Old problems in new media.
“Does journalism fit into capitalism?” That is “the question of the hour,” according to Manjula Martin, a freelance writer and editor, whom I interviewed last week. Martin has carved out a space for discussing the economic landscape for writers through her online database, Who Pays Writers?, and the digital magazine, Scratch, that she co-founded with Jane Friedman.
Who Pays Writers was born out of an online conversation between Martin and other writers who were commenting on publications that ask for donations or run advertisements, but don’t pay contributors. Martin herself had been frustrated recently by an experience in which she had gone through all the work of pitching an article, only to find out that the publication expected writers to work for free. “I was being very flippant, but I said, do we need a list?” she recalls.
The response was positive, and Martin set up a Tumblr, providing freelancers a space to self-report the rates they’ve received from publications ranging from The New Yorker and USA Today to Marie Clare and Pet Business. The site now contains thousands of reports, most depressingly meager, each a snapshot of the state of the industry from the point of view of freelancers. Over all, Martin says, writers can expect to earn about $100–250 for online articles at the big publications (The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation). The rates are higher for print, where many publications still pay by the word, and lower for book reviews and literary journals. (Martin emphasized that the data she collects is self-reported by writers and is not verified by publications. Salon declined to comment for this article. I reached out to The Atlantic for comment, but did not hear back before publication.)
Scratch came next. “Everyone really loved Who Pays Writers,” Martin says, “but people wanted more context.” The magazine provides that context, going deeper into the publishing economy with round-table discussions between editors, advice on negotiation techniques and contracts language, and first-person accounts of the freelancing life from successful writers. In the spirit of Martin’s commitment to transparency, each issue concludes with an accounting of the relationships between the writers and editors, the demographics of the writers and the amount of money each contributor was paid. (Full disclosure: Martin has commissioned me to write an essay for the next issue of Scratch for $200.)
For Martin, transparency is the first step to improving the situation of freelance writers. Fifteen dollars per hour has become a rallying cry for service workers, but what is a fair standard for writers? “We don’t even have a basic sort of understanding of what standards would be like for a freelance workforce, let alone what pay rates would be like,” she says. “I think we need that base first.” She points to a need for her freelance “co-workers” to be more educated: “Not understanding how the finances of our industry work—who is that bad for? It’s probably not as bad for the people cutting the checks as it is for the people receiving the checks.”
And it is bad for the people receiving the checks. The answer to Martin’s question about journalism existing in capitalism is, of course, that journalism does exist in capitalism, and capitalism is kicking journalists’ asses. The same goes for editors, and for many publications.
Last week, the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project released its annual report on the state of the news media, which examines the continuing struggles of news outlets to hit upon a sustainable (let alone profitable) model for generating revenue. Pew’s report quantified the rapid growth of jobs in digital reporting, but also noted the continuing decline of jobs in print media. While job growth is good news for writers, the new hiring does not replace all the jobs that have been lost in the massive layoffs that have been occurring for a decade in print. Many print publications are also unionized, and very few of the writers at born-digital outlets are organized (the staff of Truthout is one of the few exceptions to this rule). This translates into less job security, and individual instead of collective contracts for writers, making it harder to prevent the kind of downward competition that drives standards lower.
In another sign of capitalism’s effect on journalism, Digiday reported last week that Entertainment Weekly, which is owned by Time Inc., will be establishing a “contributor network” where bloggers will be “compensated in the form of prestige, access to the brand’s editors and a huge potential readership audience.” Prestige, of course, is worth even less than dogecoin when it comes to paying rent, and just one week later, Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Entertainment Weekly is laying off longtime critics and writers Owen Gleiberan, Nick Catucci and Annie Barret. If you don’t see the connection between these two moves, you’re not paying attention.
