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The Rumpus Interview with Alexandra Kimball

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You probably have not heard of Alexandra Kimball. She’s a young Canadian writer who has spent the last decade trying to break into a career in journalism. Working from Toronto, Kimball found herself floundering in her efforts to publish, went back to the refuge of grad school to get an “accidental” Ph.D., and only truly felt like she had the time and financial cushion to make it when she inherited a small sum of money unexpectedly from a relative.

Her observation may sound familiar to hordes of young writers, graduated and struggling into a new Internet-based world in a troubled economy: that what it takes to make it as a journalist is not pluck, moxy, verve, or any of those other underutilized descriptors, but rather a financial base, either from savings or one’s parents. The economic ability to take one or more unpaid internships early in a career may be far more important than talent, insight, or work ethic.

This led her to write the piece “How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship” for the journal Hazlitt. It subsequently got picked up by The Guardian and went viral among journos, fresh grads, and the ever-prickly libertarian crowd.

It’s as provocative a piece as has been written about the state of professional journalism in recent memory, and its implications should trouble us: a profession that truly needs full representation, and that is much-ballyhooed as a supposed meritocracy, may actually restrict itself to a certain class who can afford to work for free after college.

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The Rumpus: First things first: I really loved your piece because I recognized in it so many of the hard decisions I had to make to pursue writing. How did you come to write it? What was its inception?

Kimball: Well, [after inheriting the money] I made the transition to freelance, and I got all these assignments off the bat, and I realized, Okay, I might be able to do this. But I felt pretty strange about the fact that what it took, after all that time, was just having no debt and some savings. Now, it’s common for starting-out journalists to work three jobs and write for free. When my piece was singled out as particularly candid or brave, it was strange because I thought it was saying something pretty obvious.

So I wanted to explore that shift in privilege without using academic language like “economics of opportunity” or whatever. Also, I’m not a labor expert, and I have no idea how the internal politics of media hiring and firing go, so it pretty much had to be a personal essay. Which was scary, on the one hand, because I’m a really private person, and I never saw myself as doing memoir or personal journalism, but on the other hand, the fact that it scared me was a good sign, that it might be worth hearing. Then again, I didn’t know if I wanted my first piece to be me coming out opening fire against the industry I wanted to work in.

Rumpus: About that: what attracted me to the piece was the feeling of, “Yes! Kindred spirit.” Because I showed you the op-ed I wrote in 2010, and I definitely got out of school with that feeling that the only way into some of these places is to basically work for free. And you say a lot of people—young journalists—had a similar reaction to the piece?

Kimball: I loved your piece about internships.[1] I loved how you pointed out that even the free internships are difficult to get. Like, you didn’t intern at Goldman Sachs because you didn’t know anyone at Goldman Sachs. But yeah, I’ve had dozens of emails, actually, from young people who are either on the job market, or about to graduate, and they’re saying, “Okay, this is exactly what’s happening to me now. I’m feeling like everything’s stacked against me, but I’m not allowed to mention it, and I’m sort of scared and mixed-up and angry at the same time.” I mean, I’ve also had messages from people who really disagreed with my piece, but I’d say the majority of stuff I’m getting is along the lines of “me too!” and it’s mostly from young people.

Rumpus: There’s something about the idea of being willing to work, willing to bust your ass to achieve your dream, and then essentially being told you’re going to spend the first part of your career doing that for free that’s anathema to the spirit of trying to become a writer/journalist.

Kimball: I’d hope so. I mean, I’d hope that this industry would mitigate, or at least explore, economic barriers to entry. Because it’s not like this is just happening at Fuck the Poor Monthly. It’s happening at the progressive papers and magazines—media that take up topics of inequity. Of course, it’s complicated. It’s determined by factors outside the industry, too. Student debt is a huge, huge problem. Cost of living in major media centers is absurd. Papers and magazines themselves are facing huge internal losses and cutbacks.

Rumpus: When I interned at Fuck the Poor Monthly, all they wanted to talk about was how Bernanke was printing too much money… So how do you think those barriers affect the range of people who end up becoming journalists now? Do you think it will lead to a less representative class of professional journalists?

Kimball: I don’t see how these barriers won’t lead to a homogenous class of journalists who are very privileged. There are growing economic barriers to a profession that needs to have people from different backgrounds on staff. So that they can cover issues that affect every group in accurate and nuanced ways, so that they can accurately cover what’s affecting poor communities, minority communities—issues that are so often misrepresented or overlooked.

