Saturday, December 20, 2008

Federal Writers Project Redux

The New Republic

Barack Obama sounds like he wants to reach back to the New Deal's Works Progress Administration to jump start the economy with an economic stimulus proposal featuring infrastructure repair. If so, it may be time for the man who would be FDR to take a look at another successful--but largely forgotten--jobs program from the Depression era: the Federal Writers Project.

America's newspaper industry has been imploding in the last few years, a development that predates the Wall Street collapse but has been hugely accelerated by the economic meltdown, forcing thousands of journalists onto the street. Hundreds more have now joined them from retrenching magazines and faltering websites, bringing the year-to-date total to 14,683 according to the tracking website Paper Cuts. Hundreds more have now joined them from retrenching magazines and faltering websites. Every day the journalism clearinghouse Romenesko links to stories of layoffs and downsizing--Gannett has been cutting 2,000 jobs across the chain, and Newsday has just announced another five percent in the last week alone. Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation's hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers--including those newly laid off from the publishing industry--as well.

The Federal Writers Project operated from 1935-1939 under the leadership of Henry Alsberg, a journalist and theater director. In addition to providing employment to more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women, the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature. Their efforts ranged from comprehensive guides to 48 states and three territories to interviews with and photos of 2,300 former African-American slaves. These are preserved in the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

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