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

Sarah Gulder
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 )

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.

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It’s a bold proposal that is worth serious consideration. The immediate benefit would provide some work and relief to journalists and creative writers still trying to eke out a living in this fractured business landscape.

The public would benefit from their output, as well. The original Federal Writers’ Project produced more than 1,000 reports and books across a range of subjects, led by the American Guide Series with such titles as “California: A Guide to the Golden State” (1939). It also sent interviewers to sit down with thousands of people to record their personal stories and folklore, a project that also collected the oral histories of formerly enslaved Americans.

When a massive hurricane swept up the East Coast over Long Island and through the heart of New England in 1938, the government collected written and photographic reports from its stable of New England contributors to chronicle the damage in “New England Hurricane,” a book published less than six weeks after the storm made landfall.

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Most of the people employed under the original writers’ project were as unfamiliar to the public in their time as they are today, many of them local journalists. But there were some notable names, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren, as well as future oral historian Studs Terkel and young writers such as John Cheever, Saul Bellow and Richard Wright, who also earned support through the program. It’s not hard to imagine that current early career talent would benefit from such a project now.

The current proposal calls for using the new Federal Writers’ Project to hire “individuals who are unemployed or underemployed in order to document in writing and images American society and the broad impacts and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.” There are countless stories to tell, a panoply of experiences during the pandemic and as the nation continues to recover. The bill before Congress requires the chronicle of this dark age to be archived at the Library of Congress and made publicly available.

There are shoals to navigate. For instance, the grants would have to be framed in such a way as to weed out projects with a discernible political agenda. Fear of underwriting Marxist propaganda during the fraught 1930s led the original project designers to focus on the travel guides in the belief that they would be hard to manipulate. Similar care should be taken now to avoid using federal grant money to underwrite polemics — antiabortion articles in conservative states, pro-union pieces in liberal states come to mind.

Yet such concerns should not derail the idea itself. The COVID-19 pandemic will resonate far into the future as families deal with crushing losses, as survivors struggle to regain full health, as communities stage their revivals and build their futures. Our national repository would not be complete without a chronicle of it all.