Meanwhile, media observer and journalist Jim Romenesko reported last week that the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which operates Cleveland.com, is instituting a “zero–tolerance policy for typos,” and its content chief has suggested that reporters enlist their spouses in helping them avoid mistakes. A frustrated reporter wrote to Romenesko that such a move was predictable because there are no copy editors on the digital side of the news operation, and “an entire layer of editors” has been laid off. As labor historian Jacob Remes put it on Twitter, what’s really happening here could be headlined, “Publisher demands labor that used to be done by paid copy editors be done by unpaid wives.”
Earlier this month, writer Yasmin Nair shook up leftist academic circles in an essay arguing that “those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.” Nair’s statement provoked much debate among writers who are trying to navigate an industry that increasingly demands unpaid work and has been successful in getting its way. Many objected to Nair’s definition of “scab,” which seems to me both beside the point and unresolvable. (I worked for a labor union for four years and witnessed many discussions between organizers and workers with far more experience about the true definition of a scab. Some of us called anyone who crossed a picket line—worker or customer—a scab. Others reserved it for replacement workers during a strike. Some contend that it really applies only to union members who work during strikes. When in doubt, don’t cross a picket line.)
For Martin, the debate hits home. “I worry about that on a very personal level,” she says. “Every time I write something for free, somebody else gets paid less or offered less. I think that’s true, and I don’t think anyone is disputing that in this argument.” But she understands why people do it, and instead of having writers focus on one another, she wants to point the conversation back to understanding the economic system and arming writers with information. “To me the data is just the first step,” she says. “It’s always interesting to me when people really just want the numbers. But the numbers have stories around them and the stories around them are the important thing. Hopefully a group of workers who are at heart story tellers can figure out a way to talk about it.”
Read Next: Michelle Chen outlines the problems with the tipped minimum wage.
Since Thursday evening, when 23-year-old writer and activist Suey Park sent out a tweet to her 19,000-odd followers—“The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.”—America’s media has been in the grips of some sort of Suey Park-derangement syndrome. Park’s call to action came in response to a tweet from The Cobert Report’s official account that contained the punchline of a segment from last Wednesday’s program. In the bit, Colbert lampooned Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington DC’s football team, by comparing the racist name of the team to racist language used against Asians. Dozens of articles have been written about the hashtag campaign. Writers at The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, Time, the Daily Beast, Jezebel, CNN, USA Today, Huffington Post, the BBC, Mediaite, Entertainment Weekly, and many, many more have all weighed in. Almost without exception (Brittney Cooper at Salon is one of the few) these articles, essays and blog posts agree that Suey Park and the hashtag she spawned are misguided, ill-informed, unable to take a joke, unaware of the meaning of satire and/or just plain stupid.
In addition to the flood of media critiques, Park and others who joined the hashtag have faced a deluge of criticism and abuse from other Twitter users. At some points, dozens if not hundreds of tweets per minute were being addressed to Park. Many followed the script of your typical patronizing mansplainer confronted with a woman he disagrees with and is unable to resist engaging: “Don’t you understand what satire is?” etc. But many others contained racist and misogynistic slurs, rape threats, death threats and every other conceivable kind of invective, all directed toward Suey Park.
The mainstream media response to #CancelColbert has been more genteel than that which emerged from the underbelly of the internet. Two exceptions were HuffPost Live and Deadspin. On HuffPost Live, host Josh Zepps came out and said to Park’s face what much of the commentariat couched in less offensive language: “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Deadspin published a post entitled “Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke,” a cravenly cynical ploy to garner traffic and court controversy. (White liberal writers have shied away from criticizing Deadspin, citing the fact that the two authors of the post are Korean-American as some kind of excuse. I don’t share their sensitivity. People of color will always find someone willing to pay them money to sell out other people of color. Just ask Amy Chua.)
But for the most part, talented writers have (mis)applied their skills of logic and persuasion to explain why #CancelColbert was a bad idea. I find most of the arguments against Park (and yes I think many of the arguments are aimed directly at Park, even more than at her hashtag) to be fundamentally weak. We have been reminded again and again that Colbert’s offensive language against Asians was deployed as satire in order to attack the racism of Dan Snyder, and that the context of the statements are critical to “getting” the joke. This is obviously true, and did not need to be explained to Park, but how this invalidates the concerns of real people who feel real pain when they hear stereotypes about Asians is left unaddressed.
