by Olivia Loyd
- USA -
My industry is hemorrhaging, the pink slips keep coming, the center is not holding. Almost 30,000 people in the media industry have been laid off in the past year. Mastheads are shrinking. Newspapers are shuttering. Entire magazines are fading into oblivion while we print journalists, in particular, flounder around looking for an e-brake.
Of course, it’s not just those of us in journalism who feel the noose around our necks. The ripple effects of this economic apocalypse are hitting us all, across all industries, classes and demographics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed in America has risen by 2.3 percent since the recession began in December 2007. In December 2008 alone, the unemployment rate rose from 6.8 to 7.2 percent—and this trend only seems to be gathering steam. What’s more, if there aren’t any journalists left to report these statistics—and more importantly, to document and report every step and misstep of our government, and every change in our economy, society and culture—then the fall-out could be even more nuclear.
Why? Because journalism is truly one of the last checks we have on democracy. We need air to breathe, food to sustain, friends for support, news to inform. Without access to information we’re powerless.
“During the past three and a half decades, I have learned that the job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place,” journalism legend Bill Moyers told the National Press Club in March 2001. “It's [journalism] needed to keep our leaders honest and to arm the powerless with the information they need to protect themselves against the tyranny of the powerful, whether that tyranny is political or commercial.”
I’m no Bill Moyers, but I've always felt fortunate to have a real sense of my identity as a journalist. I’ve spent almost three years reporting from abroad, and with a few exceptions I've been lucky and eternally grateful to find work that engages me and triggers a sense of civic-minded duty and accountability. I became a journalist because I believe in the power of news and its ability to generate dialogue and effect change. I did not become a journalist for the money—there is no money in this field. I do this because I love it, because there’s nothing else I would rather do than spend absurdly long hours reporting, writing, investigating and parsing over my words on a blank screen. So it frightens me to realize that my profession is in peril, that recession aside, the future of journalism is rather bleak.
I've fielded emails from fellow journalist friends who echo my fears—no work, no pay, no future in this industry. We all fall upon hard times at one point or another, but it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve really experienced a suffocating sense of what may or may not come next. A few weeks ago an email landed in my inbox from a former classmate who, by most accounts, would be considered a journalism success story. He was hired by The New York Times soon out of graduate school and has written for some of the most venerable titles in the business as a freelancer.
“I’ve been living very shoestring for very long," he writes. "I'd like to think that I've made a good run at freelancing. I'm 29 now, and coming up on the fifth anniversary of having moved to New York to make this work. I can't say this is the first time I've given thought to leaving journalism, but this is the first time it has been a sustained thought for a considerable amount of time… I built myself back up this year, but feel like I'm in the same dreary place."
I’ve been a full-time freelancer for the past eight months and it’s unspeakably exhausting. I’ll never forget one of my professors telling me that “freelancing can be great—but the landlord always has to get paid.” It’s a constant hustle, there’s no downtime, just the perpetual scramble for the next assignment.
Jennifer Pinkowski, a New York-based freelance writer whose work appears in The New York Times, Discover, Archaeology and Library Journal, supplements her income with copy editing for TIME magazine. “I’ve never been able to make a living fully as a freelance journalist,” she says. “That would be great, but I’d have to be Christopher Hitchens.”
Countless friends have been laid off or cannot find work. One of them won a Pulitzer for his work on Hurricane Katrina. He's been out of work for more than a year, living with his parents and contemplating filing for bankruptcy. Another friend was laid off at Ski, others at Outside and still more at newspapers from New Jersey to Ohio to California. These are some of the smartest, most passionate and driven people I know and they can't find work.
While it would be remiss not to mention that the landscape of journalism is rapidly shifting from print to online—which doesn’t necessarily mean journalism is dying in the traditional sense—it does mean it’s significantly harder for people like me to get the bills paid. We already operate on such a slim margin, so when we’re told by our editors that they’re lowering our word rate because they simply can’t afford to pay us like they used to (word rates have been roughly the same for two decades, even with inflation), our margins become even slimmer.
I recently interned at an advertising agency—virtually unpaid—because I felt it was one of the only ways I could get some experience in a field where my skills are transferable. While some journalists call advertising ‘the dark side,’ I call it a means to an end. I’m also in the throes of studying for the LSAT, another sign of the times.
I took the bus home one afternoon after working at the agency, jammed in my headphones and reflected upon a conversation I had with a friend in his third year of residency for general surgery. He was miserable, his 100-hour work week really taking a toll, but he’d already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and six years of his life. In the end he held on, but I often wonder if I'm closer to leaving journalism than he ever came to leaving surgery. I don't want to leave, but I may have to.
And then five consecutive targets are hit by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai and I'm engaged again. My mom called the morning after it happened. "I'm so glad you're not there," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. "All I wish is that I were there right now, mom." But there are two things that hold me back now from taking that leap into reporting from the frontlines. One is the thought of my mother falling asleep with tears streaming down her face from worry. The other now, more than ever, is a paycheck.
I feel immense hope with Obama, but this economic cataclysm is not going to turn around anytime soon. Nor will it get turned around unless the gates open to innovation on a on a global scale. By innovation I mean there won’t be any quick fixes or miracle interventions—we’re going to have to get honest, repair relationships, replace our outmoded ways of thinking with new and revolutionary thoughts—and the public deserves to be informed every step of the way.
About the Author
Olivia Loyd is the pen name of an American journalist currently based in New York. Prior to returning to New York, Olivia held postings in Europe and Asia, where she primarily covered environmental and immigration issues. She holds a Master's degree in journalism.