In January, The New York Times quietly announced that it was hiring five early-career writers to contribute essays to The Edit, its newsletter for students and young professionals. If you’re a young journalist in the United States, it’s likely that you applied. The news quickly spread online; friends texted friends and students excitedly discussed it over coffee and on social media. The response so overwhelmed the paper of record that it extended the deadline and hosted a live Q&A session with Lindsey Underwood, who edits the section. By the February 5 deadline, more than 20,000 young people around the world had applied.
The buzz surrounding The Edit surprised many, including Underwood, who told The Nation she was “blown away by the response.” But for many young people working in the media, the competition was no surprise. It’s another gig, a part-time job, a résumé-booster, and a chance to market your “personal brand”; for many young people entering today’s workforce in any field, it’s a familiar experience. The Edit will undoubtedly help the five young writers (or possibly more) the Times chooses, but after their year-long contract is over, they will most likely be thrust right back into the low-paying content aggregation jobs and endless internships that are part of the eternal quest for media success—the very same media landscape that opportunities like The Edit wind up helping preserve.
The Times has a justifiably legendary status. You would be hard pressed to find any writer adept in English who would turn down an opportunity to write regularly for the Gray Lady. But the most respected media institutions have few opportunities available for early career journalists. Unfortunately for young people, many of the the media companies hiring them are those that the American public—and the industry itself—respect and trust the least.
The number of journalists employed at traditional newspapers and magazines has been on a long-term, two-decade decline. With it has come an overall loss of union protection (notwithstanding recent trends) as digital media startups, short-term contracts, ubiquitous freelancing, and declining salaries and benefits spread. An early-career post at the Times, even as a limited contributor to a newsletter, would give young journalists a leg up for permanent jobs. It also could provide an all-too-rare way out of the gig economy, the equally praised and detested system that has oozed out of tech startups to transform the media industry.