Journalism vs. human nature
Trashing one's own brand is a bold strategy. Let's see if it pays off for The New Republic.
The liberal periodical just published a plaint disguised as an observation by freelance journalist Jacob Silverman. Who's Jacob Silverman? That's a good question and a major part of the problem. Silverman's an unknown despite authoring numerous features for major publications, including the big black-type kahuna, the New York Times.
And that's sad news for all journalists, both struggling and successful. "Draped in the rhetoric of accountability and meritocracy, journalism is an industry in unmitigated decline," Silverman writes. Yes, we know digital is slowly, inextricably replacing print. But, that's not the real problem for news scribblers like Silverman. Rather, it's a matter strictly pecuniary. Silverman can't make a truly comfortable living as a freelance journalist. An employee of nobody but his type keys, our would-be Bob Woodward is disappointed that his deep dive into tech marvels like augmented reality doesn't pay more than $2 a word. For many like Silverman, "freelance journalism is a monetized hobby, separate from whatever real income one earns."
By his own lights, the kind of journalism Silverman practices is no better than mere drudgery. "[T]he disappointments are petty, frequent, and almost numbingly ordinary," he whinges. "Fees that somehow decline from assignment to assignment. The typical uncertainty about when pay will arrive, if ever."
In other words, freelance contractor work doesn't change when stamped with the imprimatur of journalism. Silverman might as well be a photographer in Siberia in December. As is the case with all freelancing, instability and independence remain linked, despite the high ideal of educating the public.
There's also Silverman's dread that his profession is morphing into an accessory for transient social media browsing. Facebook's domination of the publishing industry has made news a quick-hit commodity, with speed and brevity replacing substance and context as payable values.
"There is little resembling forward progress or sustainability, nothing to make freelancers think they are doing anything but churning out generic, news-pegged content that will soon be automated or replaced by a TikTok feed," he frets, recognizing that the law of diminishing marginal utility makes no exceptions.
Taken as a whole, Silverman's entire grouse reads as if it should be set to the tune of the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," with Robert Smith's adolescently angsty voice decrying the social expectation of stoicism. Silverman knows that, despite his misgivings over the journalism industry, he has lived a privileged life. He is self-aware enough even to even that he's making an upscale argument. "All of this, I admit, is the sour refrain of someone speaking from the infantilizing cocoon of privilege."
In fact, given the context clues of Silverman's grievance, I'd say he's making out pretty well for himself, comparatively speaking. He's somewhere in his 30s, living in New York City, despite never having a long-term, full-time job. His partner has a stable job that supports both of them. Mom and Dad will cut him a check if things get too tight. Life could have turned out a lot worse.
Silverman's contrived sense of importance, and the import of journalism, is what gets in the way of his contentment. The whole mewling missive is reminiscent of Corker, the journalist in Evelyn Waugh's classic Scoop, who questions the value of hardworking hacks among the public. "I ask myself are we known, loved and trusted and the answer comes back, 'No, Corker, you are not.'"
Trust in the media is at submarine depths, about where it should be in the high dudgeon age of Trump. If Silverman is miffed that journalism's reputation is in the dumps, he has nobody to blame but the sanctimony of his colleagues.
It shouldn't go without mention that Silverman's begrudging piece appears in The New Republic, which was formerly owned by Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes. The liberal magazine went through its own rough patch trying to run up click-fueled page views with Hughes, who originally helped develop Facebook's News Feed, at the reins. The appetitive push for Facebook traffic pushed out editor Franklin Foer and famed literary editor Leon Wieseltier. Foer went on to write a scathing rebuke of Hughes's Facebook-forward management, blaming him and the Silicon Valley mindset for ruining one of America's oldest political publications.
Hughes is now calling on the federal government to break up Facebook, AT&T style, citing its unwieldy market power and domination of mass communications. The full-circle reckoning makes The New Republic an odd place to publish a jeremiad over journalism chasing ephemeral social media traffic.
All in all, Silverman's lamentation is not without insight: his is a view shared by many journalists, who feel unappreciated at a time when the public at large uses its pocket computers to play Fortnite rather than read about artificial intelligence or the Chinese persecution of Uighur Muslims.
Journalists assumed that the internet's hyperconnectivity would foster more curiosity and, in turn, lead to a higher paycheck for in-depth reporting. They didn't count on obstinate human nature preferring leisure over learning. Plus ça change...