Rumpus: Putting the economic straights of newspapers and magazines aside, it’s pretty evident that the unpaid internship amounts to nothing more than a systemic labor violation no matter what the industry.[2]

Kimball: Yeah, I agree. It also sets up this awful race to the bottom. When the standard is “working for free,” how do you go “above and beyond”? Are we going to start paying to work?

Rumpus: Let’s start a hedge fund and see if we can find out. Maybe you just invented the next great business model.

Kimball: I’m sort of sorry I even said that. I’ve had people tell me they’re going to school to be a nurse so that they can be a journalist on the side. If you root around people’s bios, you’ll find a lot of them are full-time employees of something else because doing journalism full-time doesn’t pay a living wage.

Rumpus: You went back to school and got your Ph.D., which I think you termed “hiding out.”

Kimball: Yeah, I sometimes say I have an “accidental Ph.D.”

Rumpus: I bring this up because I, at one point, had the itch to go take shelter in grad school. I still do.

Kimball: People with humanities Ph.D.’s have a pretty grim situation right now. If you decide to stay in academia, you’re up against the “adjunct problem,” which is that tenure track jobs are being replaced by multiple “adjunct” positions that pay fractions of the tenure salary, no benefits, and you have to reapply every four months. I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I say that a common salary for a new Ph.D. at a Canadian university is $20,000.

Outside the academy you’re in trouble, too. I mean, a doctorate might make you a better worker/person or whatever, but in my experience, non-academic employers are not looking around for English Ph.D.’s.

Rumpus: Tell me about the negative reaction to your piece.

Kimball: Yeah, it was really interesting, because on the one hand, I was getting many heartfelt letters from young writers, and on the other hand, I was getting the Standard Conservative Internet Comment About Personal Responsibility, and I had seen that comment so many times on so much stuff, and I never thought it would happen for me! There were two subgroups: one was trying to poke holes in my story, like “your parents had jobs, clearly you are not working class,” stuff like that. And the other was just this blank outrage [at the idea that] privilege factored into getting a journalism job.

Rumpus: You know you’ve made it when people call you a “Marxist (insert misogynist/homophobic slur, depending on gender)!”

Kimball: Or when people use a lot of scare quotes around your writing and then say something like, “Oh, please!” Or my very favorite: “No sympathies here!” Is being proud of having no sympathy an Internet thing? I’m actually really interested in that.

Rumpus: You said that being a woman is certainly not something you felt held you back, yet you noticed an evident misogyny in those responses. How do you ferret that out? Or is my critique correct, that the “up by your bootstraps” philosophy inherently has some masculine angst involved?

Kimball: I knew it was probably a big issue inside the industry, like when it comes down to who gets what assignments, and promotion to management levels. But because I was on the outside, trying to just get a job, and I saw lots of young women getting hired, I figured gender wasn’t my biggest problem at that point—it was cash.

Then I saw a write-up on my piece on a political blog, where the comments section devolved sooo casually into brutal misogyny, that I had to rethink everything immediately. I think it had to do with a sort of a priori attitude about women’s voices—that women’s voices are worth less. Now I’m wondering how gender factored in all along.

Rumpus: I know it’s different for men, but I’m always thankful that I’m hard-wired or somehow attuned to not being concerned about getting called a “faggot” in comment sections and on Twitter. Probably because I’m just such a virile and strapping heterosexual and all.

Kimball: Actually you’re right, and you clarified that for me—the rhetoric of personal responsibility has to do with not acknowledging one’s privilege, and of course that extends to gender. It assumes that the playing field is equal. And that the field is equal for men and women, too. This ethic of personal responsibility has always been around, but it seems that now it is taken to an extreme and ignorant point. I just thought it was so telling how the negative responses were all very, very similar to each other, right down to the rhetoric, word choice, and sequence of points.

Rumpus: Speaking of which, the last line of your piece was, I thought, just about the best damn sentence. It struck home for me in a number of ways because I think one of the worst traits can be an inability to at least, on some level, understand how privileged your place in the world is. Which I think a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to actively not confront.

Kimball: And that’s so dangerous. Just that refusal to look at what’s working in your favor, or not. [The piece] got this response because I mentioned the word “privilege,” the psychological aspect of it. There’s a very real discomfort in taking unpaid work, but if you link that to the political, people go nuts. So there’s a lot of complex stuff about privilege, and I was trying to unpack why I felt guilty. Getting to do what I do is a luxury, and I don’t want to forget that, because I think that if I do it will negatively affect my writing. It will distance me from my reader.

