Where have all the writers gone?

For years, I’ve organized (if you can call it that) a large, loose group of writers along with some editors and a few PR people from all over Washington. We gather a few times a year to talk shop and snack, not always in that order.

The last time couple of times invitations went out, an abnormal number of people replied that they’d “gotten out of the business” or were “not writing much anymore.” They said that old clients have disappeared, and it’s hard to find new ones. They noted that markets have cut pay rates that had stayed the same for years, even decades. They said that in the information age, it’s tough to find information on who’s where, how to get in touch, and how to do business with them. Plus, there’ve been buyouts and layoffs too numerous to count.

One DC writer, a former White House correspondent, has turned an accessories sideline into her livelihood. Another has gone back into politics. (More secure, less lucrative, he joked. At least I think that was a joke.) Some, as you might expect, have drifted into marketing or PR, management, Web work, various sorts of editing, and so on.

Granted, most of the group had never been purely writers. It’s always been hard to support oneself by writing alone, so most people also edit, photograph, teach, proofread, create ancillary products and services, or some combination thereof—or simply have a “something completely different” job on the side. But now many have bowed out of the writing part, expanded the sideline into something full-time, or accepted “retirement” … willingly/happily or not.

You might think this brain drain is natural selection: If all these writers, editors, designers, and correspondents are being laid off or finding it too hard and leaving, maybe they’re more suited for other work. Maybe they’re better off somewhere else—and the profession is better off without them.

Let’s take those assertions one at a time. Is the creative class better off elsewhere? That depends on age, adaptability, and plenty of other factors. Creativity has little to do with age, though perseverance might. Any one person might find circumstances better elsewhere, but when so many people are bailing, something’s wrong. Anyone see a connection with complaints that the Washington Post, for example, isn’t the bastion of journalism it was 40 years ago when the fourth estate was esteemed, nearly everyone read at least one newspaper every day, unions were strong, and a reporter’s salary was a decent wage?

Is the profession better off culled? Are we all the richer for having fewer writers, editors, and designers? Heck, no. Again, one person being weeded out you might attribute to a lack of skill or effort or keeping up connections or some such. But all these people added color and texture to the tapestry. Our collective story is duller and flatter for the loss of so many of its tellers.

Think of it this way: Does the world need another handbag maker? Another political operative? Another (heaven forbid) marketer or a hundred? Stories of the people, places, and movements around us are going untold because some of us are no longer telling them. And some of the stories still being told are not being told as well because the stories are underfunded and their tellers are less valued. Sadly, that’s becoming obvious not just to writers but to readers as well.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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