This, again?

on bad news in media and how the internet never learns

Hi! I've been experimenting with a new format and style for my latest newsletters, so to make this an easier, more structured read, I'll list the topics I'm discussing up here. This week on gen yeet: Some thoughts on the media industry and advice (?) for the young people hoping to enter it, and how the sad, cyclical nature of eating disorders and their online glamorization, from Tumblr to TikTok.

CW: I discuss content about eating disorders in the second half of this newsletter.


“On Twitter, everything is bad.”

Sulking (1870) by Edgar Degas

Some days, my social media feeds represent parallel realities of our pandemic world. Instagram was a cheerful haven this week, filled with photos of smiling graduates in crisp caps and gowns, posing with celebratory cakes and 2020 balloons for their digital commencement ceremonies. 

On Twitter, everything is bad. The media industry is in a bruxist cycle of bad news, clenching its jaws in anticipation of more newsroom lay-offs, furloughs, and in some cases, suspension of print products entirely. Within the past few weeks, hundreds of reporters and editors — some whose work I devotedly follow — from The Atlantic, Condé Nast, Quartz, Vice, the Economist, and Buzzfeed lost their jobs. Thousands of other journalists working for regional and local papers all across America, which are devoted to covering underreported stories, were also axed.

Lately, I've gotten more emails and DMs on job hunting and employment prospects than ever. It’s demoralizing. An older friend in the industry bluntly told me when I was on a high from my job offer: “Start saving up for when you get laid off. It happens to everybody.”

I recently came across an old blog by NYT contributor and writer Jay Caspian Kang, which he re-shared in light of recent layoffs. He argues that too many young people, specifically writers of color, are brought on "as part of a cynical push to turn 'race writing,' especially race writing about pop culture, into a click factory.” However, those positions only exist for media companies to “clap themselves on the back because they have an 'authentic voice' writing about Beyoncé or the VMAs,” rather than invest in “a real commitment to diversity,” Kang wrote.

It's a cynical blog, and while I’ve only been in this industry for a couple of years, Kang’s observations were startlingly true, especially this paragraph:

[These companies] put forward poorly paid “fellowships” or meager web contracts that require no investment on their part. They, in large part, do not give out reporting assignments that might build up skills that could translate into long careers. The sort of work they do have so many of us do — “woke” pop culture writing — will only last as long as it drives the wan, asymmetrical glow of Media Twitter.

The real path to success as a journalist still remains the same: Have enough independent wealth so that you can take an unpaid internship or a $35,000 year job as an editorial assistant or fact-checker at a prestigious place and then work the office politics game (read: know how to work a room of Ivy League graduates) to the top. In five or ten or fifteen years, the network you build up during those early years will occupy the highest spots in media and they will bring you into the power structure.

There are only a handful of coveted internship positions at regional and national outlets that encourage students to actually report stories — not aggregate trend pieces. (A positive interruption: In recent years, initiatives like Report for America have funded more local reporting positions, ensuring they’re more accessible to young people.) Many digital outlets rely on entry-level workers to write short, click-ey stories on trending news topics. It might not be "woke pop culture writing,” as Kay referenced, but it could anything from quick hits on internet culture to summarizing political tweets and breaking news events with little to no reporting and a quick turnaround time. My first freelance endeavor was actually with Vice, where I was contracted to publish trending culture pieces I submitted in about 30 minutes.

These jobs, at the end of the day, are expendable, cheap, and guarantee very little upward mobility. Companies know that each year, there are a cohort of a thousand or so recent graduates willing to write for $15 an hour out of need for short-term employment. The pandemic’s financial impact has hit young journalists especially hard; internships have been canceled or moved remotely, and many companies have slashed freelance budgets and instating hiring freezes.

Extra credit reading from Study Hall: “Early Career Journalists Search for a Path Forward During a Pandemic”

It is honestly maddening how disingenuous the industry — the facade of job opportunity and security — is portrayed to young, aspiring journalists. At least it was to me, in hindsight. I was taught how to code, edit video, take live shots, write articles and produce multimedia — a jack-of-all-trades skill set that was supposed to make me eminently hire-able and attractive to future employers. In j-school, we are told that the profession we've chosen is honorable and necessary, that it is a cornerstone of American democracy. To be a journalist, we must be "objective" (a keyword for political both sides-ism preached by my predominantly white professors); we must be fair, honest, and revel in "speaking truth to power.” (To have a long career in media, you must believe in some, if not all, of those tenets.)

