public support.   Even conservatives know that hungry citizens can be dangerous.

John Russo

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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

Reinventing Journalism

In March, we wrote about the “deindustrialization” of journalism, the displacement of traditional journalists by the steady closures of newspapers as readers increasingly rely on free online news. . For those in former steel and auto towns like the Mahoning Valley, the story rings familiar: a once great industry displaces experienced workers in search of  cheaper labor and newer technology, while the workers who once fueled the industry are left scrambling for their next paycheck.

In her address to graduates of The Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Barbara Ehrenreich welcomed newcomers to a dying industry and assured them that they have plenty of company as practitioners of a weakened craft in a rapidly shifting economy:

How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs.

Through our journalism projects with The Center for Working-Class Studies, we’ve spent time with professionals from some of the trade’s most storied institutions — The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Columbia Journalism Review, and others. We’ve listened to their anxieties, sparked, in part, by diminished job security but also reflecting their genuine concern that the decline of journalism will undermine the future of democracy, which functions best with a concerned, well-informed electorate.

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Shultz, who often writes about the plight of working-class people, is worried that already under-represented members of society will become invisible if newspapers and other traditional media no longer have the resources to conduct important investigative and enterprise reporting. On the other hand, she suggests that as veteran professionals increasingly find themselves under the ever-present threat of unemployment, “most of us have a lot more in common these days with the people we cover.”As journalists are displaced, they may become better able to understand the struggles and perspectives of working-class people, whose stories have too often been ignored.

Schultz and others are exploring strategies for saving traditional journalism.  Media companies and journalists alike are searching for strategies that might protect not only their own existence, but the future of serious reporting. In a June 28 column, she explains that tighter copyright laws could allow traditional media outlets to own their content for a longer period of time before bloggers and others start posting it on their own sites and pulling readers and advertisers away from the organizations that produced the work in the first place.

Schultz and The Plain Dealer are not the only ones embracing the call for tougher copyright regulations. Cleveland Attorney David Marburger and many newspapers advocate these ramped-up regulations. And while it may be easy to dismiss such attempts as mere self-preservation by what Shultz wryly terms “dinosaurs wheezing toward extinction,” many of the practices of traditional journalism are worth protecting.

Subscribing to this view, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland introduced legislation in March designed to help newspapers garner non-profit status, allowing them to stay afloat. Both proposals have ignited a firestorm of online chatter and robust debate.

Responding to Shultz’s column, Clint Hendler writes in the Columbia Journalism Review that the proposed copyright tightening is “unworkable, illogical, and unnecessarily legalistic,” and John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the late Rocky Mountain News, criticizes Schultz for failing to make a compelling case for how tightening copyright laws will help save newspapers.

And yet he also says the closing of The Rocky Mountain News has had a pronounced negative effect on the community and state it served.  “The watchdog role of the media is being diminished,” Temple says. “There are stories that are never going to be told.” According to Temple, the closing of The Rocky Mountain News is a dramatic reminder about the importance of fostering meaningful innovation that might help the media.

On the other hand, bloggers and citizen journalists might actually help to revitalize traditional media, for if Shultz is correct and traditional journalists begin to feel more empathy with the legions of displaced workers, they might produce more of what we call working-class journalism.

All watchdog journalism is really working-class journalism.  Three principles might characterize this important work:

1.)    Stories rely on multiple sources and treat everyday people with the same weight as official sources;

2.)    Stories show how, ultimately, most political issues are “pocketbook” issues;

3.)    Stories empower everyday citizens by carefully scrutinizing the actions of elected officials and powerful individuals and entities and are produced by journalists brave enough to dispute factual errors and inconsistencies rather than allowing false information to be spouted in the name of “balanced” reporting.

Of course, these principles are not new.  But they were lost as the class and status of the profession shifted. Perhaps, equipped with a renewed mission, empathy, and purpose, journalists might embrace the technology of today, bring to it a sense of urgency and responsibility, and use it to tell important stories effectively.

