Interview With Tom Robbins
The New York media veteran talks sponsored content, the relevance of journalism school and the importance of having an actual newsroom.
Tom Robbins spent over thirty years in the trenches of the New York media, covering politics and corruption for the Village Voice and New York Daily News. In 2012, he left the Voice in protest after management fired Wayne Barrett, a staff columnist who had been writing for the Voice since 1973, for being “too expensive.”
Robbins now acts as the investigative reporter-in-residence at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has a non-fiction book coming out next spring about a “real wise guy” mobster, a work he co-authored with local mob expert Jerry Capeci.
In February, Maisonneuve sat down with Robbins to talk about the rise of freelancing, higher education and whether or not you still need a newsroom. He also wants you to know that he did not write Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Julia Alsop: Let’s start with your definition of journalism.
Tom Robbins: Jeez, I don’t know. I think of myself as a reporter, and journalism is certainly the word that covers the rubric of what I do. It’s certainly an ever-expanding field, I’ll give it that.
It’s considered a profession by some, but it’s actually several notches below that. It used to be what you’d do instead of going to college or going to law school. I don’t have a college degree; most of the people I worked with over the years didn’t have a college degree. It’s only been in the last twenty or something years that a degree has been a demand in this field.
JA: What do you think of the amount of people currently getting journalism degrees, and a degree becoming a requirement in the field?
TR: It’s good and bad. It’s certainly led to more diligent work habits. The one quibble I have is that these kids pay for school, but they don’t get the money. The purpose of going to graduate school is that you’re supposedly going to get it back later in life, but so many people these days are painting themselves in to a corner where they’re doing a lot of work for very little money.
JA: Why do you think starting wages are so low for journalists?
TR: Right now, the market belongs to the people who run websites and newspapers and they’re pushing wages way down. It’s amazing to me that the entry-level wages are pretty much the same as when I started in this business forty years ago. It probably means a decline in real pay of close to 25 or 30 percent.
JA: How much was the starting wage then?
TR: When I started at the NY Daily News in 1988, I think the minimum wage was $45,000 a year. That was thirty years ago. That’s more than they’re getting now when they start, but we had a union. It’s the same thing that’s happening all over, really. There’s been a continued downward pressure on wages, and an upward pressure in terms of what schooling and experience is required in order to get the job.
JA: What do you think about the increase of freelancing and decrease in staff writers?
TR: It seems like it’s being more abused than taken advantage of. On one end, you can say it’s terrific that people can step in and out of a variety of publications, but I spent some time as a freelance writer and I know the amount of work, care and cultivation that goes into pitching articles, soliciting support and getting people to print. It’s a full-time job in itself. It’s always economically advantageous for publishers to not have people on staff, because you don’t have to pay them health benefits or give them days off. A lot of people come out of here [CUNY journalism school] and do nothing but freelance for a long while. It’s tough way to make a living.
JA: Especially because the pay-rate on the web is often $50 per article, if it’s paid at all.
TR: The web money is fucking absurd. I might be misleading myself, but I think that stuff is going to level out eventually. I don’t think there’ll ever be unionization, but I do think an aging process will happen. The people producing the content are going to get older and put their foot down about working for peanuts and the money will go up. Hopefully, people will use their own sense of self-protection to get themselves a better deal, because right now they’re getting royally screwed on the web every time they turn around.
JA: What do you think about the trend towards sponsored content?
TR: Oh, I hate it. Just give me an ad! Are you really seeing that?
JA: Certain blogs, such as the Awl, post content that mimics an article but on the top corner it will say “sponsored content.” And in other places, like Narrative.ly, which is a slow-news site, they’re experimenting with having advertisers sponsor certain thematic weeks.
TR: Well, if it’s thematic and you still have editorial control, that’s a little different. Advertisers have always paid the freight. Circulation income for newspapers was always very minor in terms of money.
Sponsored content being “I want you to write a nice story about my company or publish something about my company”—that’s where you start crossing the line.
JA: Did you ever bump up against conflicts with advertisers when you were reporting?
TR: Not with advertisers, no. I had more issues with publishers and the publisher’s interests. When I worked at the NY Daily News, the publisher there was a big real-estate guy and he had a lot of interest in getting zoning permits and things like that. So it was very easy to do stories about institutions or governing bodies that the publisher didn’t care about. For instance, you could print anything about the Department of Education, which was not yet under mayoral control and was a favorite flogging object for the press. But you knew the bar had to be set way higher in terms of what they were willing to print about the governor or the mayor.
That’s not unique to the News, though. Lots of people run in to some form of that problem at different papers. That’s what a good editor is for, though. To try to insulate the staff from any blowback. That’s what they get paid the big bucks for.
JA: Freelancing might be one of the reasons for an increase in people getting journalism degrees. If you just freelance, you don’t really get access to the institutional knowledge of a publication that you would from being a newsroom and around veteran staff members.
TR: Yeah, that’s another downside, isn’t it? I learned a lot in the newsroom and just hanging out in newsrooms and talking to other reporters. It’s funny, newsrooms changed after computers came in. When there were typewriters and people didn’t have access to email, there was much more chatter in newsroom. They were much livelier places; people laughing and talking. They used to say you must have “mind over chatter.” You’d think, “How am I going to write this story with people talking over my head?” but you learned to do it. I was just helping out these kids at a blog, and they’ve got about a dozen people sitting there in a room with headphones on and nobody talking. They’re still communicating, on email or whatever, but I think it’s taking a lot of fun out of the newsroom.
JA: Many places don’t even have a newsroom.
TR: Yeah, Hurricane Sandy knocked out several papers, including the Daily News, which had just moved to a building downtown. They’re still not back there. The editors were working out of their printing plant in New Jersey. They’ve operated without a newsroom for the last three months. They’re about to move to a temporary space on Sixth Avenue, but one of the fears was “maybe we don’t need a newsroom, y’know? We’ve made it work pretty much for the last three of fourth months without it, maybe we don’t have to pay the rent on a newsroom. We can just work at home or work at Starbucks.” I think there’s a paper in New Jersey that didn’t bother with a newsroom. I forget which one, but they told their employees to just deal with it. Make your own workspace.
JA: Which is another way to shift costs to employees.
TR: Yeah, it’s a tough world.