Rumpus: However, having acknowledged that, I also sometimes feel like—going back to being writers and all—the Internet has simply eviscerated the market. Everyone now has a blog, everyone now has a self-published book, and simply too much of it can be given away for free. When it comes to journalism, no one’s come up with a very good model for how to structure the world so that writers don’t all work for free until they can get one of the few, few salaried jobs. Thoughts?

Kimball: I know! I think about the blog and free writing problem a lot. There are young writers trying to organize and refuse to write for free. Carrotworkers, that’s one in the UK. It’s for culture workers in general. Bethany Horne is a Canadian journalist who has come out about refusing to work for free.

Rumpus: Yeah, I’m dubious that anyone not already established can make that work. There will always be eager beavers, many of whom have grown up now basically writing free blogs on Facebook.

Kimball: I know. Is anyone teaching basic worker’s rights in high school? I actually always wondered why no one taught that in high school.

Rumpus: Once we get class sizes down to fifty-five kids in Chicago and get them to stop teaching creationism with public money in Louisiana, we’ll work on that next.

Kimball: It’s funny, I remember my ex was an organizer for post-doc students when we were in grad school, and there was a lot of resistance to his suggestions that maybe they should ask for standard job security and so forth. There was so much resistance to that idea. People were scared.

Rumpus: I think anybody who doesn’t understand that there will always be someone scheming to turn him—no matter his profession—into a low-paid or no-paid economic cog is not living in reality… Whoa, that sounded way too Marxist—maybe I’ll edit that out.

Kimball: We can edit for Marxism after the fact.

Rumpus: Exactly.

Kimball: You should write in the intro that it was edited for Marxism, and then sell the “uncut” version.

Rumpus: You think people will pay for mostly unknown writers to have bitter, Marxist thoughts? Hold on, there’s our get-rich-quick scheme!

Kimball: I think Bitter Marxist Thoughts would be a great blog! Or a Twitter feed.

Rumpus: I’ll literally be checking the domain rights as I finish this interview… Okay, but for real, my answer to my own question has always been this: you just have to keep adding value. Like, there are so many voices crowding out the Internet, you just have to train yourself to look at the world in different ways and be dissatisfied with your own writing, thinking, and analysis. It’s basically the stupid bullshit about “the cream always rises,” but I use fancier words.

Kimball: I like that. I mean, there are always going to be external factors we can do nothing about. I could not, until recently, do anything about my debt. I couldn’t change the cost of rent, and so forth. But you can figure out how you’re going to work that, and the way to work that is not to just adapt your voice and perspective to every assignment that comes in. You have to be doing whatever it is that you, uniquely, have to offer. The best way to respond to those external setbacks is by preserving—not compromising—your integrity as a person and a writer.

Rumpus: So if we could conclude our Advice to Young Writers From Two Still-Struggling Writers, it would be: a) add value; b) keep your integrity; c) be motherfucking relentless.

Kimball: Yes! And also! I wrote in my piece that months would go by where I didn’t write at all because I had a full-time job and I also wrote corporate copy on the side, but that’s not completely true. I wrote in my journal, I wrote involved emails to my friends, I had Gchats. I wasn’t writing for publication sometimes, but I was actually always writing and all of that writing counts. So another thing I would say to a young writer is that lots of different kinds of writing and reading counts, it’s all practice, it all helps you build ideas and a voice.

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[1] This is too awesomely ironic to not point out, but the piece we’re talking about ran in RedEye under the title “Unpaid? Allow me to unwork,” and subsequently got picked up by the periodical The Week. Not only did I not get compensated for that, but no one at The Week even bothered to tell me that they’d reprinted it nearly in its entirety, and I found out weeks later from a friend.

[2] TIME Magazine recently heralded “The Beginning of the End of the Unpaid Internship,” describing the class action lawsuits being leveled at the likes of the Hearst Corporation. In it Diana Wang, 28, describes taking her seventh unpaid internship of her career for Harper’s Bazaar where she worked as much as fifty-five hours in a week, totally uncompensated. By 2008, 50% of college grads had held an internship, and in many industries—but certainly professional journalism—it has simply come to be regarded as the first rung of the ladder.


Stephen Markley is the acclaimed author of The Great Dysmorphia: An Epistemological View of Ingesting Hallucinogenic Mushrooms at a 2012 Republican Presidential Debate and Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book. He is also a columnist for the Chicago RedEye and blogs at "Off the Markley." Follow him on Twitter: @stephenmarkley and at www.stephenmarkley.com. More from this author →