Can writers get a federal bailout too?

Some think the time is ripe to revive a New Deal program that put writers to work for the public good. Others say that's what bloggers are already doing.
Crosscut archive image.

Walt Crowley. (

Some think the time is ripe to revive a New Deal program that put writers to work for the public good. Others say that's what bloggers are already doing.

The late Walt Crowley, co-founder of the local history website HistoryLink, used call his project an example of "venture socialism." As a non-profit, HistoryLink has been partly supported by funds from local government as well as foundations and private donors. In HistoryLink's end-of-the-year fundraising appeal (I sent my check), Walt's widow and the group's president and executive director Marie McCaffrey writes that in 2009, they expect that their funding from the the state, city and county will be "massively reduced."

The economy and government cutbacks are current realities, but that's spurring thinking that Obama's new New Deal ought to include help for the media, and perhaps projects just like HistoryLink which does a public service by creating a free, web-based encyclopedia of local history that's a resource that probably wouldn't otherwise exist.

There's new talk of a revival of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writer's Project (FWP) of the Franklin D. Roosevelt era which produced a body of research (such as compiling oral histories of then-living former slaves and recording American folklore) and books (extensive guides to all 48 states and some territories) still popular and valuable to scholars more half a century later. Writers thus employed included John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Vardis Fisher, Nelson Algren, and others known and unknown, all funded by the taxpayers. Venture socialism for writers is not a new idea.

The discussion comes at a critical tipping point for the U.S. media which was in serious trouble even before the economy tanked. Daily newspapers are massively cutting back staff, on the auction block (some with no bidders), facing bankruptcy, or simply folding. This is largely due to a collapse of the old newspaper advertising model thanks to the web. The result is thousands of writers, editors and reporters are looking for jobs and a new media model has yet to emerge to pay for their services. And it might take a long time, if ever.

Mark Pinsky, an author and former daily newspaper reporter, makes the case for a new writer's project in The New Republic:

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.

Putting old-school journalists to work for the public good is not a universally popular idea, if you read the comments thread on Pinsky's article (you can also hear Pinsky discuss his idea on NPR). Said one: "Great idea! Let's keep the ultra liberal media iconoclasts on the public dole until the economy picks up. PLEASE! Get in touch with reality!" Some also wonder whether writers really need any help to be more prolific: look at the blogging explosion, look at Wikipedia. A lot of stuff is happening without public subsidy.

The argument in favor isn't simply make-work for journos. It's to pursue projects in the public interest that aren't necessarily commercially viable but are valuable in terms of scholarship, documentation, and education. A program that Pinsky envisions could be a source of grant funding for groups like HistoryLink, which is a huge boon for teachers and school kids.

There's also long been a media critique (by media critic Robert McChesney and others) arguing that the government should support and even subsidize a broader range of public-interest media and that private corporate media pose a far greater threat to democracy than "socialism." Some would argue that basic local print news and investigative reporting is endangered and ought to be propped up with public funding, along with oral histories and such. Some view public media restructuring as necessary even without the current economic pressures.

There's plenty of privately driven innovation is this area. Crosscut itself is one of a number oflocal web-based news sites that is going the non-profit media route, though not pursing public funding.

So would a new Federal Writer's Project re-deploy writers and editors to do public works (like documenting local communities) or fund general news gathering activities? Would it generate data, semi-scholarship, or provide a kind of print version on National Public Radio? Would it include features like taxpayer-funded commentary?

Another supporter of a new FWP is Steven Rosen writing in Cleveland's CityBeat:

[A] revived Federal Writers Project could also produce something of a more permanent nature — books. That would also promote literacy. One natural mission could be to update the American Guide series, chronicling the changes our cities and states have seen — suburbanization and urban renewal, Sun Belt growth and Rust Belt struggles--in the second half of the 20th century. This would include political, cultural and social changes, too, as well as bricks and mortar, and would rely on oral histories as well as traditional research. The success of NPR'ꀙs StoryCorps shows just how accepted the oral-approach has become.

Not everyone likes the idea of subsidizing authors. In a Sunday New York Times essay, Paul Greenberg humorously argues that the feds ought not emulate the FWP and instead take a cue from another federal program, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. In essence, just as farmers are paid not to grow certain crops, the feds could buy out writers. There's a glut of scribes. Get half of them out of the business forever and there'll be more opportunity (book contracts etc.) for the remaining few. This helps bailout U.S. publishers too who are publishing too many books (some 275,000 per year). The problem is America suffers from an overcapacity of writers and it's getting worse, Greenberg says, because with so many people having to change jobs or switch professions in this economy, what do they all want to be? Writers.

Greenberg's idea of paying writers to shut up, appealing as that may be, is more likely to create a new kind of welfare fraud. Many bought-out writers would simply take the money and writer under a pen name.

This brings up one problem with a new FWP: Why should taxpayers pay for stuff when they can get it for free? Writing tends to be a profession that chooses you rather than the other way around. In other words, a writer will find a way to write whether there's a public dole or not. Most, I'm sure, would welcome federal grants to do cool stuff, but many are going to write no matter what.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.