We have been told that, even if Colbert’s joke hurt the feelings of some Asian Americans, it was all in furtherance of a greater good—the education of people within his audience who did not realize that the name “Redskins” is an offensive slur until it was compared to anti-Asian slurs. This narrative strikes me as particularly specious. It rests on weighing the education of a group of people who have been hypothesized into existence as more important than the experience of a group of people who are actually speaking out to express their discomfort. If any journalist wants to present evidence of a single person who was moved to change their opinion of Dan Snyder by Colbert’s routine, then perhaps we can assign it a social value. I’ve yet to see any such evidence, and while I would never deny that Colbert’s performances are entertaining, there’s a difference between entertainment and enlightenment.
We have been told that Colbert’s joke was aimed at the abhorrent racism of the name of the Washington football team, and that bringing up the question of racism aimed at Asian Americans is a distraction that will hurt the cause of Native Americans. This is a charge that would be easier to swallow were it not that so many of the writers putting forward this argument have never written about changing the name of the team themselves. Park and many of her fellow #CancelColbert tweeters have a history of engaging in Twitter activism against the team’s name alongside Native American activists: See #NotYourMascot as one example. Meanwhile, the idea that Colbert is more valuable to the fight against racism than people of color who are engaging in anti-racist activism on their own terms comes perilously close to a white savior argument that deserves serious scrutiny.
Even if all these arguments against Suey Park were convincing, however, none of them explains why so many members of the mainstream media felt so irresistibly compelled to make them. That’s the question that I find most striking about this entire brouhaha. I’ve spent this past weekend considering the relative comfort and power of columnists at mainstream publications as compared to the 23-year-old activist and asking (in my best Veronica Sawyer from Heathers voice), “What is your damage?” You may not agree with her campaigns or her tactics (I have frequently disagreed with her myself) but do you really need her to shut up so badly?
I think that the real problem most people have with Park is that she has power. Over the past few days, writers with larger platforms than Park have suggested #CancelSnyder and other variations on the theme to much lesser effect. And yet when Suey Park told her followers to trend #CancelColbert, they complied, and kept the hashtag trending for hours.
The power to direct thousands of people on social media and drive a narrative without permission from any editor, publication or other form of traditional media gatekeeper is one that many in journalism wish they had and (I suspect) believe they deserve more than Park. Who the hell is she, after all? Who gave her permission? We are not used to women of color, and especially supposedly submissive Asian women, acting with such brash disregard of their elders and “betters.”
I hope that all the writers who took to their platforms to condemn #CancelColbert and Suey Park ask themselves what they had to lose by supporting her, or at least by remaining silent. From where I stand, the distinction between the internet trolls who want Park to be quiet and the media commenters who want Park to be quiet is narrower than the media commenters would want to admit. Park’s influence challenges the traditional power structure of a mainstream media born of and endlessly reinforcing a system of white supremacy. The sheer volume of her detractors says more about their fear of losing influence than it does about anything else.
Read Next: Julia Carrie Wong on the exploitation of women of color on Twitter
Last week, Foreign Policy published a feature on the role of the Academy in foreign policy that asked, among other things, “Where are all the women?” Included with the article was a graph showing that women journalists account for 20 percent or less of the writers at magazines and newspapers covering the economy, global politics, security and national politics. As so often happens with mainstream media debates on diversity, Foreign Policy compounded rather than ameliorated the problem it named by including eight men and only one woman in its panel discussion.
[Editor's Note (3/31/14): The writer of this post did not contact Foreign Policy for comment. We regret the error and apologize to Foreign Policy for the breach of journalistic standards.]