For instance, many newspapers, including The New York Times, have launched community journalism projects. Some involve hyper-local reporting, while others experiment with new delivery mechanisms. Another new venture is trying to help traditional media organizations earn advertising revenue and understand new business models. Numerous foundations, including the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, are funding experimentation in journalism and journalism education.

No single answer is likely to solve the problems currently plaguing the media. Nor will any one business model reverse years of financial declines.  Instead,the media must consider both new ideas and old practices.  These ideas require constructive debate and discussion.  The future of the media is simply too important.

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

Crisis and Coverage: Hearing Working-Class Voices

For generations, people have understood and accepted that the news media has the power to set the public agenda through how it covers major stories.  How well does the media bear that responsibility?  Some argue that the news is gathered “objectively” in adherence to basic principles of newsworthiness, including such factors as timeliness, proximity, relevance, weight, impact, and controversy.  Others propose that the process of is more subjective, governed by patterns of conduct, gatekeeping, framing, and a hierarchy of credibility.

The hierarchy-of credibility highlights the way reporters rely on official sources seen as having the credibility to speak as experts.  Because of this, individuals with more power and prestige, usually officials in government and business, are represented more favorably in media coverage. Sociologist Howard Becker explains that “credibility and the right to be heard are differently distributed through the ranks of the system.” Those with the most prestige are given the right to control public discourse.  Those without power and prestige are often left out of news coverage, even though they are also, in many cases, most directly affected by policies and events.

  1. During disasters, reporters often have limited access to the traditional “credible” news sources.  Under pressure to air information as quickly as possible, reporters don’t have time to seek out “official” sources. On the ground after a natural disaster, campus shooting, or other crisis event, journalists interview anyone affected, involved, or aware of a situation.

This is the point when reporters are most likely to talk with working-class and poor people who aren’t usually seen as having significant credibility.  Their interpretations of situations or events are often dramatically different than the views of officials whom reporters normally interview.  The stories generated through this type of reporting often represent situations more fully, and they reflect perspectives that probably interest more readers.

We saw this most clearly during Hurricane Katrina.  The nation learned of the massive social problems in the Gulf Coast not from government sources but from individuals whose stories of despair captivated the nation’s attention long enough for some reforms to be enacted.

Hurricane Katrina also highlighted how relying on “credible” sources can erase not just voices, but whole stories.  Shortly after Katrina, in September 2005, the public editor of The New York Times acknowledged that his paper had failed the public by ignoring the New Orleans story before the hurricane:

The New York Times assumes a responsibility to alert its readers to significant problems as they emerge in major cities such as New Orleans. Poverty so pervasive that it hampered evacuation would seem to have been worthy of the The Times’ attention before it emerged as a pivotal challenge two weeks ago. And the inadequacies of the levee system deserved to be brought to the attention of readers more clearly long before the storm hit (14).

Of course, The New York Times was not the only paper to have missed the story of poverty and despair in New Orleans in the years before the hurricanes.  The disaster triggered an awakening of journalists to issues of poverty, race, and class. Historian Dan Carter told a Copley News Service reporter that it sometimes takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster: “Usually, there’s not a lot of interest in issues of poverty except when there’s something dramatic. By and large, the poor are simply out of sight, out of mind.”

The disaster effect can extend beyond a moment of crisis.  Michael Massing noted that in the days after Katrina, reporters began “asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.”   And he posed a critical question: “Will such changes prove lasting?”

Massing’s question was, of course, rhetorical.  We know that reporters all too quickly returned to relying on official sources from the top rungs of the hierarchy of credibility.  Why?

Some have argued that it’s a matter of habit, but the status quo is supported by the structure of the newsroom.  In many newsrooms, reporters are assigned to cover specific beats, such as government organizations, the police, religion, or entertainment. This helps reporters develop relationships with highly-placed sources that can give them access to important information, but it can encourage the habit of returning to those same sources day after day, looking to them for news and tips rather than talking with ordinary people.

