Monday, February 22, 2010

Why not resurrect parts of the WPA?

A traveling exhibit featuring photographs from the Great Depression recalls a segment of FDR's New Deal that put creative types to work alongside the millions of unemployed who built roads, swimming pools and museums as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Which begs the question: Why not do it again?

The exhibit, "This Great Nation Will Endure: Photographs of the Great Depression," was curated by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, according to the New York State Museum, which hosts the 150-photo show through March 14 in Albany. (It moves in April to the Northern Illinois University Art Museum in DeKalb.)

The photos include many of the iconic images now associated with the Depression -- such as the one here by Dorothea Lange -- which were taken as photographers, writers, musicians and actors were employed under various New Deal initiatives. Some 5 percent of WPA expenditures intended to lift the country out of the Depression went to cultural programs.

That same kind of prime-the-pump spending is present today in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, sending aid to states to repair roads, to communities to weatherize homes, and to the unemployed through extended jobless benefits.

So why not lend a hand again to creative types, to the thousands of reporters, editors and photographers who have been displaced by efforts at their newspapers to stanch Great Recession red ink through layoffs and buyouts?

Yes, I do have a vested interest in the suggestion, being a purge alum myself. But I didn't originate the idea.

Indeed, Mark Pinsky wrote about it in The New Republic in 2008; Robert McChesney and John Nichols mention it in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, as does the report last month from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on "Public Policy and Funding the News."

Pinsky, a former newspaperman, would create a kind of current-day WPA Federal Writers Project, under which grants would go to journalists to undertake specific assignments (listen to an NPR interview here). McChesney and Nichols would focus more on budding journalists by expanding an idea from media analyst Ken Doctor and others to create a journalism division of AmeriCorps that would subsidize the entry of young scribes into the field.

I'd add a complementary, me-too notion: Don't overlook us career journalists -- as mentors and editors to the budding journalists, as teachers of "news literacy" in schools, as skilled workers at the magazines and websites of nonprofits that now beg for volunteers.

But make sure, please, that we get a living wage. Just as the field of journalism needs a hand as it transitions to some new revenue model not underwritten by big ads from car dealers, retailers and cellphone companies, so, too, do we need help in this in-between period.

I promise to give the job my all, happy to be gainfully employed again and out of the menacing shadow of the Great Recession.


Greg Waldron said...

Nice idea, but the libertarian in me is a bit dubious about more government spending. I also feel the government should stay clear of journalism.

In Singapore the government runs the media, so self-censorship is rampant. The government can pretty much do as it pleases, and is guaranteed a friendly news spin.

I agree with you that something has to be done to save journalism, but government isn't the solution.


Not more gov't spending, just redirected gov't spending. If we can put ditch-diggers to work, why not writers? Give me a living wage and I'll be happy to spend it and help rebuild the economy. And fear of censorship? It's a false one given the American free-press tradition.