Economic misery has spread to journalism and newspeople everywhere are being laid-off. But The New Republic's Mark Pinsky has found hope for reporters in a previous economic downturn. He advocates a resurrection and re-imagining of the Work Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Media Land is drowning in red ink – like that’s new. NPR just let go seven percent of its workforce, canceling the programs Day to Day and News and Notes. The New York Times announced plans to borrow a quarter of a billion dollars against its building. The Tribune Company, owners of The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, declared bankruptcy. We could do this every week.
All over the country, at papers large and small, budgets have been slashed, journalists have lost their jobs. The avalanche of pink slips has writer Mark Pinsky thinking about the last Great Depression, when thousands of wordsmiths were put to work on the Federal Writers’ Project.
Created in 1935 as part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the Writers’ Project, at least in Pinsky’s view, is ripe for resurrection. MARK PINSKY: There are so many unemployed, displaced media workers that I think there’s a place for people like us in the economic stimulus program. If President-Elect Obama’s going to reach back to the Works Progress Administration, the WPA from the 1930s, as a model or a partial model for his economic stimulus program, he might look to a component called the Federal Writers' Project. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So compare and contrast the original Federal Writers' Program with the one that you propose. MARK PINSKY: I guess I would call mine the Federal Writers' Project Light. Unlike the original program, which had a fairly large staff in each state, which paid people on an hourly basis in an ongoing way, what I envision is something somewhere between the Pell Education Grants and the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, which is to say relatively modest grants that would be based on a project, not on an hourly basis.
This would not provide people with jobs, per se, but these would be projects that would be research projects, mostly interviews, that would be approved and put out by community colleges and universities.
By having community colleges particularly, and universities as well, be the sort of administrators, I think that would keep it from being too elitist, for example, and it would fill academic needs and societal needs that these institutions that are pretty close to the ground would need. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you suggest certain topics, areas for writing that I guess are intentionally reminiscent of the kind of work that was supported 60 years ago. MARK PINSKY: That’s correct. The Federal Writers' Project went to people like sharecroppers, for example, or factory workers, for example, or, most notably, those surviving American slaves, 2300 surviving American slaves who were interviewed in depth and in detail and became part of a 17-volume series.
I think there are many people whose lives are worthy of documenting that otherwise the economics of the news business would not suggest that would be possible. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me some examples? MARK PINSKY: Well, one thing that really interests me is the changing complexion of America, literally - that is, the modern immigrant experience. I think it’s often part of a polarized debate, but I would be interested, and I think America ultimately would be interested, in the stories of these immigrants who have come and how they've made their way.
But there are other ways. I mean, President-Elect Obama talks about the transition to a green economy. I think it would be interesting, if that happens, to have some people out there actually documenting how that transition has worked. And at the same time, I think we're in the midst of – I guess we can call a Great Recession, and I think that’s something that’s meritorious of some attention, as well. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in the comment section following the story you did in The New Republic, you had at least three different people suggesting that maybe journalists should pick up shovels if they're looking for work. And, you know, in a way, you have to understand that reaction a little, at a time when everyone’s screaming for bailouts and helping-hand dollars. Are college-graduated J-school grads the ones who should be getting the bucks?
I mean, during the Depression, a lot of reporters were working class, but that’s not the case anymore. How would you argue that this isn't special pleading? MARK PINSKY: I think people should be able to use their skills in a way that would help the country in the best way. People are literally out on the street with no income, in some cases, and I think a modest program which would be kind of a transitional thing for them or – and not just for older journalists. I think this is a program that for younger journalists or would-be journalists who might not be able to get an entry-level job because of the contraction of the industry, here would be an opportunity for them to show what they can do that would enable them to move into journalism. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the producer of this segment, Megan Ryan, says that maybe this idea of yours isn't about protecting individual writers but about saving the Fourth Estate. But I, for one, I'm not sure that the Fourth Estate needs saving. Maybe it’s just the newspaper and the magazine industries that failed to keep up with the times that need saving. I don't think that we're seeing the end times of good journalism. MARK PINSKY: I would disagree. When you see not only these major catastrophic cuts in newspapers and magazines, if you look around, you see it elsewhere in the economy, as well, elsewhere in the new media. All these news websites that were going to really make a change, they've had cutbacks, too. I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There is a force – [OVERTALK] BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're in a recession. Everybody is cutting back. There are some websites that are doing incredibly good work and are not suffering unduly, because of that good work. MARK PINSKY: Well, I would suggest that some of this predates the actual recession. I think there is a disengagement in our population. People are not being engaged because they feel they don't have to be engaged. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. MARK PINSKY: Thanks a lot, Brooke. I appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can find Mark Pinsky’s plan for a new Federal Writers' Project on The New Republic Online.
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