Barbara Ehrenreich and Alissa Quart Discuss the Future of Journalism with Vogue
You’ve heard about fake news, but what about no news at all? That’s the phenomenon that authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Alissa Quart are battling with their nonprofit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. If you worry that America’s end times will be covered solely by Facebook and Fox News, you’re not totally off base: Weekday print circulation in the U.S. has fallen from nearly 60 million in 1994 to 35 million today, the current amount for print and digital combined. Newsroom employment has faced a similar decline, down almost 40 percent between 1994 and 2014. And a recent study by researchers in The Journal of Politics found that there is a direct correlation between a healthy local news environment and civic engagement: After tracking newspaper coverage in every U.S. House district during the 2010 midterms, they found that people in those areas covered only by large-circulation outlets or with less hotly contested races “are less able to evaluate their member of Congress,” and “less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts.” Most dangerously, as we approach another set of hugely important midterm elections eight years later, people exposed to less local news coverage, they found, are also less likely to vote.
Enter the EHRP, which Ehrenreich founded in 2012 in the wake of the 2007 economic recession, when fallout in the industry began to show. “Quality journalism about inequality” is the organization’s motto; it commissions and places pieces of writing that “put a human face on financial instability.” Part of that is telling jarring, creatively reported stories from the margins—an analysis of the class politics of Marie Kondo–ing, for example—and another is helping writers who would otherwise not be able to afford to afford careers in journalism. Some of the work that EHRP has helped to produce has been nominated for National Magazine Awards, and been included in Best American Essays; they’ve since expanded to take on photography, video, and illustration. When New York City–based outlets Gothamist and DNAinfo were both shuttered in late 2017 by their billionaire owner, EHRP announced a $5,000 fund to be allocated to three reporters who had just lost their jobs.
Many of the stories that have come out of the project illuminate how women bear much of the brunt of economic hardship in America. Quart, EHRP’s current executive editor, just published a book on the country’s shrinking middle class called Squeezed. She met Ehrenreich after securing EHRP funding for a project she was working on herself, with photographer Maisie Crow, for The Atavist in 2014, about the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion provider in Mississippi. Ehrenreich is a preeminent voice on America’s continued careening into inequality, starting long before the recession, most notably with her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, in which the author chronicled various attempts to live on minimum wage. Her latest book, Natural Causes, was published in April 2018, and takes on the current cultural fixation on “wellness,” and the health-care system.
Ehrenreich and Quart are well aware that they themselves do not exemplify the most vulnerable Americans whose stories are increasingly getting lost as local news sources disappear. They see their primary role as kind of interlocutors between the journalism industry and the subject of inequality, facilitating writers of color, trans writers, and impoverished writers in voicing their own experiences. Often, that advocacy is an intervention; the duo is unafraid to offend those within media who consider the paper of record, for example, as the last word on most subjects, including inequality, or those who think stories on economic hardship must be told a certain way. They recently teamed up for a piece in The New York Review of Books on the subject of the #MeToo movement, on which The New York Times has been a primary engine of reporting, to restate that news outlets need to be committed to telling the full story of sexual harassment and abuse, which overwhelmingly affects working women, rather than concentrating attention on what they called “famous actresses—some of them better known previously for their not-so-feminist roles as cute witches and beguiling prostitutes.” Ehrenreich earned over 22,000 likes for a recent tweet in which she concluded that Samantha Bee was indeed right in using a controversial four-letter word to describe Ivanka Trump. But their tactics aren’t all confrontational: They see a revolutionary opportunity for the newly economically precarious creative class to partner in solidarity with working Americans.
Quart and Ehrenreich spoke with Vogue about their partnership, the future of journalism, cross-class feminism, and whether or not it’s okay to call Mitch McConnell “turtle face” (spoiler, it is):
Barbara, what inspired you to found EHRP?
Barbara Ehrenreich: In 2009, I convinced the New York Times to let me write a series of pieces in the Sunday Review (it was still called that then) on how the recession was affecting people who are already poor, because the typical New York Times story at the time was about people who had to go without their personal pilates trainer because of the recession. So I went out and did all this reporting around the country and realized somewhere along the line that I wasn’t even going to be paid enough [by the paper] to pay for my expenses, my travel. And that’s partly because I hadn’t realized how much the rates they were paying everybody had fallen in the three years since I had last written for them. I thought, Oh, well, I’ll do this anyway because I am noble and brave, and I will just swallow the cost. Then of course it occurred to me, Wait a minute, am I saying really that you have to be wealthy to write about poverty? That’s messed up. So that was the inspiration for me. A lot of people are not writing about their own experiences and the experiences of other people they live and work with, because they’re not going to be paid. They know that, and they don’t have the days or weeks it takes to write a piece without getting any money.
How has that phenomenon translated most recently in reporting on #MeToo?
Ehrenreich: We jumped on it to say the one thing that obviously had to be said: that sexual harassment is a problem, yes, for actors and glamorous people in glamorous occupations. But it’s much more of a problem numerically and statistically for working-class women like hotel housekeepers and even agricultural workers and cleaners of various kinds. So we kind of leaped on that right away. And I think we’ve had an effect, don’t you, Alissa?
