Whitlock’s baseless comparison, and the myth of the noble poor reporter

Jason Whitlock’s really forgotten about being a small-time journalist. Guess a few years at ESPN will do that to you.

Last night, Whitlock tweeted that he’s looking to hire an intern down in Los Angeles. OK, people do that all the time, and a guy as busy as Whitlock is/wants people to think he is should probably have one.

But he also included in the tweet what he expected to pay said intern/assistant: $8-$10 an hour.

Those who have much more familiarity with the cost of living in southern California than Whitlock replied to him that such a wage is essentially ridiculous. Whitlock didn’t take it well, by this string of tweets:

I started at $5 an hour. I’m looking for someone passionate who wants it. I started at the bottom.

You can see what’s wrong w/America by some of the responses. People think this shit is easy and should be handed to them.

I lived in a 1-room efficiency w/roaches my first year out of college…. Keep watching MTV and VH1 and the un-reality shows.

I was one who fired a retort tweet. No surprise, Whitlock didn’t respond. But I think I’ll embellish on my thoughts here.

It’s obvious I have a problem with Whitlock’s attitude. He’s also comparing apples and oranges.

Whitlock boasts about making a mere $5 an hour and living in a one-bedroom apartment with roaches at his first writing job out of college.

Two important details to note: Assuming his first job was after he graduated from Ball State, Whitlock started in the early 90′s. He also started out in Indiana.

In 1990, the federal minimum wage (which is also the minimum wage in Indiana) was raised from $3.35 an hour to $3.80 an hour. So Whitlock was making somewhere between 31.6 percent to 49.3 percent over minimum wage in his state.

Federal minimum wage now is $7.25, but in California it’s $8.00 even. So if Whitlock really wanted to replicate his experience, he would have to offer $10.50 an hour to $12 and hour at least. (Although if he acts like most media employers, the $10 is a carrot and he’s really not going to go over $8.50.)

Also, an important comparison in real estate should be considered. All things considered, Indiana is dirt-cheap to live in. One-bedroom apartments in Bloomington, a city Whitlock once worked in, can be found for well under $500 a month. You could make a go of that at $8 an hour.

In L.A., however? Whitlock’s rate wouldn’t even get a “one-bedroom efficiency with roaches.” More like the standing-room closet.

But forget a cost-of-living comparison. My annoyance at Whitlock’s statement really comes down to one of attitude.

Whitlock’s statements are an example of a too-frequent attitude among “old-school” journalists or anybody who started in the business before the start of this century: Your first media job should put you in a crappy living and money situation to toughen you up, and make you “earn your keep” in the business.

What a load of crap.

Yes, I have my battle story too, Mr. Whitlock. My first internship was for $500 a month. My first writing gig out of college, a good 15 years after yours, I made $9 an hour. I also had a falling out with my college roommates so I had to move into that one-bedroom roach place you so think everybody should have to live in. But in California, you can’t afford that on $9 an hour, so I was having to get $100 a month from my parents to make ends meet.

I now, of course, make more, but still less per week than Whitlock made when he left the Charlotte Observer and went to the Ann Arbor News 20 years ago. But I don’t look back on it fondly and say “That’s when I became a real journalist, by starting at the bottom” like Jason Whitlock does. I don’t think I grew from that. I don’t look back now on those times fondly.

I only view it as a miserable part of my life. I felt like I was failing myself, failing my parents who had saved for 20 years for college funds (I didn’t have a football scholarship unlike Whitlock) only to have me still needing money from them and failing anybody who thought that weird, quiet kid with a lot of random knowledge in his head was going to be successful.

No, there’s not anything good about that, nothing redeeming to take away from it. When I was there, I told myself “I wouldn’t wish these thoughts and worries on anybody.” I’m sticking to that.

Unlike Jason Whitlock, if I were to ever land a columnist gig with a large Midwest metro paper for 16 years plus ink large-figure writing deals with ESPN, AOL and Fox Sports and then launch out on my own brand, I will not voluntarily put somebody in that same misery-inducing position I found myself in five years ago. Then I won’t have the smug, idiotic attitude to tweet I’m doing them a favor by doing so.

I’m not interested in continuing a semi-hazing culture in the media world that’s already robbed it of too many young, talented writers. Leave that junk in the locker room at Ball State.

