“Engagement” and Voluntarism are Probably Not the Same Thing

Graduate programs inflate with unemployment. That journalism schools in particular are enjoying a monsoon season of $50 application fees isn’t a barking trend. Yet recently j-schools have become quite vocal. They want you to know they’ve been watching. And while they are doing well, they know the industry is shuddering, reeling, and blessedly, they have decided to dispatch their wide-eyed media rebels into the burning fields, to prop up sagging numbers and emaciated newsrooms. They understand too the urgency, so much so that they launch their hungry numbers earlier than they ever have before. Before they even complete their programs.

This would be great, except that the one thing journalism doesn’t need to count among its bounty of trouble is a dearth of literate people willing to work. You need look no farther than the deepening dents in the couches of thousands of sidelined reporters taking copywriting jobs for Ann Taylor catalogs just to keep their spelling sharp.

J-schools are of course the future of journalism, in that eventually their students assume positions in media. Yet in the last two months, j-schools are taking that paradigm to its literal extreme, suggesting they are the future of the industry NOW, as in, we’ve got to put students in charge of actual, salable content, or all is truly lost.

The announced partnership between the New York Times and NYU’s journalism school that will have NYU students operate and produce content for a hyperlocal blog dedicated to the city’s East Village neighborhood, is the latest, and perhaps most pronounced example.

Last month, a similar union was announced when the Times’ Local – the tandem of blogs arbitrarily devoted to enclaves in Brooklyn and New Jersey – ceded daily operations of the New York side to students in CUNY’s graduate journalism program, which now seems like the Times doubling down on each school’s kinetic possibility, which may or may not have made either feel a bit dirty and used.

And the Huffington Post, that vanguard of new media and John Cusack thinkpieces, so avant guard that it cannot even be bothered to consider paying writers, announced a similar vertical which would aggregate and curate the content of selected college newspapers. While HuffPo’s “citizen journalism” editor Adam Clark Estes is a “big fan of paying student journalists,” that is apparently just a personal view. Writers featured on their site will be paid in “exposure.” How wonderful.

These confederacies are essentially an aggressive evolution of traditional internships – byzantine enough in their exploitation of aspiring careerists who don’t have much choice but to submit to a two-to-three-day-a-week commitment of short-straw work and tabling magazines in interesting-looking stacks – de rigueur in securing a job in media. If you don’t have an internship to your name, you might as well have dropped out sophomore year to pursue alpaca farming on an Argentinian commune.

Which is sound enough. Transferring the abstract knowledge gleaned in stuffy classrooms to in-the-soup experience is useful, if a bit abusive.

But in the last five years, just one has become not enough. At the same time, the work load gets weightier; the time commitment expands to near full-time hours and assignments swell to near par to that of salaried writers. And the actual entry-level job, the one with the paycheck and whimpering hint of benefits moves further away, like chasing something up a down-moving escalator.

And still, this is fine, because media is tougher now, sure, but mainly because there is no illusion of who is running the ship and who is cleaning the lobster traps. You experience what working is like, but that work is rarely relied upon, or passed off as primary product.

But these new arrangements, where amateurs co-opt the desks of professionals who can no longer be compensated, are doubly dangerous – yes in the exploitation of students who are convinced that work added to their course loads will pay off in recognition and a deluge of job offers, but who are ultimately cut loose to scrape among the rest of us – but more so in publishing the work of premature talent and presenting it along with the rest.

I edited a college newspaper. Some of it was truly good – thought-out, articulate, steady. A lot of it wasn’t. Still, the quality of the product was there, well-designed and in lush color. And we had trouble giving it away.

And now this is what we’re poised to try to get people to pay for.

Hyperlocal is a worthwhile idea, but it can also be an ersatz idol. And while it is tempting to kneel at the base of local, citizen-run journalism and anoint it savior of a whole profession, we should probably first think a bit harder on what it will yield.

– Max Lakin

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