Writing: An “elitist” career?

Dana Goldstein, a former CAP co-worker who now writes for The Amercan Prospect, put up a post on “Journalism’s Elitism Problem.” In short, she points out that the career path for many professional writers involves four years of college education (and any debt that comes with that) followed by unpaid (or barely paid) internships, which leads to the relatively low-paying jobs in journalism. The result: a pool of would-be writers narrowed down, most often, to the wealthy, white elite who can afford it:

The average student-debt burden in the United States is $23,186. Believe it or not, that’s also a typical entry-level salary at a “thought leader” magazine. It is economically irrational for a highly educated person with that level of debt to choose journalism over law, consulting, advertising, or public relations. That’s not to say journalists don’t have student debt — many do. But it’s a difficult, sometimes discouraging slog, and you have to truly love this work.

Goldstein also points out that these barriers lead to a very selective group of people who can afford to work in the field of journalism, which in turn, affects the ideas and perspectives that dominate journalism:

It’s not hugely shocking that journalism has evolved into a career with significant entry barriers, one of which is the unpaid internship. This makes the profession whiter, wealthier (in terms of family wealth; salaries remain modest), and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class. While journalism was once a career that didn’t require a college degree, today it is highly elitist and dominated by graduates of selective colleges. In some fields, like political “think” journalism, the Ivy League schools are grossly overrepresented. (Yep, that includes me. I went to Brown.)

Her argument is spot-on, and helps explain why major outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times so often seem to reflect a very narrow spectrum of opinion and ideology. It’s not a conspiracy or a sinister plot, but the major media wind up dominated by white, affluent Americans. Goldstein offers some policy ideas —- student loan reform and lower tuition — to try lower some of the barriers to a more diverse newsroom, though I suspect such changes are unlikely in the near future.

I know from my own experience that the barriers can be daunting. After graduating from college, I carried a huge amount of debt, so the possibility of an unpaid internship or even taking an entry-level journalism job someplace seemed unthinkable. Years later, when my writing itch persisted, I applied to journalism grad programs at Northwestern and Columbia, got accepted to both, but ultimately opted not to go when I stared down the astronomical tuition costs. I couldn’t fathom piling new debt on top of old debt, aware of the low salaries and unstable job prospects that awaited. Maybe I was a coward, but I blinked and didn’t go.

I’m fortunate enough to come from a relatively affluent middle class family and benefited from a fine education. And the unconventional path to a career in writing is a challenge. I’m still on the outside, looking in, fogging up the window. Yet I’m reminded that if it’s tough for me, how much steeper is the hill for someone who hasn’t had it as easy?

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