Once upon a time newspapers had these guys called columnists. They wrote around two or three times a week, about anything that came to mind — the weather, baseball, some homeless guy they just met, anything really — and what they had to say was really important, because … well, we're not really sure. But it was!
Then the Internet came along, and all of a sudden there were people writing about all sorts of things, and they were paid a lot less money to write a whole lot more often than two or three times a week.
Now you'd think that newspapers, struggling to cope with falling advertising revenue and an aging readership, would jettison these costly, not-very-productive columnists. But you would be wrong. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has 24 columnists and critics, according to its website (its list may be incomplete, as it omits Jonathan Gold), all but one of whom — Sandy Banks — are white, in a city that's 50 percent Latino. Only six are women in a city that, according to my calculations, is roughly 50 percent women. And let's just say there's a lot of gray hair in those online photos. (Updated below)
Which brings us to Chris Erskine, who writes a column called “The Middle Ages.” The Times ran a piece by Erskine on Saturday aimed at millennials, urging them to take the “Millennial Pledge,” a list of 46 promises he wants the younger generation of ne'er-do-wells to make before entering adulthood. A sampling of some of the crustier things he's asking millennials to agree to:
• I am entitled to nothing.
• I will show up on time.
• When meeting someone for the first time, I will always look him or her in the eye.
• Each year, I will pen at least one thank-you note, using what's left of my cursive writing skills.
• I will vote. Always.
• I will (mostly) swear off smut.
• At holiday dinners, I will leave my phone in my room.
It's almost hard to believe that no one under 50 reads newspapers anymore.
The piece, of course, raises as many questions as it answers. Questions like, hey Chris, why exactly do you like cursive so much? What do you have against smut? Why aren't millennials looking you in the eye? Is it maybe because they find you boring and weirdly puritanical? And are millennials really more entitled than newspaper columnists?
On Monday, Erskine doubled down on his “what's the trouble with kids today” line, responding to some relatively benign criticism online by calling his young critics “frightfully smug and humorless over the whole thing,” and adding: “To me, this is what you get when you raise an entire generation without spanking.”
In other words: You don't think I'm funny, you should have been hit by your parents as a child.
Erskine's bio states that he is a “humor columnist,” and this appears to be the gist of his aw-shucks defense — that he was joking, and if you don't get the joke, it's obviously your fault. Indeed, there are some actual jokes in Erskine's Saturday piece, like, “If my first-born is a boy, I promise not to name him Uber,” or “I will not use pepper spray to season a burrito.” Which are in fact jokes, albeit completely unfunny and irrelevant ones.
Most of the other bullet points are clearly the product of a cranky, aging man who is no doubt currently contemplating taking a “buyout” offer from the Chicago owners of the Los Angeles Times, thus gaining a chunk of money but losing, along with a lifetime health plan (talk about entitled!) the privileged title of newspaper columnist and all the self-importance that comes with it.
You can't help but feel a bit sorry for all the L.A. Times reporters who are just trying to do their jobs and put out a decent product.
On the one hand, you've got new, web-centric editors roping young reporters into writing cheap imitations of Buzzfeed stories, as when they got poor Matt Stevens to meet Taylor Swift and gush about her. Then, on the other hand, you've got crusty old white men like Erskine telling kids not to give gift cards for Christmas and to save 10 percent of everything they earn.
The younger generation of reporters — millennials, by the by — are probably making less than a quarter of what Erskine is. That's if T.J. Simers is any guide. Simers, the former sports columnist, was making $234,000, according to reports of an ongoing lawsuit. Simers is suing his old employer for having the gall to tell him to write twice a week instead three times, and suggesting he might try writing a bit for something called “the website.” How much is he demanding? $18 million.
Who's entitled again?