There are many pieces about the problems of journalism, and of journalists, and Sarah Ditum has certainly written one of them. I hesitated to post it because at some points it felt tritely rosy about life in the trenches of journalism before the internet, and at others it’s stuck in a stage of pseudo-self-awareness as an example of the very thing that it regrets. The seemingly mandatory piece of thinly-veiled commentary on outrage culture didn’t help either. (I looked it up and discovered that she is—perhaps unsurprisingly given what I see back in Britain—a writer with a documented history of unpleasant views on trans rights. Ugh.)
But at certain moments it resonated, probably because I’ve navigated the same period in history, saw the same characters in local newspapers, the same arc of damage swinging down on the national press.
The majority of people who now enter journalism will only have the latter experience [of professional vulnerability], and even if they wind up on staff, this will be what forms them. They are weak actors reliant on weak institutions. This weakness is what you have understand before you can make sense of the strange cowardice that afflicts the media.
I often wonder what I would do if I wasn’t a journalist. Back home the options were the toothbrush factory or the sausage factory. At college I mainly worked crunching data or doing research. My first job out of college was running numbers for a management consultancy. They’re all jobs, all alternative futures (or alternative histories now, I suppose.) Journalism felt like an escape, an opportunity to keep learning new things. Now I don’t know that I could be much else; at least, even in the times when I haven’t always been exactly a journalist I’ve still been relying on those skills and that editorial judgment.
But the solipsism of this story, ultimately, is that it sees journalism as anything other than a reflection of society. It’s not that the collapse of journalism has been a disaster for democracy, it’s that the collapse of everything has been a disaster for democracy.
In 2016, after Trump was elected, I wrote that American media was actually a better representation of the anxious white working class than the miners who got trotted out time and time again as political proxies. But journalists don’t see what they have in common with everybody else—the same fault lines, the same biases, the same endangered existence—they see how they are exceptional. Journalists are unloved and vulnerable? Tell that to somebody who’s worked their whole life on a string of zero hours contracts, paying off university debt, suffering the pangs of austerity or laid off three times before they’re 25.
Everyone lives in this teetering precariat now.