Reviving Alternative Media in an Age of Precarity
After graduating from both university and community college, completing five internships, writing furious freelance pieces and part-timing at a few magazines, I realized there wasn’t much of a future out there for aspiring and critical young writers. It was a difficult and bitter realization, but one that thousands of others face as they leave the heady world of student journalism to try and make their way in the media world. I eventually moved from Winnipeg to Toronto where things were, and are, much worse. I found myself taking temp positions at banks and the only people I met at parties were just like me: young, hopeful, perpetual interns with the drive and ability to write well but without a job or the prospect of one. Eventually I did the unthinkable and joined the “dark side,” taking a communications job at a local union, so at least I didn’t feel like a complete shit and I could finally afford to pay rent. I quit to go back to grad school and to hopefully ride out the worst of the recession on government scholarships and student loans — still waiting for that to happen, by the way. Sometimes I still imagine a return to the heady days of full-time writing and editing (in a workplace that actually pays!), or perhaps a day when journalism schools will churn out talented writers and editors into real jobs and not a surplus population of interns and temps. If we’re serious about reviving a tradition of critical popular writing, we need to think about how to support writers and editors who have the skills needed to produce the analysis and reportage we need. This will involve radically rethinking the existing alternative media models and the real limitations of these in supporting those who create value for them.
In his new book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloombury UK, 2011), former ILO economist Guy Standing speaks of the modern scourge of internships as a “rite of passage” for the new precariat, an emerging class of casually and informally employed workers who are at the heart of post-Fordist knowledge economies. In the US, federal law prevents firms from replacing employees with interns, so many companies have restricted internships to students. This has led young people to enrol in university just to get access to internships in order to collect unemployment benefits as “employment seekers.” It’s a rather dismal situation indeed, and one that is proliferating in Canada as companies cut costs, drive down wages and utilize unpaid interns across the workplace. While most young people recognize the exploitative nature (not to mention dullness) of most internships — I once met a New Yorker intern who told me she did nothing but Google information for senior writers — the idea that there could be some other way of structuring work or getting a job in the media world seems distant for many.
The shedding of permanent jobs from traditional print media in North America is an expected outcome of declining sales, digital readership, corporate consolidation and a volatile market environment. Corporate media operates within a framework dictated by profit motives, and as such we shouldn’t be surprised by these layoffs or the restructuring of newsrooms into conduits for public relations stunts and myopic editorial perspectives. At the same time, the media of the Left, typically the most vehement in their criticism of corporate media, haven’t fared much better. The relative decline of corporate media and the concentration of editorial voice into a handful of newsrooms have not prompted the emergence of some progressive new voices on the Canadian media landscape. In fact, many of the alternative voices within the Canadian media landscape are gasping for air.
It’s been left unsaid for a while, but some of the trends that characterize work in the mainstream media have proliferated in Left media where a large amount of work is done for little or no wages. This is most often due to real financial constraints and the rapid rollback of government funding for small publications and presses. In the midst of this onslaught it is heartening to see magazines like Dimension and others paying their interns and writers for their valuable work. But all too often this is where the road ends for many young writers who can’t intern indefinitely but still want to be engaged in some sort of progressive writing environment. The material produced by activists around the Occupy movement, for example, and most notably in the Occupy Gazette, speaks directly to the untapped potential of thousands of young writers, thinkers and artists. We don’t yet have a model for bringing these young voices into the fold and developing the writers and thinkers we need in these difficult times of global austerity and resistance.
But the question of how to build alternative media models that resist the commodification of information while remaining financially stable in a global media world is more complicated. The Left professes a support for open access based on the belief that information generated in the public interest, or toward some noble cause, should be freely available, and hopefully lead to some transformative action. At the same time it’s difficult to produce high quality content in an open-access environment — something many in the mainstream press found out a little too late — because the funds simply aren’t there to pay for skilled editing and writing. Alternative media is certainly alive in Canada, but can it be said to be flourishing? If we believe it isn’t, but there is the potential out there to renew it, then we have to think about what works within the current models and what doesn’t. As the standard employment relation drifts into the past, and casual and part-time work becomes the new norm, we will have to grapple with how we support new writers and foster emerging talent.