One of the women who could have added to Foreign Policy’s debate is Sarah Kendzior, a writer and scholar of Central Asia. In February, Kendzior was approached by a Foreign Policy editor concerned with the demographics of the magazine’s audience and seeking advice on attracting more female readers. Kendzior recalls, “I gently noted that FP might have an image problem due to their exclusion and marginalization of female writers.” Kendzior suggested that she could write an article on the subject, and Foreign Policy commissioned it. After she turned it in, however, the panel discussion article appeared, and Kendzior learned that her piece had been killed.
The article, “US foreign policy's gender gap,” was published later by Al Jazeera English. In it, Kendzior points to structural economic barriers that exclude women (and people of color) from a field that requires significant economic resources to enter, as well as the disrespect routinely aimed at women. On her blog she added, “The problem in foreign policy is not men—it is misogyny. And it is rampant in journalism as well.”
I asked Kendzior whether she thinks the same dynamics are at play in other fields of journalism with severe gender imbalances. She wrote: “If you asked me to name female journalists covering foreign policy, economics, or national security, I could quickly provide you with an amazing list of accomplished women. But you will rarely see those women treated with the same respect or compensated in the same way as men. The launch of new media websites with poor gender balance indicates that this problem is getting worse. Although I would like to add that discrimination against people of color is an even bigger problem than gender discrimination—both in foreign policy and in intellectual fields in general.”
One of those new outlets is The Intercept, founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill as the first digital magazine of First Look Media. The Intercept will initially cover the Edward Snowden NSA leaks but plans to expand into a comprehensive news outlet. Like many observers, I was deeply disappointed when The Intercept launched with a staff of twelve that included only three women (Poitras, Liliana Segura, and Marcy Wheeler) and two people of color (Segura and Murtaza Hussain). When First Look announced that Matt Taibbi would be given a digital magazine of his own and The Intercept announced Gawker’s John Cook as Editor-in-Chief, my disappointment turned to frustration. Greenwald continued to promise on social media and in interviews that diversity was on its way, but it certainly wasn’t immediately apparent.
Is there no room for women and people of color to report on the “very serious” topics of “very serious” journalism that The Intercept will cover? Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and writer, pointed out in a blog post on punditry that, by replicating the white maleness of old media, new media ventures are simply reinforcing our cultural expectation that white men are the arbiters of expertise. “A mostly white, male pundit class normalizes logic, reason, and expertise as a white guy thing,” she wrote.
I spoke to Greenwald about the question of diversity at The Intercept last week. (I also reached out to Poitras and Scahill but they did not respond.) In our interview, Greenwald reaffirmed his commitment to building The Intercept into “a site that will be more diverse than pretty much any other news organization of a similar size and stature.” Greenwald said that the desire for diversity at The Intercept is two-fold for the three founders. First, “It’s just a matter of basic fairness in employment,” he said. “If you don’t make diversity a central goal you’re going to end up with unfair employment practices because you’re just going to end up grabbing a bunch of people who are like you.”
But more importantly, he said, diversity is fundamental to the quality of journalism The Intercept is trying to produce: “One of the problems of old media organizations is this incredibly homogenized, narrow range of viewpoints that get expressed. That comes from a really homogenized range of backgrounds—going to the same schools, coming from the same socio-economic environment—which produces a kind of stagnant, herd, groupthink. I honestly believe that in order to be an interesting, vibrant, provocative, innovative news organization you absolutely need diversity, in the people who are editing, and in the people who are writing the journalism.”
Greenwald says that the lack of diversity at the outset was “by far the most disappointing thing about our launch,” but he explained that it was a result of their need to continue reporting on the Snowden documents while they built the organization. “We had budgetary authority just to hire a handful of people to handle the NSA reporting,” he said. “Three young reporters who were going to go through the archive, who know the NSA documents and who have worked on the NSA story, and then a couple of people to do the editing, one of whom was Liiana, one of whom was Peter Maass, and Dan Froomkin who was going to help out with the overall organization.”
After talking with him for forty-five minutes, I believe that Greenwald is sincere in his desire to create a truly diverse news organization. Since launching, The Intercept has hired journalists Andrew Jerell Jones, Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Jordon Smith, none of whom are white men. According to Greenwald, an African-American woman will soon be announced as The Intercept’s first columnist. These are all steps toward a more promising future for the new publication.
