Monday, July 12, 2021

Would Substack Rule Had The Fourth Estate Not Been Coopted By The Fourth Branch?

nymag  |  Between 2008 and 2019, the number of newsroom jobs in the United States fell by 26,000, according to the Pew Research Center. Over that same period, roughly 15,000 journalism majors were graduating into the U.S. labor market every year. In addition to making the competition for writerly employment exceptionally brutal, these developments also raised the barriers to merely entering that competition: Since regional newspapers have collapsed faster than national outlets, what jobs remain are now (even more) heavily concentrated in a handful of extremely high-cost cities.

Faced with a superabundant supply of underemployed writers, and increasingly thin to nonexistent profit margins, all manner of media companies in such cities have made a common practice of paying poverty wages for entry-level work. Applicants accept these terms because the outlets offer (potentially, eventually monetizable) “prestige,” and/or because they sought to emulate the success of that publication’s star writers, and/or because they had no other options, and/or because class privilege shielded them from the worst consequences of their underpayment.

Like the vast majority of the writers who create Substacks, the vast majority of the interns who take unpaid to barely paid positions in journalism will never attain the financial security of their publications’ big-name writers. And those big-name writers — and the interns who are able to approximate their success — are typically beneficiaries of an uneven playing field tilted in favor of the upper-middle class. My own path to a decent job in journalism was eased by parental subsidies, which made it possible for me to accept $8-an-hour internships in New York City without suffering malnutrition. The “advances” that most consequentially bias who gets to write for a living and who does not derive from accidents of birth.

The resurgence of labor organizing in media has mitigated the industry’s exploitative treatment of entry-level workers and the class bias inherent to it. And this is one of the many reasons why unionizing newsrooms is a vital project. But labor unions alone cannot solve the underlying problem of mass underemployment within the industry. America does not have more competent journalists than it needs. But it does have far more of them than media firms are capable of profitably employing, amid the erosion of the ad-supported business model.

Which is one major reason why there are so many writers willing to provide Substack with content free of charge.

There may be something distasteful about the fact that Substack benefits from journalists’ financial desperation. But ultimately the core problem here is not that a newsletter platform is helping cash-strapped writers squeeze some tips out of their Twitter followings. The problem is that legions of talented journalists are going underemployed, even as statehouses across the country are going under-covered. Forcing Substack to disclose every contract that it has ever offered will not free us from the scam that is the modern media industry. Only publicly financing the Fourth Estate can do that.

 


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