When I was 16, on track to be a STEM major but unsure where my passion truly lay, I decided to attend a career panel featuring women in journalism. While I’d always been uncertain about my future, the women on the panel loved their jobs: they gushed about the creative freedom, the cabals of interesting and high-powered people in their social circles, and the way they used writing to change the world.
I was immediately and irrevocably captivated. I approached the stage after the event to strike up a conversation with one of the panelists and, beaming, asked her advice on how to move forward as a young writer.
She frowned a bit, leaned in like she was telling me a secret, and told me that I’d probably be better off doing literally anything else. “It’s a terrible, broken industry,” she said. “Getting in is hell, and staying in is harder.”
That obviously wasn’t a stellar introduction to the job, and it freaked me out enough that I followed her advice: but while I went to school to get a degree in physics and mathematics, I couldn’t seem to shake a feeling of listlessness. Halfway through my second semester, I watched a 15 minute YouTube video on freelance writing, called my mom, and decided to defer my education to pursue journalism full time.
I think it may have been the best decision of my life, but it also turned out to be one of the hardest. As I learned more about the industry, I realized that it had more than earned its reputation as nepotism-ridden, insular and near-impossible to break into — and I was an 18-year-old girl with no formal education, no rich or well-connected parents, and no portfolio. I was fighting tooth and nail to get my foot in a door that wasn’t built to open for me.
It wasn’t just a lack of connections that held me back, either: more than anything else, it was the fact that the conventions and intricacies of the industry are like a foreign language that nobody wants to teach you. I spent weeks googling how to structure a pitch, how to send an invoice, how to format an article, how to track down editors, and more — but there was next to no universal, reliable information available.
It took me weeks of sending pitches to useless, generic form emails until I learned it was the industry norm to pitch editors directly. In the end, my success came down largely to luck: by some miracle, I landed my first-ever paid piece at VICE and was able to start connecting with mentors and building a resumé from there (although not after embarrassing myself so thoroughly that I never pitched to that editor again).
Journalism is not an industry built for outsiders, but there is one way to break in: journalism school (J-school, colloquially) provides a head start for people to start acquiring the skills, connections and opportunities that you just can’t seem to find anywhere else. Students gain access to internships, industry professionals, campus publications, mentors and more, and many spend their four years building up a sizeable portfolio before they even enter the job market. Its cost also ranges from $7,000 – $38,000 a year, effectively excluding anyone without financial means or substantial parental support.
The structural elitism in journalism is a well-documented phenomenon. Media circles are close-knit, insular and usually completely inaccessible to poor people even after the cost of admission: The industry has always been reliant on unpaid internships, which are marketed as lucrative opportunities but require anywhere from 15-40 hours a week of unpaid labour.
“It’s just not possible for everybody [to get paid work]. And people see unpaid internships as this amazing opportunity, but our work should be worth getting paid for,” says writer and editor Sarah Krichel, who’s also the former editor-in-chief of Ryerson’s independent student newspaper the Eyeopener. “If you want something on your resumé like the Globe or the Post … you have to do unpaid internships, which a lot of people can’t afford to do.”
Not only is this system elitist, but it’s also a breeding ground for nepotism: A well-placed word from an internship connection or J-school friend is by far your best bet at landing an increasingly rare staff writer job (unless your father happens to be a publisher for The New York Times, in which case, go with that one!), and — at least until very recently — that nepotism has produced universally upper-class, homogenous, and, uh, notably monochrome newsrooms.
It makes sense: when an industry has been dominated by rich, white people for as long as it’s existed, nepotism becomes synonymous with racism and classism. And, more often than not, that bias is only exacerbated by J-schools.
“Although there’s relative diversity in the program itself — albeit, not that much, despite it being in a city praised for its diversity — it’s less about the presence of marginalized journalists for me … it’s more about the fact that those individuals are set up to fail from the beginning,” says Krichel. “… Students on the margins [are] treated as if they simply aren’t working hard enough.”
The program she’s talking about is Ryerson Journalism, the top-ranking J-school in the country — and even though the program produces some of the country’s top journalists every year, the school has come under fire many times for lack of diversity both in its student body and in its curriculum. It’s both a symptom and a cause of a deeply broken system.
Journalism is powerful when it serves to educate, inform and inspire people to consider new perspectives; it should hold a critical magnifying glass to society at large and use storytelling as a vector for tangible change. The barriers that prevent equal opportunity in media do the entire industry a disservice because they prevent it from serving its purpose.
The concept of journalistic objectivity is a fantasy: writers don’t exist in a vacuum, and their ideas are an inevitable, inexorable product of both their experiences and their blind spots. When we uphold institutions that prevent poor, Black, Indigenous and otherwise marginalized writers from being heard, all we’re doing is ensuring that Canadian media continues to be plagued by the racism and classism that’s infected the industry for the entirety of its existence.
Over the past few years, major outlets around the world have faced increased criticism for their biased coverage, racist headlines, and toxic culture. Many have responded by attempting to restructure their newsrooms to better prioritize diverse perspectives, but this is a band-aid solution at best.
Of course, we should be protecting the diversity that’s already present in newsrooms — but what about the countless voices that never even make it that far? How can we claim to diversify media when the entire system is built to exclude voices that can’t pay $30,000 for school, work countless hours for free or spend four years surrounded by faces that look nothing like them?
Free, diverse, honest media is the cornerstone of a healthy society, but we’ll never have truly diverse media for as long as our journalistic institutions are plagued by exclusionary elitism. It’s not just New York Times articles that are sheltered by a paywall, it’s the entire industry: the astronomical cost of J-school and the endless class- and race-privileged opportunities that follow serve as a near-impenetrable barrier to keep marginalized young people out.
Many established journalists are already doing incredible work to support those voices through mentorship, free information and affordable education, but it’s time to go even further: We need to reshape the entire structure of our institutions and create a future of journalism that’s open to everybody.
Rayne Fisher-Quann is a writer, activist and public speaker. You can find her on Twitter @raynefq.
Image: Christin Hume/Unsplash
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