Journalism Must Subscribe to Its Own Survival

With the holiday season at full blast last week, I read Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the forthcoming book by Scott Timberg about the economic fate of artists.
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With the holiday season at full blast last week, I read Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the forthcoming book by Scott Timberg about the economic fate of artists. At the same moment when millions of families were trotting out to Walmart and Target to choose the perfect mass-produced doodad to elicit that momentary shock of glee Christmas morning, I was reading dour predictions about the looming mortality of such formerly timeless cultural pillars as music, visual arts, journalism, film, architecture, and literature.

I had intended to review Culture Crash for the urban planning website Planetizen. For the better part of the last decade, cities have been pursuing the "creative class" as a means of economic development. The idea, espoused primarily by scholar Richard Florida, is that cities should promote the sort of amenities that attract creative types. They will, in turn, "pump mojo into American cities." We're talking about loft apartments, art galleries and theaters, bars with bocce, well run public transit, nice parks, lots of wifi, and so forth.

Echoing and citing the likes of Neil Postman, Jarron Lanier, and Nicholas Carr, Timberg issues dire predictions if not for creatives' mojo than for their wallets. American tastes do not look kindly on, or pay generously for, the thoughtful, deliberative, unique work that Timberg ascribes to genuine artists and artisans. Timberg is an elitist, but that's his point: in former generations -- before the Internet, media consolidation, and post-structural theory -- elitism was not a bad word. Even everyday Americans, according to Timberg's optimistic account, gladly paid for creations that provoked, enlightened, and delighted them.

Cities are long-term affairs. We in journalism are used to tighter schedules. And the news isn't good.

Timberg counts journalists among the creatives. And why not? Journalists can produce creations of ineffable but infinite value, not just to individual readers but to society as a whole. "More than with other sectors of the creative class, the woes of journalists resonate beyond their own personal circumstances," writes Timberg.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, the number of journalism jobs in the U.S. fell by 13 percent. Timberg has choice words for the "business" people who, upon investing in newspapers in the early 2000s, decided to treat them as investments rather than as bulwarks of democracy. Timberg reports that average profit margins of 22 percent in the mid-2000s weren't enough to stave off firings, consolidation, and recycling of content for investors who only want more, more, more. Those who remain in the field aren't getting paid much -- $37,000 per year on average. Look at me: I'm writing this for free.

While great, brave journalists are still going undercover, reporting form the front lines, and digging up dirt that puts bad guys in jail and preserves democracy, we as a profession have been terrible at preserving ourselves. I can't help thinking of the stereotypical stoic, cigar-chomping editor: put the paper to bed, have a Scotch, and wait for the next day's mess. That's a fine way to cover news but a lousy way to gain support for a noble profession.

Timberg, himself a veteran arts reporter, favors "news organizations that are large enough to take on serious projects and survive lawsuits but that don't require regional monopolies." It's a worthy goal. But he doesn't suggest a way to achieve it.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and unbiased. But the one thing we can't expect to be unbiased about is journalism itself. So, with the 2014 holiday season on the wane, I have made myself a promise for 2015. This year, my gifts, be they for birthdays, housewarmings, or next Christmas, are going include subscriptions. Every other journalist, and aspiring journalist, should pledge to do the same.

Journalists may have thin wallets, but can still afford to celebrate our craft. There's not a single person on anyone's gift list, from Grandma Mabel to little cousin Apple, who can't enjoy a good magazine. I'm not talking about Us Weekly.

Ideally, I'm talking about any of the hundreds of small publications that employ fledgling writers and would be delighted by another subscriber or two. I'm talking about serious news magazines that are hanging on to the First Amendment by a thread, often only because nonprofit foundations have adopted them. I'm talking about your local, independent newspaper or the niche magazine with sterling prose. Maybe a Dissent or a Mother Jones. Or a Charlie Hebdo.

Even so, supporting the big guys is better than nothing. Every dollar that goes to Time, Bloomberg, Wired, or The Atlantic is still a dollar that can fund important work. There's a nice multiplier effect here too: because of advertising, every new subscriber means more revenue for the publications. We can hope this translates to more money for writers.

I'm a contributing editor to a small urban planning newsletter. I'm as far as you can get from David Remnick or Anna Wintour. No matter. If I and America's other 50,000 or so journalists stop spending money on video games for kid cousins and top-shelf bottles for grandpa and give a handful of subscriptions, we can at least make sure that the people who are near and dear to us can appreciate our craft. If we're any good at our jobs, this gesture will perpetuate itself, and it will multiply.

Ideally, everyone would consider journalism to be a gift. And yet, some see it only as an investment. Fine. Let's invest in ourselves.

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