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7 Responses to Whitlock’s baseless comparison, and the myth of the noble poor reporter

  1. Zuri says:

    I’ve been saying this for some time now about Jason, and it really applies to all folks of his ilk: Don’t take him seriously. Any of it. Not the responses, the columns, comments on websites, none of it. The guy is pure controversy, whirling around as some self-righteous, contrarian know it all that feeds off his attention. For all of his amazing talents, his faults are much greater. And because of his reach — from Fox Sports and elsewhere — everyone gets to see the BS he spews. I wouldn’t even call him an old school journalist. He’s just a grumpy guy with a platform that enjoys stirring up controversy. It all fits into his M.O. — expanding his brand/name/self/idiocy. Best advice? Forget about it. He’s not worth it.

  2. Brian Kennedy says:

    I’ve got to disagree on this one. Maybe it’s American dream naïveté (thanks iPhone autocorrect) but I think that this is a great way to pay your dues. It’s a great way to filter out the people who want to glom on to a celebrity.

    If you want it bad enough you make it happen. There are a thousand stories like it. Work another job, take out a loan, marry Maria Schriver. If you want it bad enough then go get it.

    Think of the HUNDREDS of other journalism majors we sat next to every day. Where the hell are they now? They’re not online editors, they’re not writing books. But the core kids that we surrounded ourselves with are doing it, they are making it happen. All because they paid there dues and suffered and struggled and made mistakes.

    • Robert LaHue says:

      Where the hell are they now? A lot of them are in other professions making a lot more money.

      I’m joking, kind of. And it may be a little while longer before Maria is ready to date again.

      But your argument is one of “We need to weed out the weak and find the tough ones,” when I’d rather weed out the bad and find the good ones.

      A “tough” reporter or a tough journalist is not necessarily a good reporter or a good journalist. And right now this industry needs the good journalists a lot more than it needs tough ones.

      The news industry should be building it’s future (people, ideas, etc.) like a genetics lab, really developing and cultivating the best. Instead, it’s still acting like salmon – dump a bunch of eggs in the sand, shoot a bunch of sperm at them, bury them and hope something survives.

      I think some of the most talented j-majors we sat next to aren’t in the business anymore. They were all in it at one point and then left for better paying and/or less stressful situations (like, for example, university communications, non-profits and the publishing side of books) which to me is far more tragic than the ones who got their degrees then never took a news job. Because this business had their talents and skills, but they lost them. And it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever come back. And the communities they covered (plus all of us to some extent) will be that much worse off because of it.

  3. Brian Kennedy says:

    Well put!

  4. Zuri says:

    Just looking back at this I got a couple of thoughts on the cultivation of journalists: It wasn’t until I came to the Boston Globe did I really go through a thorough copy editing process. And it wasn’t until I got to the Globe that people were actually interested in my background and how my qualifications came to be qualifications. It seems to me there are a number of news organizations that operate, hire and promote based on a number of factors that are essential but have very little to do with talent. I’d like to think that the Globe, the New York Times, etc., etc., are different. But they fall into the same category of employer at times as well. But I also think they get it right more times than not. For other papers, I don’t see that same vigorous copy editing in place and I don’t see that same difficult hiring process — where everything you do and have done is looked at by someone (not just the stuff in the packet you send along). It seems to me like an analogy of website statistics. Everyone is looking at page views, but only a few are eyeballing the unique visitors and time on site. And even fewer are diving deeper with a look at visitor pathways, etc. So, sorry to be long-winded, but Rob I think you’re right. Cultivating talent is very important. This idea of weeding out the weak and the strong is fundamentally rooted in the economics of the journalism industry — where the pay scale is dictated by a market over saturated with writers and long-held beliefs of an unfair pay structure. Again, it has nothing to do with talent but everything to do with money.

    • Robert LaHue says:

      You know, the more I think about this, the more I want to flesh out the issue of cultivating talent. Not totally sure how I want to do it, but I just know I want to.

      I’m also reminded of this statement by Charles P. Pearce (I never know whether to go with Charles P. or Charlie with him) that he gave on Chris Jones’ blog: “One thing that drives me crazy, and this is especially true in newspapers, is the notion that you should take your best writer and “promote” him to be an editor. This is idiotic, and it happens all the time, and nine times out of ten you lose a good writer and end up with a mediocre editor. You can no more “promote” a writer to be an editor than you can “promote” a plumber to be a gardener. Totally different skill sets.”

      And later, he adds “In between counting beans and worrying about the Internet, the people who run America’s newspapers should get off their ass, identify their best young editors, and train them AS EDITORS.” That kind of goes along the lines of the point I’m trying to make. Maybe because I’m in the middle of wondering if I’m a better writer or editor.

      And then you throw reporting into the equation, which is totally different than writing, and it gets really complicated.