But the fact remains that the three young reporters The Intercept hired to complete the NSA reporting (Ryan Devereaux, Ryan Gallagher and Hussain) are all men. National security and surveillance is one of those very serious subjects dominated by male journalists. This has implications not just for female journalists trying to break into the field, but for how the issue of surveillance is understood and addressed by Americans.
Women might have already reached parity in covering style, food and gender issues. People of color might gain prominence writing about race or immigration. Those topics are important, but we need their perspectives on foreign policy, national security and other very serious, very white male topics as well. After all, the brunt of surveillance, war and economic injustice is borne not by the most privileged, but by communities of color, migrants, women, the working class and the poor. A journalism more aware of the intersections of race, class and power will be much better equipped to ask the questions that might not even occur to reporters who have never interacted with the state from a position of weakness—whether that's as a person of color subject to intense police repression or a woman whose access to reproductive health care is increasingly under attack.
On March 19, Liliana Segura announced that The Intercept’s coverage of the US criminal justice system will be led by herself, Vargas-Cooper, and Smith and will aim to expose “the links between domestic prisons, policing, and criminal justice policies and Guantanamo, drones and post-9/11 foreign policy.” Here’s hoping this is a better indicator of what’s to come from The Intercept than its NSA team.
Read Next: Julia Carrie Wong on the problems with privileging white male voices
Over the past few months, stories about San Francisco have become ubiquitous in the national media. Everyone wants to weigh in on what’s being called the San Francisco “culture war.” Last week, PBS News Hour became the latest outlet to report on a city facing extreme income inequality, a dearth of affordable housing and an increasingly intense dispute over how the local government should react to the influx of tech companies and tech workers. The conduit for telling this story was everyone’s favorite symbol: the Google bus.
The Google buses (what residents call the chartered shuttles that transport San Francisco residents to their jobs at tech company campuses in Silicon Valley) is irresistible to journalists. I’m no exception: my first article after quitting my former job to become a reporter was about Google buses. I attended a hearing of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency packed with more reporters than that room has probably ever seen.
The image of Google buses rolling through the narrow streets of the Mission, tinted windows reflecting scenes of the neighborhood’s vaunted Latino culture—murals, vegetable stands, street vendors, pupusa joints—makes manifest the division between the people inside (tech workers) and the people outside (everyone else). In this supposed clash of cultures, the Google Bus represents neoliberal disruptive innovation: the private sector accomplishing what the public sector is too incompetent to do itself. The working-class Latinos waiting at the same bus stops for public transportation are the old San Francisco, creators of the old culture that’s being forced out.
The PBS report is just one example of a serious problem with the media’s desire to cast what’s happening in San Francisco as a “culture war.” In an almost eight-minute segment, the Mission’s Latino residents are seen but not heard. They are filmed in background shots establishing the milieu of the neighborhood, but only white San Franciscans are interviewed.
Other outlets display the same tendency to privilege the voices of the, well, privileged. New York ran a feature asking “Is San Francisco New York?” that included fifteen articles. Only two of those pieces (by Daniel Alarcón and Hua Hsu) touched on the severe economic stress affecting the city’s poor and working class. Most of the rest poked fun at the “culture” of wealthy tech workers with disposable income to spend on bad fashion, expensive coffee and private clubs. The only mention of Asian-Americans (a politically important group that’s now second only to whites in the population of this majority-minority city) was one line in an anonymous screed supposedly written by a tech worker about his sexual conquests: “If you look at Secret, 95 percent of it is Asian bitches wanting Drew Houston.”
Focusing on culture distracts from the material realities being faced by working-class San Franciscans, many of whom are people of color. By romanticizing the aesthetic output of San Francisco’s immigrant communities, the media ignores their humanity, their agency and the actual harm being done to them. The culture is the product of the people, but those people are not being heard.
