Publishing, privilege, and noblesse oblige

Oft-quoted, HL Mencken described journalism as the life of kings.

This quote does the industry a disservice and in this column I argue that publishers should use an older framework, noblesse oblige, to better understand their social obligation.

Mencken’s quote absorbed by us, the modern reader: We read into that royal verbiage, a higher calling, a sense of duty. Yes, true. But we must contextualize the calling in the social milieu where Mencken grew up.

The son of a union-busting cigar factory owner, Mencken’s journey into journalism was made possible by his father’s death, giving Mencken the opportunity to move into journalism. Mencken was no man on a social mission. In fact, his social stances would be considered bigoted today.

Calling his vocation the life of kings, Mencken does not focus on the obligation of his calling, but the solipsistic pleasures of being a journalist. The peace of mind one has, the agency one can exhibit, the novelty of new information and ideas. Mencken didn’t call it the “life of kings” because he was doing something grand with his life; in his own words he did it because it was fun:

As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.

Mencken only understood a fraction of what it means to be in news. He focused on his experience as a producer, an agitator, a reporter, becoming enthralled with his own voice. Heck yeah, it’s fun.

Sadly, many managers in today’s news industry show a similar career trajectory to Mencken. A large percentage of these people, namely older white men who constitute the majority of media leadership, were directly inspired by Watergate and a newfound relevancy for the news media that hadn’t been seen since the muckrakers. Ever seen All the President’s Men? Delightful movie, right? It helped inspire a new generation that, yes, this “life of kings” might be for them, too.

There is a tendency by newsroom middle management to believe that because they were the ones who showed up first, they have some greater claim to leadership. What they don’t realize is: The very ability to show up had in it embedded the same socioeconomic disparities that are evident at every level of the newsroom.

As a privileged person it can be difficult if not impossible to appreciate the amount of social security built into our very family fabric. Being able to accept a job in journalism is a great example.

I believe that there are many out there who might qualify as yeoman reporters, those with a burning desire to do this work and a reasonable (if sometimes dwindled) confidence that they will be financially secure, at some point. Some examples of how family money matters in these early stages:

  • College tuition/expenses
  • Down payments for apartment
  • Interim health insurance coverage
  • ???

One’s ability to accept a low-paying job as a “foot in the door” reflects not their drive, not their passion, but centuries-old accumulation of systematic inequities. As with Greek life, there is surely some element of hazing in this setup – “I went through a shitty low-paying period, so you should too!” At face value this sentiment is despicable, punitive and small. Even being able to “hedge” a life in journalism by trying an internship while you supplement with other income, this is not really a feasible or advisable situation for those who live with daily financial risk.

I have a noblesse oblige when it comes to news. My privilege, my education, my experiences – they have equipped me to do good in this field. And “do good” to me specifically means implementing systems that increase equity in local news: Ownership matters.

Equity means that we have living wages for every position we hire.

Equity means that we actively try to identify under-represented and under-heard populations and raise them up.

Equity means that at times we make decisions which will negatively impact our net worth in favor of a greater good.

Equity means employee stock option plans.

Equity means that actively seeking and addressing structural issues.

Those most in need of hearing this message will have already reacted allergically to the idea that somehow their privilege, their whiteness, their heteronormativity is somehow here a problem. I don’t have a good answer to you, it’s a struggle I also face and will until I die. What was my obligation? Did I meet it?

In the near future (with a dash of luck), this will be a business issue and not just a moral one. Diverse workforce produce better results. Labor won’t tolerate misguided management forever, and new organizations with these principles embedded will begin to change the news industry from within.

While it may seem strong to reject criticisms, to circle up the wagons and show no weakness, there is much greater power in humbly processing and acting on critical feedback. Doing so is tough and it requires vulnerability – vulnerability to the public, to our staff, to ourselves. But quite frankly, it’s the only damn way we are going to fix this mess.

Categorized as Riffs
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