POLITICS DECEMBER 8, 2008
Barack Obama sounds like he wants to reach back to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration to jump start the economy with an economic stimulus proposal featuring infrastructure repair. If so, it may be time for the man who would be FDR to take a look at another successful--but largely forgotten--jobs program from the Depression era: the Federal Writers Project.
America’s newspaper industry has been imploding in the last few years, a development that predates the Wall Street collapse but has been hugely accelerated by the economic meltdown, forcing thousands of journalists onto the street. Hundreds more have now joined them from retrenching magazines and faltering websites, bringing the year-to-date total to 14,683, according to the tracking website Paper Cuts. Every day the journalism clearinghouse Romenesko links to stories of layoffs and downsizing--Gannett has been cutting 2,000 jobs across the chain, and Newsday has just announced another five percent in the last week alone. Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation’s hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers--including those newly laid off from the publishing industry--as well.
The Federal Writers Project operated from 1935-1939 under the leadership of Henry Alsberg, a journalist and theater director. In addition to providing employment to more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women, the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature. Their efforts ranged from comprehensive guides to 48 states and three territories to interviews with and photos of 2,300 former African-American slaves. These are preserved in the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.
Less overtly political and thus less controversial than the Federal Theater Project, the FWP nonetheless included some groundbreaking projects among more than 250 books, documenting the lives of racial minorities, factory workers, and sharecroppers, titles like These Are Our Lives, The Negro in Virginia, Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, Bibliography of Chicago Negroes, and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Each participating state project had a staff of editors that commissioned, approved, and supervised young field researchers who worked for about $80 a month.
Gifted FWP alumni who went on to distinguished literary careers include John Steinbeck, John Cheever, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and African Americans Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. The recent death of Studs Terkel-- a FWP veteran who went on to use the skills he developed in the program to chronicle the working- and middle-classes on his long-running radio show and in his Pulitzer Prize-winning books--is a reminder of how valuable this kind of experience can be. Ellison used his FWP research in Invisible Man, and Steinbeck and John Gunther relied on the FWP state guides for Travels With Charley: In Search of America and Inside U.S.A., respectively.
Today, there are many dislocated “old media” journalists from newspapers, radio, and television on the street--here I declare my personal interest, as one of them--who could provide a skilled pool to staff a new FWP. But since these journalists represent only a fraction of the larger displaced workforce, it is fair to ask what the public benefit would be of money spent.
This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media. At the same time, the multimedia fruits of this research would be open-sourced to all media, as well as to academics. As an example, oral history as a discipline has made great strides in the past 70 years, and with the development of video techniques, the forum of the Internet could make these multi-media interviews widely available to schools and scholars, as well as to average Americans.
How would it work? Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration--perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities--and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.
Like Detroit’s troubled Big Three automakers, federal intervention to save the newspaper and magazine industries are highly problematic, at best. Ink-on-paper periodicals are never coming back, and it may be some time before the web can provide well-paying jobs with health benefits--if it ever will. Until then, providing some way to provide young journalists a way to get started, or displaced media workers a way to transition to new occupations, or to retirement, might help--and serve the nation in the process.
Mark I. Pinsky, former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is at work on his fourth book.