The emphasis on culture has also led to distortions in the representation of what is actually happening in San Francisco. The tech sector is an important and rapidly growing part of San Francisco’s economy, but it still only employs 6 percent of workers in San Francisco. The tourism, healthcare and construction private sectors each employ more San Franciscans than tech. You would have no idea of that fact from most media coverage.
Culture doesn’t account for the peculiar realities of formulating a budget in a state where California’s Proposition 13 has placed severe restrictions on the ability of cities to raise tax revenue for almost forty years. It doesn’t address the fact that San Francisco’s housing shortage is exacerbated by the unwillingness of surrounding municipalities to build denser housing within their own borders. It doesn't explain why a recent study found that African Americans, a population already declining dramatically in the city, are being targeted for eviction at a disproportionately high rate. There is more going on here than a clash of cultures.
In some ways, the media’s treatment of San Francisco’s working-class communities of color as window dressing mirrors that of the gentrifying young professionals moving to their neighborhoods. The cultural output of an immigrant community is part of the draw for people turned off by the sterility of bedroom communities in the suburbs. People want to be close to the restaurants, the murals and the street festivals. (They don’t want to be subject to the same lack of resources and civic neglect that led poorer communities to settle in those areas before, however, and they don’t want to deal with crime or visible poverty.) The murals will stay on the walls as long as no one paints over them, but the people who painted them will have to go.
I don’t mean to condemn all of the journalists covering San Francisco. Many are doing great work providing a nuanced understanding of the complicated forces at play in the city. But please, no more talk of a “culture war.” People are fighting for their right to remain in homes and communities they’ve worked hard to build. That isn’t culture. That’s capitalism.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on New York's developer-friendly zoning policies
Last week, freelance writer and In The Fray blogger Tina Vasquez tweeted a challenging question: “If every WoC [woman of color] locked their Twitter account, how many fucking journalists would be out of a job? How many academics out of shit to steal?” The response to her tweet was immediate and strong, with several women agreeing that going private might be a useful experiment. One woman, who tweets as @bad_dominicana, replied, “If we blocked all the editors and writers we dont know and locked lol theyd write on dog fashion.”
Vasquez’s suggestion came in the wake of the controversy surrounding a Buzzfeed article that aggregated the responses to a question posed by Christine Fox on Twitter last Wednesday: What were you wearing at the time of your sexual assault? The author of the article, Jessica Testa, selected some of the responses to Fox’s tweet, added a bit of context, and published it that night. Testa went above and beyond what most journalists do when posting articles comprised of tweets. She reached out to the authors and obtained consent to embed their statements, offering to obscure photographs if so desired. However, she didn’t get in touch with Fox, who was distressed to find her image plastered across the Internet and Facebook. A subsequent article at Poynter.org by Kelly McBride inaccurately stated that Fox was not a survivor of sexual assault.
The Buzzfeed article touched off a backlash on Twitter by people, many of them prominent women of color tweeters and bloggers, who want journalists to obtain consent before using their words and images. That backlash led to a patronizing Gawker post by Hamilton Nolan in which he explained, pedantically and at length, that Twitter is public. The Gawker post then inspired several more articles, from The Washington Post and New York about the ethics of using tweets and whether journalists should treat statements from sexual assault survivors differently than others.
The idea of women of color taking collective action to block journalists from reading their tweets is certainly provocative. In one sense, a women of color Twitter blackout would affirm the argument made by Nolan and others that the only way to protect one’s words from being used by journalists is not to issue them in a public forum. For people who use Twitter to share ideas and experiences but don’t want to be exposed to the audiences of mainstream media outlets, taking one’s tweets private—or avoiding the platform altogether—is a form of self-defense.
But there are more radical implications to a Twitter blackout. Implicit in the idea that withholding one’s tweets would affect journalists’ ability to do their jobs is the notion that tweeters are producing something necessary to the “supply chain” of journalism. A Twitter blackout could be viewed as a form of labor action, with tweeting cast as a form of work. That work is obviously unwaged. Are some Twitter users becoming an unpaid workforce exploited for their intellectual and emotional labor?
