Media

Reason Writers in Journalistic How-to Manuals for Young Libertarians

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This spring, the Institute for Humane Studies, an academic nonprofit that aims "to support the achievement of a freer society by discovering and facilitating the development of talented students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share an interest in liberty and who demonstrate the potential to change the climate of opinion to one more congenial to the principles and practice of freedom," invited me to contribute to a "Journalism Career Guide" [PDF] for liberty-lurvin' kids nowadays. I was honored to share space in the guide with great journalistic characters such as Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Lene Johansen, the IHS' own John Elliott, among several others. Early reviews of the Guide (OK, Conor Friedersdorf's) have been quite positive. Here's an excerpt from my contribution:

Don't get in it for the money, kids

Most successful journalists, when called upon to speak in front a group of aspiring young reporters, writers, and editors, tell them that, sadly, the glory days are long gone. There's no more gold in them thar hills. The very future of journalism—and along with it, democracy herself—is hanging by a thread.

"Welcome to a dying industry, J-school grads," bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich, who once made $10 a word for Time magazine, told Berkeley students in 2009. "You won't get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery." Five years earlier at the same university, multimillionaire Ted Koppel sang the same song. "Don't get into it because of the money," the television star warned. "Don't get into because you think you get to be well-known."

"I am far less optimistic," New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann told graduates last year, "that journalists will have the economic means of producing journalism." Sounding somewhat more optimistic though no less defiant was Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, who told Medill students in 2009, "I have yet to meet a journalist who was in it for the money." It should be pointed out that Weymouth's millionaire maternal grandparents were both publishers of the Washington Post, and her millionaire uncle Donald remains the CEO.

It looks so sad that way

Why do successful, rich people spend so much time telling you that you can't make money the way they did, and that—anyways—you somehow shouldn't want to? There are many plausible explanations, but I would focus your attention on one: journalists are generally unschooled in economics and history, particularly the economics and history of journalism itself. They are notorious about exempting themselves from the kind of merciless conflict-of-interest rules they otherwise enjoy foisting on politicians and academic researchers.

Thus ensues a tumble of practical tips for Johnny and Janie Cub Reporter.

For those interested in such things, I contributed a contrarian chapter in a newish book out, edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard, entitled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It (pictured). Completists may enjoy my April 2010 review of the most recent pessimistic tome about journalism co-written by McChesney, and as you might expect there is a buoyant chapter entitled "We the Media" in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America.