“But I went into the humanities for the $$$!”*

*No, I didn’t.

It would appear as though the problem that haunts the halls of modern academia (which is to say that adjuncts are taking over the academy while being paid poverty wages) is riding the heels of journalism too.

Since I’ve started working at the CPI, I’ve signed up for some of the bajillions of emails that the journalism industry sends out to itself each day. I get headlines from the American Press Institute, the Pew Research Center, and Neiman Lab in my inbox every morning (or, in Neiman Lab’s case, every afternoon. Get on it Neiman Lab!). They’re all pretty good, if highly repetitious, and underscore the fact that journalism is the only industry more interested in navel-gazing than academia.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, the prize for local reporting went to three reporters from the Torrance, Ca.-based Daily Breeze. And, shortly after the winners were made public, there was an onslaught of articles (many from those email list-generators) about one of those writers, Rob Kuznia, who, after 15 years in the business, left the Daily Breeze last August for a better-paying job in PR.

“I was able to pay the rent. But I wasn’t able to save anything. A house was a pipe dream,” Kuznia said. “It’s the kind of thing that if I was in my 20s I would have been okay with, but I was approaching 40, so it was scary.”

Scary indeed.

It seems like this what teaching and journalism have become – a place where recent graduates (20-somethings in journalism, 30-somethings in academia) can muck about for a few years before things get “serious” (i.e. marriage and children) and it’s time to actually be an adult (i.e. leave those scrawny fields for some “greener” pastures). Because, if you stick around in these industries and don’t “make it” (i.e. get a tenure-track teaching position or some well-paying position at BuzzFeed), the options become pretty bleak.

margaret maryTake, for example, this NPR article about Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year-old who died penniless and nearly homeless after 25 years of part-time teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Vojtko had cancer and “very high medical bills,” according to Daniel Kovalik, senior counsel to the Steelworkers Union, with whom Duquesne’s adjuncts were trying to organize. She earned $10,000 a year and had no benefits, and was overwhelmed with both debt and doubt: Duquesne, like most schools, renewed her contact annually and it was never guaranteed. Vojtko was probably also only teaching two to three classes a year. At $2,500 to $5,000 per course (and you are paid per course), most adjuncts make between $20,000 (if you’re only working 50 or so hours a week) and $40,000 a year (if you’re really busting ass). That’s a low wage lifestyle without added benefits and no guarantees that your job will be back next semester. It’s terrifying.

Now Vojtko is the exception rather than the rule. But that’s not to say that her story isn’t illustrative. And it’s not to say that there aren’t a whole lot of other Margaret Mary Vojtkos out there, both teaching in our classrooms and writing our news stories.

But the way I see it is that Vojtko and Kuznia as two sides of the same coin. Kuznia bailed out of journalism when things got too rough, even though, after he left, he was awarded one of the most prestigious prizes for his work. His award is essentially a postmortem to the end of his career, even though he claims he would reconsider journalism jobs if they could support his family. Meanwhile, Vojtko stuck with it, dedicating her whole life to teaching, and died penniless and destitute because of her choice. Could Vojtko have pulled a Kuznia and bailed out when things got rough? And could Kuznia have been the next Vojtko, struggling – and perhaps even dying – from dedication to his career?

I think Vojtko and Kuznia are closer than we think. They represent what happens when people from the humanities struggle and suffer in an economy that doesn’t adequately remunerate what we do. As undervalued actors in a global society, they represent two of the more extreme choices humanities scholars have to make: should we bail out, or stay? And what are the costs of either choice, or both?

Writing, teaching, reporting, living the life of the mind and defending culture and the “truth” – these are the things that initially attracted me, and most of the people I know, to the humanities in the first place. Journalists stay in journalism because it’s a “calling.” That’s also the reason most people teach. And yet, due to “fluctuations in the market” and the “changing nature of the industry,” it’s also the reason why we’ve allowed writers and teachers and professors and journalists to be some of the people who are getting screwed the hardest by the changes taking place in newsrooms and classrooms across the country.

My husband was a journalist when we came back from Africa and were living in the D.C. area. He was thrilled to find the job – it was 2008 and he was thrilled to find anything – but he was especially excited to write about arts and culture. He was not terribly excited when they offered him his starting salary, however: $30,000 a year (though that came with benefits, so he had it better than most adjuncts). He convinced the paper to up it to $35k (no small feat) and off he went, driving down to southern Maryland from Takoma Park every day, piling over 50,000 miles on our old Hyundai Elantra. And why? Because that’s what he was: a journalist, and a proud one. So proud that he was willingly underpaid. For a guy with a bachelor’s degree from a good school and years of experience, even in 2008 it was hard to get $35k. That’s small-town journalism for you.

He did this for four promotion-less years, until he realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Now he still writes – he’s a speechwriter for the Secretary of Transportation – but he isn’t in journalism. And it’s precisely because of his career change that we’re now able to begin discussing things like buying a house and having a baby – things that would have been impossible when he was a journalist and I was a grad student.

Dickson is just like Rob Kuznia. He abandoned journalism when he realized that he needed to (and, yes, that he wanted to) live a life that was more economically sustainable. And why the hell not? Why wouldn’t someone in their mid-30s be interested in being self-sufficient and pursuing the markers of functional adulthood that not-mooching-off-your-parents bring?

So why do we continue to allow universities to be bloated with administrators while paying adjuncts poverty-level wages? And why do we claim to be interested in the news when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have to abandon the field to go into PR so they can afford to buy a home? Just because people feel a “calling” to enter into a field doesn’t mean that they should be punished for their decisions. The same holds true for teachers at the pre-college level, social workers, health care aids, and police and firefighters.

And yet, for as much news as Kuznia and Vojtko generate, very little is being done to actually solve the problem. Journalism is still a “sinking ship.” Myriad commentators continue to warn against getting a humanities Ph.D. And people like Dickson – who was really a good journalist! – and me – who taught my own class once and the students didn’t riot! – are going to keep leaving the field, probably at an even faster pace, if we can’t make lives out of this that don’t leave us dying in the damn streets.

If you get a Pulitzer and still bail, you’d think people would start to reconsider what was happening to the state of American journalism, and why. And if an 83-year-old dies destitute for her “love of teaching,” you’d think universities would open their hearts. But are they? Well, not yet. Maybe they will, and that’ll be the subject of another article I read in an email from Neiman Lab or the American Press Institute. In fact, I look forward to that day.

But until then, it’s your call, Industry, and your future too. Use us or lose us. Because once we’re gone, like Kuznia and Vojtko, we’re really gone. And that waste of human talent is huge.


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