I reached out to @bad_dominicana, who prefers to be identified by her handle, to ask her to expand on her tweet. She wrote back, in part: “The cycle isn’t a week, but hours after our discussions, the Guardian, Buzzfeed and countless others come to graze off us without ever giving back. Lots of us started pitching and writing for the media that ripped us off to try and get ahead of the cycle and beat the thieves, but its still happening.” If a women of color blackout on Twitter occurs, she writes, “It’d be a long time coming.”
It would be hard for anyone to deny that Twitter has become an important force driving conversations in the media. Twitter is broadly recognized as a platform through which the audience can interact with the creators of media, providing feedback in a much more direct manner than has ever been possible before. Articles that aggregate “Twitter’s reaction to [fill in the blank]” are ubiquitous at online outlets like Gawker, Salon and Buzzfeed. On some occasions a reporter will add context or analysis, but in general the posts are just a collection of other people’s words.
In the past year, however, the media’s relationship with Twitter seems to have gone even further. Aggregation posts on hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #NotYourNarrative and #NotYourAsianSidekick are followed by think pieces, radio panel discussions and cable news appearances. Journalists have ready-made stories, freelancers have ready-made pitches and media outlets rack up page-views. (My own first paid publication was commissioned in response to #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, based on tweets I wrote that an editor saw.)
On some occasions a hashtag’s creator achieves recognition for her work, as Mikki Kendall and Suey Park have done, and that recognition might produce opportunities to perform paid work—but that is rare. Even then, the other people who joined in and made the hashtag trend go unacknowledged and unremunerated.
In many ways, Twitter is a journalist’s dream: It’s a digital town square that allows for exact quotes and easy attribution, without having to go through the trouble of cultivating sources and transcribing interviews. But at the root of the push for a Twitter blackout is the sense that real intellectual work is going on on the platform—work that goes beyond the role of “source” for another journalist’s post—and that it’s then being mined for profit by media organizations.
It’s important when considering whether or not Twitter is work to recognize the structural issue of diversity and exclusion in the mainstream media. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the media is particularly fascinated with Twitter conversations started by women of color at the same time that women of color are not well-represented as staffers at media outlets. Conversations like #NotYourNarrative are in many ways a response to that lack of representation, and an attempt to force the media to cover the experiences and opinions of women of color when they wouldn’t otherwise do so. Now that media outlets are showing interest in the stories that women of color have to tell, preventing those stories from being published under someone else’s byline only makes sense. A Twitter blackout, then, is a way of preserving that intellectual work for publication on a media outlet (and for pay).
I’m sure most people would classify this type of tweeting as activism instead of work, akin to offline actions designed to draw media attention to a particular issue. That would assign the tweeters the role of sources (or subjects) who do not and should not expect to be paid. But the fact that media representation is part of what’s being protested complicates this dynamic. Is there really no way for women of color to force the mainstream media to stop advancing exploitive narratives without subjecting themselves to the exploitation of providing their intellectual labor for free?
Another important consideration is the fact that most journalists are themselves working under difficult and often exploitative conditions. While reporters are the most accessible targets of anger, they are themselves under intense pressure from their bosses to produce content as quickly as possible. In any economic system, it’s tempting for the people at the very bottom to target those only one rung above them. But a radical restructuring of our media is not going to occur unless pressure is brought to bear on the people at the top, like the private owners of Buzzfeed who ultimately profit from our clicks. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine solidarity forming between tweeters and journalists in the current contentious climate.
The hypothetical Twitter blackout is, as far as I know, only a hypothetical. I reached out to Tina Vasquez, but she declined to comment, as she is planning to write her own article. Withholding one’s labor is always risky business, even more so for those performing invisible work than it is for those performing traditional, waged labor. Without women of color pushing for representation on Twitter, it’s possible that the media would revert to inattention instead of seeking out former tweeters to write for pay. The failure of the Huffington Post boycott to gain traction amongst freelancers is one example of how difficult it is to make any change in an industry where so many people are eager for exposure and willing to do work for free. But even the threat of a blackout provides us with the opportunity to reconsider how we view the ideas, conversations and disputes that flow freely on Twitter each day—less as talk and more as something to preserve and flesh out for a wider audience. Foregrounding the important intellectual contributions women of color have made on Twitter is only the first of many steps, but it’s a step that needs to be taken before we can move forward to any kind of material, structural change in journalism.
