A few days ago, Nate Thayer, a reasonably distinguished 52-year-old journalist, received an email from an editor at the Atlantic. She had read an article he had written and wondered if she could publish a shortened version. He said sure and asked what they paid. A bit surprised, she said they didn’t pay for reblogs but he would get “exposure.” Thayer, who half a decade previously had been offered a $125,000 a year staff job by that very same magazine, told her he didn’t need exposure, he needed money. He reprinted the entire email correspondence, triggering a firestorm in the journalistic community.
The internet has transformed journalism and few in the industry are pleased. When I started working, consumers of news had a limited number of sources. If you wanted to know what was going on, you watched the BBC or you read the Telegraph or the Times. People working for those organisations had a captive audience, which meant their editors could afford to fly them around the world, put them up in a good hotel, pay outrageous expenses and also a decent wage.
No more. Consumers of news are now spoiled for choice. They still read the Guardian or the BBC website but they can find countless other sources of information. And young journalists desperate to become the next Ezra Klein are happy to write for free. Even in war zones, you meet rich kids with a camera, travelling on their own dime, hoping to build their reputation. As consumers of news we are blessed. As producers of news, we are screwed.
But this story is larger than just the plight of freelance journalists. The condition of all workers is harsher than it was in our parents’ day. It is not just blue-collar workers that are suffering. Lawyers, advertising creative directors, middle managers and even bankers are working much longer hours than they used to. Unless you are a professional athlete, the guy who had your job 20 years ago almost certainly made more money (in real terms), had more fun and didn’t work as hard. As consumers, we live like kings. Even people on council estates can afford flat-screen TVs that Gordon Gekko would have lusted after 20 years ago, but our work lives are ever less rosy. We work harder, with no job security, for less pay—but even during this recession, corporate profits remain healthy. Established professionals (like Thayer) who have worked for years to build a reputation see themselves edged out. Firms are looking for 22-22-22: 22-year-olds willing to work 22 hours a day for $22,000. Median inflation-adjusted male wages in the United States are lower now than they were in 1973.
All the fuss in the blogosphere about the Thayer story shows that freelance journalists are frightened of the future. They have good reason. It is hard to see how journalists will ever again earn an enviable wage. But perhaps we only have ourselves to blame. As industrial jobs evaporated, few of us in the news business cared. Remember that famous quote about Nazi Germany. When they came for the miners, I remained silent because I wasn’t a miner. When they came for the air traffic controllers, I remained silent because I wasn’t an air traffic controller. When they came for the middle managers, I remained silent because I wasn’t a middle manager. When they came for the journalists, only the journalists spoke out—and guess what, nobody listened.
I am old enough to have experienced the waning days of union power. One election day 25 years ago, working as a sound man for a New York TV station, I made $1,500 in a single shift. Back then, union penalties ensured you were paid extra for overtime, for holiday work, for missing your mandated hour-long lunch. I ran a few cables, twiddled a couple of dials and mostly sat in a chair, reading a book, counting my money, feeling like the luckiest man in the world. Good luck getting that gig today.
Back in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, lots of us were paid more than we deserved. Jobs were easy to get. Firms treated their workers with respect. Everybody went home at 5pm. Reading Charles Bukowski today, it’s shocking to realise that although he was reprehensibly lazy and usually drunk, he never had any difficulty finding work. Economic growth was faster than it has been ever since and income distribution was much more equitable. Those days are long gone. It is not just journalists in trouble. All of us are getting screwed.