News & Politics

How Local Millennial Journalists Try to Turn Arrogance Into an Industry

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Let’s talk about the nationwide millennial alternative weekly journalism network. That’s MAWJN, by the way, which is almost as long as LGBTQIA. Whether it’s Boston’s Dig Boston, the Austin Chronicle, the Arkansas Times, the Charleston City Paper, Cincinnati’s City Beat, the Houston Press, or the City Newspaper in metro Rochester (a recent cover shows a smiling Muslim veiled woman with a piece headlined “The American Dream”), you can be sure that the editorial slant in all of these publications is Trump hatred in the extreme. With a bit of Jordan Peterson-phobia thrown in for good measure. Forget about reading a review of Ann Coulter’s captivating new book, Resistance Is Futile, in any of these publications, but you can be sure that Bob Woodward’s book will receive top billing.

In my city of Philadelphia, a week doesn’t pass with the editor of Philadelphia Weekly not using the F-word and a host of scatological references to describe the administration in Washington.

But there’s something else about these millennial-greased publications, and that is this: they are attempting to change the landscape of journalism. Without fail,  many of these publications are obsessed with “issues” that fifteen years ago were only discussed in the context of larger articles. In Philadelphia, one has only to venture online to sites such as Plan Philly, Billy Penn, or Next City, all exemplary examples of the new millennial journalism, to see editorial “departments” (with specialized reporters) devoted to Bicycling, Infrastructure, Public Space, Streets, Zoning, Vacant Property, Infill, and Technology. Is it coincidental that these topics are generally twenty-something interest categories? The publication Billy Penn, for instance, has a founder and CEO who looks much older than his seven staff members, all of whom are in their twenties or early thirties.

Philly Voice’s fourteen staff members are also in their twenties or thirties, but a quick look at the list of contributors reveals a diversity of age groups, including a former Philadelphia Daily News editor. Philly Voice at least gets an A for going outside the box.

I know I am being biased and judgmental, not being a millennial, but I think that I have every right to be, having participated in the old journalism first-hand and then watched as it morphed into a new language influenced mostly by technology. Technology-influenced journalism really has an advertising copywriting kick to it: thick on specifics, numbers, and especially list-making. Frequently, but not always, all of this comes without an authentic sense of style. There’s a generic feel to the prose in that all the millennial writers sound alike (think Stepford Wives).

Consider a hot millennial interest like transportation. Transportation was never viewed as a separate journalistic study worthy of its own editor or department, but was always viewed as the subject of an occasional feature. In the new millennial journalism world, however, transportation has the same cache as politics and culture. At least with transportation there are few exhortations to “f*** transportation” or “f*** the train,” unlike the world of politics where the references to Trump never fail to sink into pornographic depravity.

In this new world, subjects like history, literature, and religion have a less-than-marginal presence. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather hear the life story of an old monk than how the city plans on installing 100 new fire hydrants along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Then there are the names of these venerable millennial reporters. On one site I found a man with four names (hyphenated like a female romance novelist). Do men really do that? Popular reporter names include Matt, Kyle, Emily, Emma, Josh, Ashley, Evan, Brandon, and Sinead.

Many of these reporters also seem to be from other cities and towns. I love travel as much as anyone, but once these reporters establish themselves in the city, a good number of them claim an immediate expertise in all things Philadelphia, be it zoning, infrastructure, fire hydrant repair or infill. “I am an expert because I am a millennial journalist. 

Like the addicts who come to Philadelphia from cities like Syracuse, Boston, Miami, and Dallas because of the five-dollar bags dispensed throughout Kensington, Philadelphia seems to have become a destination city for vagabond reporters who will go anywhere for a digital (make that “hyperlocal”) job. Check the bios in these digital publications and you will be amazed at how many of these reporters seem to hopscotch across the country from one gig to the next. In one city they specialized in craft beer, in another city they wrote articles about public housing, in another city they reported on tattoos. Some bios hide, or just don’t mention, where a Brandon so-and-so is from.

The bio of one 20-something writer, for instance, proudly proclaims: “Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania … bound for anywhere interesting.” “Bound for anywhere interesting” means he’ll pull those Philadelphia roots up faster than Judas Iscariot if the right offer comes along. Being “based” in a city, of course, doesn’t mean that you love or even understand that city.

In defense of these millennial vagabonding hyperlocal reporters, here’s a quote from one of their own, a blogger named Marck Ernest Thornton, who wrote an article entitled “Millennials will save journalism”:

Millennials are the most educated and globalized generation in history. We continue to innovate on old ideas, build entirely new ideas, and create solutions to previous generations’ f***-ups. Personally, I’m excited for the future of the world. I’m particularly excited about the future of journalism and the new technologies, business models, and methods millennials are bringing to world of media, and by extension — our democracy.

The “obligatory” millennial use of the F-word helps put this quote in perspective and exposes its inherent arrogance.

A lot has changed in Philadelphia journalism over the last decade. The City Paper is gone, and the Philadelphia Weekly clings to survivor status despite its obsession with scatological references. The hard copy alt-press market here is so hard up that you have heterosexual writers writing for the Philadelphia Gay News. And not just any gay news, mind you, but complicated 52 gender features that are full of possible word crimes.

Then there’s the astounding fact that language from the art world has crept into the new millennial journalism canon. Consider the constant use of “curated”: it means compiler, gatherer, and overseer. The word jazzes up millennial bylines, as if arranging facts and phrases written by others and putting them in a new article somehow turns all those boring bits of prose into Monets.

There was a time when this breed of journalism would simply be labeled for what it is: pretentious and arrogant.