Journalism: young writers are being denied a proving ground

Every other week brings a new closure of some beloved digital publisher. This week, it was The Awl and its sister site The Hairpin, which announced their closure with a muted sort of triumph. In its final post, ‘Awl Ends’, The Awl made the case that it had for years delivered upon its promise of making people ‘less stupid’, and that the internet and digital publishing in general would be worse because of its absence:

“For nearly a decade we followed a dream of building a better Internet, and though we did not manage to do that every day we tried very hard and we hope you don’t blame us for how things ultimately turned out.”

Nobody could possibly blame The Awl or the many great writers who got their first real exposure on the platform for its closure, or for the growing dearth of a proving ground for young journalists online. It was an idiosyncratic site that defied definition, equal parts blogging platform, battlement for avante-garde satire, and petri dish for a form of New Journalism. Writing of its closure for NPR, Glen Weldon argues that The Awl and The Hairpin were the successors to a long line of renowned titles:

“The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the ’70s, Spy Magazine in the ’80s, Sassy in the ’90s and McSweeney’s in the aughts — they were places someone could take their voice and sensibility out for a spin, to open them up and see what they could do. Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.”

At a time where every comments section and forum is invariably hostile to anyone with a serious point to make, that space to experiment in front of an appreciative and appreciable audience was a gift to the sort of young writer who might have gone on to be a Gay Talese or Joe McGinniss.

Unfortunately it seems that in today’s digital ecosystem, such deliberately vague and esoteric platforms have a hard time supporting themselves. It’s worth pointing out that The Awl’s other, more structured and focused properties Splitsider and The Billfold are continuing to publish.

The sites were both outliers, but their closure and the reaction to their ends has brought to light a quiet crisis in digital journalism. Younger writers, of the sort who might have become era-defining journalists, are struggling to find a place to grow their own audiences.

HuffPost has announced the closure of its contributor section, which – though it only accounted for 10 to 15 percent of the site’s traffic per the NYT – was another area in which aspiring writers found an audience. The move, which HuffPo’s new editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen argued was in part to counter the perception that the mainstream media is increasingly ‘fake news’, is a welcome one for those of us who’ve argued the media needs to reestablish its bonafides with regards to news reporting. But to do so, it has had to ditch a platform for young writers.

If those were the only two examples of young writers losing potential access to audiences, that would be bad enough. But between the Mail Online’s grad scheme effectively killing the desire of young journalists to continue within the profession, and shrinking opportunities for aspiring journalists to get on the rungs at regional publishers, the situation is desperate.

And you might think that this is a simple matter of young creatives choosing to do journalism elsewhere. YouTube, for instance, has been the making of a number of young content creators (as well as shining a spotlight on their very public mistakes) – but few if any of the more successful ones are doing ‘journalism’ as a public service, and appetite for news in video form remains relatively low. Additionally, in a move with parallels to HuffPost’s recent strategic shift, YouTube has just announced moves that will make it harder for smaller creators to make enough from the platform to support journalism.

There are still opportunities for young writers out there. The rise of crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Kickstarter’s Drip, in addition to new digital publications like mean that the process of actually funding young journalists has been democratised to an extent. But the economics of the internet don’t currently support experimental, avant-garde writing in the way that print publications do. In an age where news publishers are becoming more transparent and promoting their established journalists as a way to re-establish trust with their audience, it seems like there’s a gap in provision for the journalists who could broaden that appeal to other potential subscribers.

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog. 

Header image from Everjean via Flickr.