Other institutionalized facets of traditional newsgathering operations also help perpetuate the status quo, such as the near-constant need to meet deadlines.  While newspapers now have fewer reporters covering the news, they also have more deadlines than ever – not just the daily deadline for the print edition but also additional deadlines for more frequently-updated online editions.  No wonder reporters rely increasingly on their most familiar, most obviously credible sources.

The value of going beyond the usual sources has become clear in recent months.  As the recession deepens, reporters have told stories not only about bank presidents, the CEOs of the auto companies, and government officials managing the bailout, but also about ordinary people displaced from their homes, struggling to find a new job, and responding to government strategies for addressing the economic crisis.

Now would be a good time to take Massing’s question to heart:  will this change last?  Can journalists continue to tell not only the official story but also the on-the-ground, face-to-face story of how people are surviving and struggling through the current not-so-natural disaster?

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

Hoop Dreams and Bootstrap Journalism

Sports and class go way back.  Sports writers often talk about teams, coaches, and players in terms borrowed from the language of class.  That was evident last week as the NCAA basketball tournament drew to a close.  As many commentators noted, the final match between Michigan State University and North Carolina was more than simply a game,  especially for MSU whose team was described as having blue collar, rust belt values and carrying the hopes and dreams of a deindustrialized region.

Popular culture often relies on misrepresentations that reinforce negative stereotypes of the working class.  In his documentary Class Dismissed, Pepi Leistyna outlines how television especially stereotypes the working class as both unintelligent and lazy and often reactionary in their political beliefs. The working class is only valorized during sporting events. Both teams and individuals are lauded for their commitment to hard work, attention to detail and task, and their toughness.   While television sitcoms often lampoon the working class, in sports working-class people – especially men — are often heroes.

A similar pattern applies to communities.  As we’ve found in studying representations of Youngstown, deindustrialized communities are often described as survivors.  They are seen as tough, proud places where hard work and commitment to others are valued.  In case of the NCAA championship game, the commentary and references to the working class and to Michigan as part of the “rustbelt” assigned extra significance to the tournament.   MSU’s success, some suggested, provided hope for workers in the region who had been displaced by disinvestment and deindustrialization.  The tournament also offered psychological relief from the pain and anxiety of unemployment, as well as an economic boost to a struggling city.

Talking about the team and the tournament in these ways falls into the category of what I call “bootstrap journalism” – reporting that emphasizes the ways that people and communities are “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”  It focuses on survival and hope, but that often, unfortunately, excludes serious analysis of the causes and effects of the economic problems associated with deindustrialization and unemployment.  In other words, it ignores the real experiences of people in the region.

I’m not suggesting that sports writers shouldn’t use working-class imagery to talk about sports, or that the excitement of seeing an area team make it to the finals isn’t real.  Indeed, sports success matters.  A successful team can give a struggling community a new identity, both locally and nationally.  As British sociologist James Rhodes has recently argued in a study of how boxer Kelly Pavlik has become a new symbol of Youngstown, winning athletes can help create positive images for their hometowns.

And I’m all for the idea that winning something, whether it’s a boxing match or a new factory contract, helps people feel hopeful, and hope counts.  Hope can give people the energy to work through difficulties.  We see that in the success of Barack Obama’s campaign.  Hope is audacious.  And  powerful.

But it isn’t enough.   It can’t address the underlying economic realities that have given Michigan among the highest unemployment rates in the country.  It can’t in itself provide jobs or clean up abandoned properties or reduce crime.  It will take more than a positive attitude to do that.

So, yes, we should respect and appreciate the strong values of working-class culture and the way economically-displaced people and deindustrialized communities keep on struggling to survive.  And we should also analyze the causes, effects, and most important solutions to the problems they face.  That means we have to look beyond stereotypes. We have to stop blaming either workers or their communities for causing what is in fact a global economic change.  We must also develop more realistic expectations for what it means and what it takes for people and communities to recover from economic hardship.  Recovery often isn’t simply a matter of positive attitudes and hard work.  Our bootstraps are broken.  America’s working class needs serious attention, better policies, and real change.

John Russo