When I saw the job post, I hesitated. Like many listings on my school’s alumni Facebook page, this one was prefaced with a warning: “Not Journalism.” For such jobs, former students who could code or produce audio were often in demand. This one preferred someone with a sturdy set of legs.
Ken Auletta, a respected journalist for the New Yorker, was looking for someone to stand in line for him at the Harvey Weinstein trial. Auletta is writing a book about Weinstein, so it was imperative that he attend the trial—but the New York County Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan holds just 120 people, and around 200 journalists from around the world had registered to attend. Auletta had a solution: he would pay someone from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism twenty dollars per hour to stand in for him, starting at 5:00 or 6:00 AM. Before 8:00 AM, he would show up, claim the spot, and enter the courthouse. “Not Journalism,” indeed.
I emailed him anyway.
Auletta responded on Christmas Eve: “First come, first hired. Deal.” Either I was a go-getter or I was the only one who had answered. No matter. I agreed to the terms, and we exchanged info. My first day was January 6th.
ICYMI: The devil in Details
The commute from my home to Centre Street was a little more than an hour. At 6:00 AM, twenty people were already in line. It was cold; I had brought a book to read, but my fingers quickly froze so I resigned myself to stretching my legs and chatting about the case with the people next to me. Eventually, at 7:45 AM, Auletta showed up to take my place. He wore slacks and a dark wool coat, cutting a more refined figure than the sea of down jackets and jeans waiting in line. He grasped my wrist and asked how I was doing. I said I was ok, though I was barely awake. I was on my way soon after.
Later that day, I came home to a deluge of posts on Twitter and Facebook. Though Auletta’s listing had come out the previous month, it was getting attention because of the start of the trial. Students and alums of the journalism school considered the offer insulting. How could Auletta even think of asking such a thing, and how could the school allow the offer to be advertised? People believed it was lazy on Auletta’s part, or that it held students in low esteem.
I was surprised at the intensity of the criticism. I messaged a former classmate and close friend and asked her what she thought. “Other than the money, do you think it’s worth it?” she asked. She reasoned that anyone who accepted could theoretically report on the trial themselves, for their own byline. True, I replied, but I have a full-time, salaried job as a journalist for the Asahi Shimbun. The paper isn’t covering the Weinstein trial, and I don’t have time to do it freelance. The pay in journalism being what it is, $40 to $60 a day for merely standing in line sounded like a good deal.
After the first day, the online squabble died down, but some of my fellow reporters had noticed me. “You’re the one waiting in line,” said a woman at the front of the line, her eyes wide. The whole thing was being blown out of proportion, she thought. At least one of the other reporters in line was doing the same thing I was. BuzzFeed had posted a similar ad to Auletta’s on the Facebook pages of the Columbia and Craig Newmark schools of journalism.
The terms of the BuzzFeed job were admittedly better: you’d also have a chance at a byline. Auletta, meanwhile, offered cash and a chance to chat. “People who sign up for this work would be engaged with Ken and can certainly talk to him about the case, but that’s about as close to journalism as this would likely get,” the post read.
Auletta, for his part, didn’t understand what the problem was. Broadcast networks and large institutions, he noted, usually send interns to stand in line for journalists; the only difference in his case was that he paid me out of pocket. “How are you being exploited? I’m paying you money! You choose to do it or not,” he told me. “You chose to do it. God bless you! I mean, I think it’s kind of silly.”
The people criticizing Auletta saw the situation as an encapsulation of everything wrong with the old ways in media: a successful, well-off writer who had made his bones decades before was using me, a young journalist, as day labor.
Still, Auletta is a nice and personable man. I stood in line for him on and off for two weeks, until January 16th. He paid according to our agreement, and on time. That’s all that mattered to me. The people who complained that the job reeked of elitism—the idea that a New Yorker reporter’s Midas touch would graze me with greatness—missed out on something else. I didn’t reach out to Auletta so that I could network with him; I can do that on my own. In an industry that emphasizes the importance of journalism as a craft and as a calling—and is simultaneously hemorrhaging jobs—it felt refreshing to do something that was clearly and simply transactional. Many journalists work side gigs to make rent. What was so different about this?
My friend who disapproved of the job told me that this wasn’t what I went to J-school for. I don’t disagree. When I was in school, I would never have accepted this job—but not because I thought it was insulting. There was simply no time. I barely got enough sleep just making sure my head was above water, and my classmates were no different.
At the time, my professors told me to never “devalue myself.” They taught us how much to accept, and not, in the way of writing fees. But what does this mean now, in the workforce? After J-school, a friend of mine struggled to feed himself. Others got lost in freelance purgatory, unable to land full-time positions. I consider myself lucky. I work full time on staff at a paper, with all the standard benefits. Yet the Asahi Shimbun ceased publishing their US edition this past September.
The industry is in crisis. It’s hard to break in and it’s even harder to make a living, and for some, Auletta’s ad triggered these long-simmering frustrations. But the feeling that I am devaluing myself doesn’t come from standing in line—it’s always there.