The “Pick Two” Journalism Lunch Special: Money, Meaning, or Morals

by Alizah Salario

Earlier this year, after it was announced that Daily Breeze reporter Rob Kuznia won a Pulitzer Prize for covering corruption in the Torrance, CA, school district, another revelation came to light: between penning the story and winning the Pulitzer, Kuznia had left journalism to become a publicist. His reason was, of course, money.

Kuznia’s story is an all too fitting example of the messed-up state of affairs that journalist Barbara Ehrenreich recently described in The Guardian. Ehrenreich, whose undercover expose Nickel and Dimed explores why Americans simply cannot get by on minimum wage, lamented how only the rich can afford to cover poverty — and why that’s bad for everyone:

True, the internet filled with a multiplicity of new outlets to write for, but paying writers or other “content providers” turned out not to be part of their business plan. I saw my own fees at one major news outlet drop to one third of their value between 2004 and 2009. I heard from younger journalists who were scrambling for adjunct jobs or doing piecework in “corporate communications.” But I determined to carry on writing about poverty and inequality even if I had to finance my efforts entirely on my own. And I felt noble for doing so.
Then, as the kids say today, I “checked my privilege.” I realized that there was something wrong with an arrangement whereby a relatively affluent person such as I had become could afford to write about minimum wage jobs, squirrels as an urban food source or the penalties for sleeping in parks, while the people who were actually experiencing these sorts of things, or were in danger of experiencing them, could not.

Granted, Kunzia wasn’t living in, or writing about, poverty. But he certainly wasn’t writing about topics that hit the internet traffic jackpot, like Cecil the Lion or whether that dress was blue or gold. In the age of birdseye journalism he was scuttling across the ground. Sure, his work sounds rewarding, but it doesn’t measure up using the metrics we now use to determine importance: traffic, advertising rates, shares and links. Birds-eye journalism. It’s a breeze to scroll the scene, swoop in and out with a quick take, get lots of clicks, and never have a clue what’s really happening on the ground.

By now, bemoaning the state of journalism is old hat. A few years — eons in real-time — have passed since a series of major metro papers folded, foreign bureaus were shuttered, and remaining staff members were culled. In the process, the path to a traditional journalism career eroded, or simply evolved, and so we writers/photographers/journalists/media folks had two choices: Adapt, or exit the business. If, like Kunzia, you want to dig deep into the trenches of corruption and structural inequalities, you better already have time and money. Even if not in abject poverty, most of us strive to make ends meet.

In part, that’s why Ehrenreich’s essay hit me hard. I’m a journalist who shuffles between corporate writing and essays/longform pieces about topics that (I think) really matter….and I accept this balancing act as a given in the particular historical moment I’m living in. Yet it makes me skeptical about labeling what I do as noble, or even important.

Case in point: A few years ago, I wrote and reported an article about how the wage gap disproportionately affects women in retail. It was for a small news outlet that relies heavily on freelancers; they’re not flush with cash. But when my $250 payment didn’t arrive within the requisite 60 days and I sent a follow-up email, I was told the funds were unavailable at that time. I would be paid eventually, and they were sorry, but they couldn’t pay me yet.

The irony was not lost on me that my reporting on wage inequality wasn’t being compensated in a timely fashion. I was a little angry, but believe it or not, I felt bad that they felt bad they didn’t have the money to pay me. If I was doing meaningful, important work, and I’d made a conscious choice to face the financial repercussions that went along with this path, then why should I get bent out of shape about the timeliness of my payment? Because it was my livelihood? Pshaw.

I reported on the story by walking into a Party City and Rainbow clothing store to talk to women supporting families on minimum wage. I busted out my bad Spanish to find sources, most of whom I didn’t want to talk on the record for fear of losing their job. I wasn’t truly in dire straits. How dare I be so selfish as to want to get paid for my work? How dare I expect too much?

As the months passed and I didn’t receive that payment, or others, as is the freelance life, I grew bitter. My commitment to writing and reporting original articles seemed naive, even retrograde. I hadn’t written some grand expose that was going to change the lives of minimum wage workers nationwide. All I’d done was my job. I wrote an article about an issue, an article for which I deserved to be paid. Maybe it was time to give up the Nellie Bly act and get a prestigious job writing listicles. I was struggling — and for what?

I got paid almost a year later, but the damage was done. Not getting compensated when I was struggling financially was humbling — and clarifying. I came to a sobering conclusion: My “sacrifices” weren’t noble or meaningful. They were compromising my sense of security, and I wasn’t willing to do that for a story. Perhaps if I had a financial safety net, I would feel differently. But I would rather be a publicist and make a decent living than struggle to make ends meet doing work I love. I don’t judge Rob Kunzia one bit.

Anyway, I do wonder what Kuznia was thinking after he left his job, but before he won the Pulitzer. Did he think he wasn’t good enough to make it? Was he tired of the grind? As for me, I’m fine with putting up with the crazy shuffle until a big break comes along. If it doesn’t, there is always the PR publicist job.

But I can’t help think of Ehrenreich’s conclusion that if only the rich are covering the poor, it will eventually be bad for everyone. A lot of stories — necessary, important ones — won’t make their way into the world. But for those who need to earn a solid living, the business will be a hard sell from here on out. We’ve conflated exposure, experience and yes, even noble work with compensation. Unfortunately, personal sacrifice and noble work doesn’t pay the bills.

But Ehrenreich is getting at something else, too: The current infrastructure not only limits the the pool of reporters, it diminishes hard-won craft of journalism. Journalism is not a handout. It is not advocacy. It is a necessary part of a democracy, and it is something the public deserves.

Alizah Salario is a journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.