Editorial: It’s time for a new Federal Writers’ Project

Sarah Gulder's life story was taken down and recorded as part of the Slave Narratives initiative of the WPA Federal Writers' Project.

By The Times Editorial Board
June 20, 2021

The narrative of Sarah Gulder, who had been born into slavery, was collected by the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project in 1936. A bill in Congress would revive the program.(Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group ) By The Times Editorial Board June 20, 2021 3 AM PT

There is no denying that America took it in the teeth with the COVID-19 pandemic and related financial crisis, a one-two combination that was disproportionate in its impacts. And it had particularly dire consequences for journalism, adding to strains on a business model that relies on advertising and readers to stay afloat.

Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 1 in 4 newsroom jobs disappeared, according to the Pew Research Center. Since the onset of the pandemic, one-third of large-city newspapers reported fresh layoffs. And that doesn’t measure the hits endured by freelancers as outlets’ budgets dried up.

That’s a lot of journalism not getting done, investigations not conducted and important stories left untold. Los Angeles litterateur David Kipen — founder of the Libros Schmibros lending library in Boyle Heights and formerly a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts — has been pushing one possible solution. He envisions a new version of the Federal Writers’ Project, the Depression program that gave work to thousands of writers, historians, librarians and others whose skills fell outside the scope of public works projects that were key parts of the New Deal.

Kipen raised the notion in an article for The Times more than a year ago, which caught the interest of U.S. Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), who have introduced the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act to allocate $60 million in grants through the Department of Labor to colleges, nonprofit organizations, news outlets and unions with experience in journalism and report writing to chronicle the impacts of the pandemic.

Read the Editorial on the Los Angeles Times website.