Abstract: One of the most habitual assumptions about media work today is that it consists of the realms of amateur and professional. But, precisely because it is so habitually assumed, it deserves sustained analysis. This article investigates the reproduction of the foundational terrain of media work as that composed of amateur and professional realms. A specific lens on this process is the youth movement of amateur journalism in the late 19th-Century United States. Amateur journalists wrote, typeset and printed journals of essays, commentary, word puzzles and stories, which were circulated primarily among themselves in subcultural networks of reciprocity. A broad cultural analysis characterizes how debates about social change due to industrialization shaped definitions and valuations of amateurism and professionalism. A critical political-economic analysis examines how these changes and debates as refracted and reproduced through the commercialization of literary industries and printing technologies spawned amateur journalism. A critical analysis of surviving autobiographical works by amateur journalists of the day explores the on-the-ground cultural production of amateurism and professionalism through amateur journalism’s ascendance, peak and decline. The article concludes by reflecting on the value of these findings for understanding today’s terrain of media work.