People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.
This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.
So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.
Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.
I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.
Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.
So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”
Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.
Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.
Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.
Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.
Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.
The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.
Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.
For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.
Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.
We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.
It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
In parts one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6) and two (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 40, p. 6), I discussed how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. And how I drove myself one-handed through a snowstorm on country roads in the middle of the night to an emergency room—only to receive substandard care as a poor person. Leading me to make the mistake of letting cheaper chiropractors hurt me more over the next six years. In this final installment, I review my turn to labor activism on behalf of myself… and workers in bad jobs everywhere.
I recovered from my spinal injury within a few months. To the point where I wasn’t hurting all of the time. Just some of the time. Yet, as with other life-changing experiences before and since, I wasn’t the same afterward. Physically or psychologically. I was left with the sense that anything could happen to me at any time. Something I had known intellectually before getting hurt, but literally knew in my bones going forward.
Regardless, once it was clear I wasn’t going to be entirely disabled, I resolved to move ahead with my life. Which took some time. But by the summer of 1990, I had returned to Boston from Vermont, I was dating the woman who later became my wife, and I had founded New Liberation News Service (NLNS)—the international wire I would run for the next couple of years.
Journalism had gone from being an occasional thing for me to a regular thing. Unfortunately, NLNS was a small nonprofit serving the left-wing campus press, the remnant of the ’60s underground press, and some larger community media outlets. Most of which were too broke to pay much for the news packets my service was producing for them. Thus, I wasn’t able to make ends meet doing it for very long. And by 1991, I was temping again on the side.
No more manual labor for me, though. That was over, given my damaged vertebrae. This time any temp assignments I took had to make use of my writing, editing, and research skills—which I had developed over the previous few years, despite not having a college degree… and not getting one until 2006.
After a number of short assignments, I found a long-term editing gig via a jobs bulletin board at MIT that anyone in the know could just walk up to and use. Faxon Research Services, a now-defunct database company, contracted me through a temp agency. It was March 1992.
Over the months, I did well enough at the assignment that I was granted my own office and more responsibilities. I also helped the other NLNS staffer of the time to get a similar gig at Faxon. He, too, started getting more responsibility at the office. Soon, I was being groomed for a full-time job by one vice president. He was being groomed by another vice president. The two vice presidents were at odds with each other. My vice president lost the inter-departmental war. And my temp contract was ended in December 1992. Just like that.
Because that’s how temp jobs, and indeed most forms of contingent employment function. Employers want the freedom to use workers’ labor when they need it and to get rid of them the moment they don’t. While paying the lowest wages possible. Saving labor costs and increasing profits in the process.
Faxon assumed that, like every other temp, I was just going to take the injustice of losing my shot at a long-term full-time job lying down.
But not that time. And I would never accept injustice at any gig ever again. I had learned one key lesson from getting badly injured from the Manpower temp job at Belden Electronics three years previous: If I was treated unfairly in the workplace, I was going to fight. And keep fighting until I won some kind of redress.
So, I did something that temps aren’t supposed to do: I applied for unemployment. Because temp agencies and the employers that contract them use such arrangements in part to play the same “neither company is your employer” game that Manpower and Belden played when I got a spinal injury on Belden property.
However, I realized that I had been at this temp gig full-time for nine months and figured I had a chance of convincing the Mass unemployment department of the period that I was a Faxon employee in fact even if I was officially a temp at an agency that played so small a role in the gig in question that I can’t even remember its name.
My initial unemployment filing was rejected. And I appealed it. And testified to an unemployment department official. And won my unemployment. A small victory, true. But an important one for me, and possibly for other temps in similar situations in the years after me. Faxon didn’t fight the ruling. I got my money.
Fortunately, I didn’t need the unemployment payments for long. Back in February 1992, writing as I did not just for NLNS, but also for other publications, I had a chance to join a labor union in my trade. Not the traditional union I had dreamt of helping organize at Belden Electronics prior to—and certainly after—my injury. It was called the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Local 1981. A small but trailblazing formation experimenting with organizing any of several types of contingent writers—with a constituency of freelance journalists, book authors, and technical writers.
I immediately got active in the Boston “unit” of the local. Was elected as a delegate to the national convention in the summer of 1992. Was the youngest candidate for a open vice president’s seat. Lost, but not too badly. And won enough notoriety in the Boston branch that they hired me as their half-time director in December.
My fight for justice for myself and millions of other people in temp, part-time, day labor, contract, independent contractor, migrant, and many other kinds of bad unstable contingent jobs besides took off from there. In 1993, I joined the New Directions Movement democracy caucus within the rapidly shrinking but still super-bureaucratic and timid United Auto Workers union, and learned a great deal about how all those purposely precarious employment arrangements were being used by employers to crush labor.
In 1994, I started the small national publication As We Are: The Magazine for Working Young People. In 1995, I wrote an article in its third number about the attempt by the radical union Industrial Workers of the World to start a Temp Workers Union, and began actively looking for a way to start a general labor organization for contingent workers. In 1996—just after I published the fourth As We Are, folded the magazine for lack of funds, and took a long-term temp assignment with 3M’s advertising division as a front desk person—I helped launch the Organizing Committee for a Massachusetts Employees Association (OCMEA) with Citizens for Participation in Political Action. A group that straddled the line between the left wing of the Democratic Party and socialists just to their left in the Commonwealth. In January 1997, I quit the 3M assignment a few days before being serendipitously hired by Tim Costello of Northeast Action as the half-time assistant organizer of his Project on Contingent Work there. We rolled the OCMEA effort into our new project and also helped start a nationwide network of similar contingent worker organizing projects called the National Alliance for Fair Employment later that year.
In June 1998, I left the National Writers Union gig—having helped build the Boston branch’s membership from just over 200 members to over 700 members in my six-year tenure—and took one final long-term half-time temp editor assignment through Editorial Services of New England at Lycos, a competitor of Yahoo and other early commercial search engines on the World Wide Web. I organized a shadow union of over 25 fellow temp editors— which won pay parity for men and women on the assignment—before leaving to help Costello break away from Northeast Action and begin raising money to form our own independent contingent workers’ organization in September 1998.
Finally, in January 1999, we had the funding to found the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), the extremely innovative labor organizing network that did much to help workers in bad jobs in Massachusetts over the six years of its existence.
That year we also expanded the national contingent organizing group into Canada to form the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)—which was also based in Boston. Ultimately, Costello was the coordinator of that group and I was coordinator of CCW. And in 2003, during conversations with the CEO of Manpower about a temp industry code of conduct that NAFFE had drafted, Costello started telling him the story of my injury on a Manpower assignment. The CEO cut him off a few sentences in and said, “Forklift?” And Costello said, “Yes.” And the CEO apparently said that years after my injury, so many workers had been hurt driving forklifts in Manpower temp jobs that there had been some kind of settlement with them and the company had instituted reforms. I never bothered to verify the tale. But I don’t doubt its veracity.
Because employers can only push workers so far before we start to push back. And I’ve written this series for one reason: to encourage readers in bad jobs in the (now rather old) “new economy” to push back. To fight where you stand. To stop accepting unstable gigs with no benefits for low pay. To start demanding a better deal. Together with your fellow workers. And to keep demanding it. Until we live in a world where no one will ever have to work a bad job. Or get permanently injured the way I did.
Check out part one of “From Injury to Action” here and part two here.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.