Alissa Quart: We were among the first people to do that in the mainstream press. We’re really happy to see a lot of other people joining in—The [New York] Times had that great series on automobile workers, that was one of my favorites. Our more recent piece [in The New York Review of Books] was trying to continue that argument, so that, looking historically at things that sometimes went wrong around cross-class alliances, we would have those ghosts in mind when we go forward with #MeToo, to try to make it more inclusive.
Do either of you ever feel resistance to making those points? Like, “women shouldn’t bring down other women,” that kind of thing?
Ehrenreich: We didn’t slam in there and say, “This is a bunch of bourgeois feminist crap.” We said, “This is important, but”—
Quart: I mean we are bourgeois feminists, you know, on some level, even if our impulses may be—
Ehrenreich: We are?
Quart: We are middle-class, Barbara, socioeconomically, can we agree with that?
Ehrenreich: Oh yeah. But I’m just saying bourgeois feminism has a particular meaning.
Quart: I see, she’s right. We’re not bourgeois in the aesthetic and ideational sense, but we are actually middle-class. But we’ve experienced harassment—I experienced harassment as a contract worker when I was a lot younger and not so much younger, you know. One of the first pieces we did was to point out how much contract work and freelance work are part of this vulnerability. And that is an alliance between working-class and middle-class women, who are part of what I call the “middle precariat,” who are less secure. Because they have very little HR protection, people in their workplace don’t know their names, and also they’re very dependent on their relationships. So I think that’s something we should be thinking about as another point of solidarity between the unstable middle class and the unstable working class around gender. . . . We want to call for both virtual and real spaces where women of a range of class backgrounds can be in female spaces and tell their stories and communicate about all kinds of things, from bullying to sexualized violence. And those spaces don’t exist that much, and indeed part of what led to #MeToo’s visibility was that all these actresses are people who are really influential, and tech honchos and things, so the question is how are these other stories going to get out? And who is going to record them, and how are the women going to be able to acknowledge them among themselves? [In The NYRB], we pointed out things like The Wing are $3,000 a year, which is actually not horribly expensive. But it’s pretty expensive if you’re a working-class woman. What if we had places like that that were not The Wing? That were open to a range of women?
Ehrenreich: We both had the same reaction to the stories in The Times about The Wing: Alright, but $3,000?
There’s this question plaguing news outlets now about where to draw the line. Do they care more about being polite, telling “both sides,” than before?
Ehrenreich: This is not something where there are cut-and-dried answers. We are in total flux in this country. We have no idea what the standards are for civility, for example, and the boundaries of that. I mean whatever they are, the boundaries are violated every day by the president. We really don’t know. There’s a little tussle going on I just found out about with people chasing Mitch McConnell out of a restaurant and yelling at him. Most of the people were DSA, democratic socialists, and they were just saying, “Go away, don’t come back here.” And things like that. But there was a particular guy in the restaurant who was calling McConnell “turtle face.” And the DSA people got a little upset about that. They didn’t want to have anything to do with calling him turtle face. So that’s the kind of thing we’re negotiating now.
Are you pro- or anti-turtle face?
Ehrenreich: I think I’m kind of pro saying turtle face, but I could be talked out of it I guess.
You’re definitely not afraid to be shady on the Internet.
Ehrenreich: What does shady mean?
You’re not afraid to throw shade, which is being sarcastic or calling out assholes or whatever.
Quart: She claps back. She got into it with Samantha Bee calling Ivanka the C-word. Barbara might be a godmother of some of the better progressive, not-totally-civil tendencies that we need in some ways, it’s like street-fighting language. Is that fair, Barbara?
Ehrenreich: I don’t know whether this comes from an intergenerational difference, or that my class of origin is a little bit cruder than yours.
What’s next for EHRP, as we approach midterm elections?
Quart: We can’t be involved in political campaigns of any kind given that we’re a nonprofit, but we can report on them. We do this project with the The Guardian called On the Ground, which is journalism from the heartland South, like small towns, rural [America]. And hopefully some of those in the future will be stories about politics as they’re occurring in some of these places that we might not know about.
Ehrenreich: There are a lot of things we’re talking about doing, and it’s going to depend on whether we can raise some money to do them. We talked about doing a series of pamphlets that would be to aimed at poor and working-class people on a number of subjects.
Quart: In looking into the poorest counties we realized—it’s common knowledge, but we re-recognized that a lot of them don’t have good broadband and it’s not just digital natives. A lot of them couldn’t have access if they tried. And we’ve had traditional journalists that you might know, they’ve been able to write 3,000-word pieces, on a scale and depth that most people can’t anymore. That’s the tragedy that we feel like we’ve been trying to address. There’s been a 50 percent shrinkage of newspaper jobs since 2005, and 73 percent of the [digital] writing that remains is happening on the coasts, and not even like Washington state, just California and New York to Virginia. It’s definitely been interesting culturally to start to think more creatively and freely about what journalism could be as something that’s not like a hidebound profession, but is more of like a function or an activity that’s going to be dispersed. It’s going to be produced by NGOs, it’s going to be produced by data scientists. It’s already happening.
Published in Vogue.