Yet, I was completely insulated from the reality of the media industry, while quietly sipping the Kool-aid that led me to believe a o pursue a $50,000-a-year degree would bring me a modicum of opportunity in an ailing field. After the 2016 election, I think students are more keenly wary of the “power” of journalism, so to speak. Still, I don't think we — experienced journalists, professors, mentors, and hiring managers — have been truthful enough.

USC's undergraduate j-school (which has changed for the better) is only one program out of many that rely on the same playbook to teach students. It's a playbook of skills that media companies frankly don't care about when it comes to laying off journalists, some with decades worth of experience and big followings are getting laid off. (Yes, I'm aware that the debate over whether j-school is really necessary has been litigated many many times.) Higher ed is, of course, a business. You can't really "sell" degrees by being so truthful about the dwindling industry's state that you scare off prospective students. I don't expect j-schools to be the solution, but I expect more truthfulness, based off the queries I’ve received from students. We need more smart young people to figure out a way out of this downwardly spiraling business model.

Besides starting my newsletter on Substack (which is an attempt at “an alternative media economy that gives journalists autonomy” and doesn’t rely on ads, according to its CEO), I don’t have a solution, at least for now. But I hope someone else will!

This, again?

Woman Before a Mirror (1897) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Internet is cyclical. From time to time, it resurfaces nostalgic trends that spark wistfulness and comfort. (My colleague Rebecca Jennings has written about some people’s relapse into early 2010s Tumblr culture during the pandemic.) Yet, the online aesthetic of the time overwhelmingly glamorized thinness, and it was ridiculously easy to stumble upon “pro-ana” content that actively encouraged dieting, anorexia, and posted “aspiring” images of #bonespo.

As a teenager, I’ve engaged in disordered forms of eating by compulsively tracking my food, restricting only to over-eat, and over-exercising. Quarantine only threatens to make those habits more pronounced, since it’s tempting to scrutinize your body, overindulge on pantry snacks, and drown in compulsive thoughts when you’re cooped up indoors all day. That’s why I’m so horrified to discover how frequently pro-eating disorder content appears on TikTok as of late and how easily it surfaces on a person’s For You page. These disorders affect people of all ages, but teenagers (the bulk of TikTok users) are an easily impressionable audience, who are susceptible to developing these habits.

What’s happening on TikTok is another manifestation of what happened on Tumblr in the 2010s. In my middle school days, it was “cool” to reblog #thinspo, aspire over thigh gaps, and wear thigh-high leggings (only if you had skinny legs though!). When I figure skated competitively, I knew many people who struggled with food. The recovery process varies; I personally discovered weight-lifting and “recovered” without professional help, but many are still managing their disorder.

For the most part, platforms have taken measures to hide or delete pro-ana content, so that users searching for certain hashtags and trends won’t be able to encounter them. On TikTok, the sporadic nature of the For You page only makes triggering content more widely available, with little to no content warning or option to avoid it. I’m not going to link any of these TikToks, but some of the content users have reported seeing: purging methods recommendations (why do this?), glamorized #thinspo, the eating disorder check, unhealthy weight loss tips, and “recovery” videos and images.

Dr. Ysabel Gerrard published an opinion piece in Wired, with policy recommendations surrounding moderation and how it could solve TikTok’s influx of pro-ana videos, instead of an outright ban on the topic. “Secrecy is one of the hallmarks of an eating disorder, meaning social media sometimes exists as a sufferer’s only form of support,” Gerrard writes. “With this in mind, TikTok could develop genuinely useful eating disorder resources...”

As long as the internet exists, harmful content will continue to be posted and, in some cases, widely circulated. With many users starting to ring the alarm bells on pro-ana content, there’s really no reason TikTok’s parent company can’t take more stringent measures to protect its young audience.

some good stuff, according to me

Reading:

  • Justin Torres’s short story “Lessons” published in Granta; Loan Le’s short story “Admission” in CRAFT

  • “This feels great — A Washington Post feature story, in which reporter Stephanie McCrummen interviews wealthy, white Georgians mingling around town the weekend the state reopened.

  • “The haunting of Girlstown” — Spooky warning for this fascinating feature story published in Vox.

  • V. by Thomas Pynchon

Listening:

  • Time to Say Goodbye — a podcast hosted by writers Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim and historian Andrew Liu

  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Side B and manifesting this tweet:

Recipes:

Yeah yeah, I’m still watching the Sopranos. Here’s a playlist I made to justify me not leaving NYC.

cheers,

t.n.

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