A song to read by: “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray
What I’m reading: “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis
A remote playing field
In early August, the news broke that NPR had received 20,520 applications for its 27 available internship positions; the year prior, there had been 2,597 applications for 55 jobs. The uptick in applicants sparked conversation throughout the industry.
According to Current, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara suggested that the surge is due to the fact that the internships are remote this year, and applicants don’t need to move to expensive cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington, D.C.
Because the positions could be worked remotely, many aspiring journalists across the country could, for the first time, apply for the coveted internships. Regardless of where they lived, every would-be intern had an equal opportunity to nab an eye-catching entry-level position — a rarity in the industry.
This news moved the discourse needle for a few days, but then the conversation went silent. On its face, the logic is self-apparent and so seems to warrant little discussion: If a position is remote, more people can apply for it. No mental gymnastics necessary.
But the statistics do more than underscore an obvious characteristic of remote work; they shed light on an unsettling reality of the industry: that entry-level positions often require applicants to find a way to afford living in an expensive city on a meager budget.
As the world witnessed, when those requirements disappear — when the work goes remote — many thousands more applicants get the opportunity to apply.
To some, this still might seem like a non-issue. Many lines of work have hubs, and living in these areas or having the means to temporarily live in these areas is an advantage. To a degree, such bias is unavoidable.
But in recent months, two factors have challenged that line of thought. First, if a job can be conducted remotely, then this geographic bias can be eliminated. And second, in the media industry especially, the need to eliminate such bias is paramount, as the demographics of newsrooms should reflect the demographics of the communities they cover.
Given these realities, the results of this summer’s experiment in remote internships are critical.
If these entry-level journalism jobs can be worked remotely, why should they ever return to in-person?
If the industry has an opportunity to correct some of its biases, opening its ranks to qualified applicants from diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, shouldn't it?
The world of journalism, like the world in general, suffers from a vast number of prejudices: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, religious discrimination, etc. It’s a long list. Unfortunately, most of these traits are pretty hardwired into our psychology and power structures, which makes undoing them difficult.
To focus on two biases in particular, then, is not to ignore the other problems affecting the journalistic universe, but rather to acknowledge that two of its blinders can be lifted somewhat easily.
First, the industry’s geographic bias. You have probably heard the phrases “coastal elites” or “East Coast media elites,” whether facetiously or otherwise. The terminology reflects one of the industry’s problems that, until recently, has been accepted as immutable fact, which is that most journalists live and work in a handful of metropolitan areas, all of which lean left politically.
Indeed, most media has clustered in New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. To a smaller degree, there are outposts in Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Boston. Overall, the vast majority of media jobs exist in a handful of cities throughout the country.
As any political map will reveal, large cities skew Democratic, which means the major bastions of media that bring the country its writing — both journalistic and entertainment-oriented — reflect the viewpoints of only about half the general populace.
Trump has been successful in exploiting this phenomenon to his benefit, castigating the “liberal media” as “fake news” and calling into question the validity of “mainstream media.”
He succeeds in doing so because, in large part, right-leaning Americans feel like the media they consume fails to reflect their values. Whether you agree with their ideologies or not, they’re right in thinking that the media does an inadequate job of representing them.
What’s more: This phenomenon applies to more than just “the news.”
Of course The New York Times is going to be in New York and Boston Globe in Boston. But why should so many lifestyle, cultural, educational, and vocational publications live on the coasts?
Network effects cause these social clusters, but that might no longer be inescapable. Wouldn’t the media be more effective, more representative, and more compelling if it wasn’t solely populated by writers living in major cities either side of the country?
These major metropolitan cities not only lean left, which leads to imbalanced coverage, but they are also very expensive to live in.
Importantly, most journalism positions make very little money. According to PayScale, the average salary of a journalist is $40,000, with journalists at The New York Times making $75,000 on average and those employed by Sinclair Media making $35,000 on average.
Entry-level positions pay even less.
So, when aspiring journalists are considering a career in writing, if they don’t already live in one of these cities, they face the reality of having to move to some of the most expensive cities in the world while making very little money.
This hurdle alone can filter out much of the low-income applicant pool.
First, assuming these applicants are even in a position to leave their town for an expensive summer in the city — an assumption that overlooks young professionals in caretaking roles, with health conditions, or other constraints that make leaving their city impossible — they can look forward to saving very little money, if any at all, which is a non-option for young people who have to support themselves financially.
As a result, the only people who can fill these low-paying, on-site, entry-level positions are those who already live in the city, or those who can afford to forego a summer’s savings or are otherwise financially supported.
Applicants from these geographic and financial backgrounds then gain an early advantage over their peers, which can compound over their careers. Over time, these young journalists ascend into positions of authority themselves. Seeing as how the system worked well enough for them, they have very little reason to change it. As a result, the problem persists.
In the same way that Trump points to the media’s predilection for coastal havens as a detriment to its coverage, publications that staff their newsrooms only with journalists from affluent backgrounds can risk handicapping their coverage.
If a born-and-bred Brooklynite would struggle to understand the worldview of a Topekan, then a journalist from moderate wealth would find it difficult to empathize with the financial plight of someone working two minimum-wage jobs to make a living.
So long as publications place job postings for low-paying, on-site jobs based in some of the most expensive cities in the country, they will continue to preemptively restrict their applicant pool to those of certain wealth and geographic backgrounds.
I am currently in a fellowship for Business Insider, which I love dearly. If you work at BI and are reading this, I am being honest when I say that I have had the best two months of my professional life.
But my story is the product of peculiar circumstances. I am not sure I could have taken my current position if it hadn’t beenfor the pandemic. Yes, you read that right.
Covid-19 forced Business Insider, as well as every other media company in New York, to close its offices. Everything then went remote for the first time, including this fellowship. When I applied for the position, I did so knowing that I could take the position without having to live in New York.
In the spirit of transparency, my fellowship pays $18 an hour and runs for six months. Were it not for Covid, I would have had to have lived in New York for six months while making less than $20 an hour.
Is it possible? Absolutely. Honestly, I know I would have made it work. Journalism jobs are slim pickings these days, and I was genuinely thrilled about the role. But it would have been challenging, and I am only in a position to take the fellowship because of another fortunate constellation of factors.
My graduate school student loans have a six-month grace period following my June graduation; I recently paid off my undergraduate student loans; my lease in Chicago ended almost exactly when my school ended; and my other expenses were minimal.
On top of all those financial factors, I am also fortunate to have a healthy relationship with my financially secure parents, who offered their spare room in Seattle for me to live rent-free while I worked the fellowship. Only because all these factors came together was I able to accept this position. At just about any other time in my professional life leading up to this, I would have been unable to afford to do so.
So while I certainly would not call myself disadvantaged, even someone like me, with a solid family network, healthy financial standing, and a master’s degree in journalism, was able to take an entry-level fellowship only because a pandemic struck.
When so many factors have to align for someone as privileged as me to get a shot at the industry, something in the system needs fixing.
Some good readin’
— The Ta-Nehisi Coates essay where he write this sentence: “A thousand Eric Garners will be tolerated, so long as they are strangled to death in the shadows of the American carceral system, the most sprawling gulag known to man.” (Vanity Fair)
— QAnon could be the biggest threat to a free and fair election this November. And its most compelling practitioners are gorgeous mommy bloggers. (The Atlantic)
— This reflection on the rise of self-aware millennial novels that had my entire book club slapping their foreheads. (The New Yorker)