Read Next: Julia Carrie Wong on the media’s abject failure to reflect the diversity of our society
One of the first things I do when I walk into a room full of people is start counting. How many women? How many people of color? I calculate percentages in my head. I adjust my behavior accordingly.
It’s a habit I share with a lot of women of color that I know. It’s a piece of the armor. Not that this knowledge protects any of us from the silencing or microagressions or straight-up disrespect that might be heading our way, but there’s comfort in quantification.
In the past few months, as I’ve transitioned out of working in the labor movement and into freelance journalism, I’ve spent less time in meetings counting faces, and more time in front of the computer, counting bylines. I count people on mastheads. I count the subjects of feature articles.
And so, in honor of the launch today of Nate Silver’s data journalism venture, FiveThirtyEight.com, I’ve decided to inaugurate my guest blog here at The Nation with a data point of my own: based on the 2010 US Census count of the non-Hispanic white population, divided by two, white men account for about 31.85 percent of the US population.
You wouldn’t guess the minority status of white men from their representation in the media. White men are everywhere! Studies abound showing the overwhelming prevalence of white men in the media:
• People of color make up only 12.37 percent of newsrooms in the US.
• In a study of evening cable news appearances in April 2013, Media Matters found that out of 1,677 total guests, 62 percent on CNN, 60 percent on Fox News, and 54 percent on MSNBC were white men.
• The annual report on the Status of Women in the US Media from the Women’s Media Center shows that men are quoted 3.4 times more often than women in front-page stories in The New York Times, and there are four times as many men as women opinion writers at the major papers.
• According to the annual VIDA Count, more than 75 percent of 2013 bylines in The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker were men.
All of these statistics add up to an abject failure on the part of our media to reflect our society as it actually is. Voices of white men are privileged to such a degree that the white male experience is presumed to be the default, and every other experience becomes somehow other. The inherent bias that must result from existing at the intersection of racial, gender, class and every other conceivable privilege is erased. The rest of us are biased, we are told, by virtue of not being white, or male or middle class. The voices that we need to hear, if we are to adequately understand the lives of the other 68 percent, are drowned out, marginalized and ignored.
FiveThirtyEight is just one of several new media ventures launching this year that we are told will change the media as we know it today. Yet, as Emily Bell and others have pointed out, so far FiveThirtyEight, Vox and First Look Media appear to be replicating the same structural problems that produced the white-male dominated media we already have. Silver’s initial editorial hires are 31.5 percent women. As far as I can tell, almost all of the male hires are white.
Silver justified the gender balance by pointing out that 85 percent of the applicants were men. When I reached out to ask for an interview, I received the following comment: “Diverse viewpoints benefit a newsroom in myriad ways. As we’ve hired staff for FiveThirtyEight we’ve sought to assemble varied viewpoints and continue to make diversity a priority as we move forward.”
I’m no stats expert, but I am a baseball fan, and I have to say, Nate, that this isn’t baseball. You’re not in the running for the batting title because you’re hitting above 300. Your numbers suck.
Over the next two weeks, I plan to look more deeply into the question of representation in the media. I hope to bring you interviews with some of these new media moguls, an appraisal of diversity initiatives being undertaken by some media outlets, a discussion about how money plays into all of this, and looks at how the media are messing up the stories of the 68 percent. We need to figure out how to bring about a true revolution in our media, because when a white man with his own media venture can get away with describing his clubhouse by saying, “We’re outsiders, basically,” the guy we trust to explain the data is just not reading the numbers right.
Read Next: Steven Hill on why there are still so few women in public office