Gatekeeping and Meritocracy Will Be Media’s Undoing

Newcomers are despairing at the sight of an industry crumbling before their very eyes.

Whenever the topic of this year’s mass media exodus is broached, capitalistic greed is often brought up as the sole culprit. However true that might be, the supply of fresh blood that’s been long standing at the industry’s gates, awaiting the mere chance to prove its ground, is being turned away, burdened with the baggage of an industry that has historically valued meritocracy above all. “Just have good clips” the saying often goes, but what good is a portfolio if the doors are slammed shut, and there’s no way to get in unless you’ve been put through a meat-grinder of creative exhaustion with little pay-off at the end?

The main issue facing media in the upcoming decade won’t be the scarcity of jobs, but rather the potential talent it’s turning away by churning through its brightest. The desolation of Deadspin, the dismantling of ThinkProgress, the significant slashing of BuzzFeed’s newsroom, among other misfortunes in media’s troublesome 2019, are forewarnings to those who dare to come, to take the hint and turn their attention elsewhere.

To make matters worse, poaching from one publication to another has become a practice so commonplace, that a job posting for a staff writer at any publication seems almost like an empty formality–the rate at which a Twitter checkmark has their recent departure cushioned by loads of freelancing offers from other media outlets is nigh-on frightening. This decidedly has a knock-on effect on novices who’ll get their pitches systematically ignored due to the volume of advances from other, more renowned fixtures in the industry.

This is an all-too-familiar territory for bloggers, most-notably since the post-digital media boom in 2014. Those who once railed against gatekeeping are now the new gatekeepers, and after outlets like Vox and Slate had great success in hiring those whose expertise was limited to delighting a dedicated readership on a semi-regular basis, they’re now employing the same tactics used in the early aughts to disqualify them from which they’ve seldom used to be denied. This power dynamic makes for a space that is yearning to be injected with new life, especially as the perspectives start to get stale, and as the etiquette for “prim-and-proper journalism” starts to trump the great responsibility that writing about issues of power and justice naturally commands.

A conversation about the voiceless naturally has to entail blogging platforms, and chief among them at this current stage, is the very site you’re reading this on. It allowed writers to bypass the formalities of traditional writing and just focus on the content, giving rise to a whole new generation of bloggers who now are in a position to supplement their income, or completely substitute it using the clicks of curious subscribed readers. But as the platform tries to distance itself from being a glorified glossary of dubious financial advice and blockchain evangelism, it took the cues of early gatekeepers and brimmed its staff full of writers and editors who already have an established track-record in the media industry, rather than take a chance on rookies and inspire the future generation of writers to follow through on their path.

At the risk of sounding apathetic, it’s important to keep in mind the challenges of losing a job in an industry as unstable as media seems to be lately–just as important however, is on-boarding those who never had the chance to sully their fingers on a keyboard, and guaranteeing them a path to professional fulfillment by the end, such as they’re able to claim a piece of the pie and not get turned away due to lack of “experience”. If spending a good thirty minutes crafting a perfect cover letter while sleep-deprived taught me anything, it’s that the presentation of skill doesn’t matter that much when credentials lack. The institutions whose ultimate responsibility is to provide those credentials, run the whole gamut of biases that are very much a reflection of classist academia.

All of this combined, makes it so those who are eager to make a name for themselves in media, are put through a rigorous grooming process that strips their writing of all style and grit; enslaved to a system where they’re conditioned to think that their skills are exceptional, instead of cultivated and hard-earned; their position being sold as a reward for merit, ignoring the significant privilege it must carry in a time of great scarcity.

As media keeps shedding its most gifted — despite them being more-than-ever needed — one has to wonder if this entire ordeal was set up from the start for them to fail. While the perils of figuring out a working business model for the digital age occupied the discourse, everyone failed to realize that whose content will be layered between a Dr. Pepper’s soda can and a Popeye’s chicken sandwich, is ultimately the writers’. If those don’t stick around, discussing the future of media is almost a moot point since they’re its very lifeblood.

In an era where Trump calls media the “enemy of the people”, you’d think there would be more self-introspection about its role in the current discourse–not just as a conveyor of truth, but also an aspiration for those who wish to see more of it spread and cherished. Unfortunately, meritocracy-ridden systems of skill valorization have made it so that even those who show an incredible ability at surpassing the level of what’s on offer in their specialty, will get ignored because no one’s trying to saddle a sinking boat with more weight to carry.

There’s great literature out there, written by people who expect no financial return, doing it out of moral responsibility rather than lust after material compensation. Ingraining the idea of copious amounts of unpaid labor, and/or frivolous internships deep into the consciousness of the professional media class has already eroded a many’s concept of what dignity is, forcing them to begrudgingly put up with the emotional and physical toll of continuously seeking to hit this elusive bar of “hirable”, only to get knocked out at the first sight of financial hardship. That, will be media’s undoing, unless it engages the future of its industry more like a survivalist, and less like an old man blabbering about how it was all once prosperous and devoid of strife.