Teenage Journalism

In case you missed it, Mike Pence’s dog died a few weeks ago, and here’s how the malicious imps at Jezebel headlined their piece:

An October Surprise for Mike Pence’s Dog: Death

The blog post, to which I refuse to link, leads with this sentence: “Tragedy has befallen the Trump-Pence campaign, which was already struggling, and it comes in the form of that tiny, pup-sized grim reaper who comes for all doggies eventually.”

A picture of Pence and his wife smiling with their dog follows.

As you can see, Jezebel is lower than rat droppings on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. This kind of “journalism” is sadly common. In the last, say, ten years, we’ve seen the rise of what I call Teenage Journalism. This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. I’ve also noticed it in British journalism, an industry with which I’m thoroughly familiar and in which I currently work — though it’s not nearly as acute over in Blighty.

You’ll recognize Teenage Journalism by the following features:

  • Very young writers, usually in their twenties
  • Working for popular publications or websites
  • A perpetually snarky tone and writing style
  • Vicious output whose only purpose is character assassination, shaming, ostracism, and career destruction
  • In its milder form, output based on attention-seeking contrarianism and clickbait
  • No original reporting or interviews; writing consists largely or even solely of opinion or reaction pieces
  • Writers with no prior reporting or journalism experience — for instance, as a lowly newspaper reporter somewhere out in the sticks
  • No prior work experience or expertise of any kind, for that matter — that is, no real life experience

Back in the day, journalism was full of drunk men with no college degrees. Journalism was a trade, not a profession. To land an opinion column meant first spending years as an actual reporter — making phone calls, leaving the office, talking to people, writing about car crashes, inquests, local crime, and other things that would never make you famous.

In the U.S., this meant usually starting at a local weekly paper, then advancing to a regional daily. If you were lucky, the next step was a national daily. In Britain, the progression was similar: you might start as a general assignment reporter at The Reading Chronicle, move on to the Coventry Telegraph after a year and then, if you were lucky after another few years, become the education correspondent for The Times.

After several years on an unprestigious beat, you might get finally get the chance to cover Congressional or parliamentary politics. Then, if you were really lucky, they’d ship you off to one of the paper’s foreign bureaus — most likely a third-world outpost like Mexico City or Nairobi or, if you hit that fantasy jackpot, Moscow or Berlin.

The point was by the time anyone cared about your opinion, you had acquired enough experience to offer it.

Now, I’ll only be 32 in January, but I feel like a cracked antique from another decade. My first job in journalism was at a regional weekly paper, which has since shut down. It was the most unglamorous operation you can imagine: a dirty, dated building that housed the production of a crappy print edition and an ancient website no one updated or read. I was writing mostly about boring town board meetings, community events, and local politics. After we were all suddenly laid off one day, I found work as a stringer for a daily and covered car crashes, criminal cases, and whatever else they gave me.

Why is Teenage Journalism so vicious? I think a lot of it is insecurity. Most teenage journalists have no real accomplishments. They are desperate for validation. You don’t have to be a cancer biologist, cardiac surgeon, or combat veteran to be an accomplished person. You just need to have been humbled by life — a few crappy jobs will do, or some experience that has little or nothing to do with the career ladder. Ever clean toilets? Care for a dying friend or family member? Suffer long-term unemployment or underemployment? Do volunteer work that wasn’t likely to earn you much social status among your peers and social media “followers”?

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some seasoned veteran. I’m not. I’m not even close to being well known in my field(s), and sometimes I actually like it that way. I like doing things the hard way. I like having to read and learn and be frustrated that no one cares or reads my work; it only forces me to work harder. I look back at some of my more youthful writing and cringe. Who was I to be so nasty and critical? (In that sense I had some teenage journalist in me at one point.) But I like to think I’ve done some things that have matured me as a writer.

Teenage journalists graduate from college and go right into blogging for places like Jezebel and Gizmodo. Most of them dream of being famous polemicists like Christopher Hitchens, praised for their wit and irreverence and paid lots of cash to be star columnists and speakers. They won’t even come close. The most they’ll get is a low-paid blogging gig; more than likely it’ll be a life of pitching one-off articles and getting a few hundred bucks here and there.

With few exceptions, that’s journalism nowadays. Recently, in London, I had coffee with a well-known British columnist who told me that, back in the 1970s, a freelancer could afford to rent a flat in Kensington on the fees he got from book reviews. If you know that section of London, you’re chuckling to yourself right now. Teenage Journalism is not the cause of the industry’s decline, but it has certainly contributed to it.

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