Last summer, I wrote a story for, let's say, a mid-tier Hearst magazine about "survival influencers." Basically, there is a small sect of YouTubers who've made a career by decamping into a provocative corner of the global wilderness — the Canadian prairies, the Australian badlands, the Alaskan archipelago and so on — where they boldly challenge the turbulent elements for content. Usually they're only equipped with a video camera and a basic trundle of subsistence gear, which means I have watched these young men go to incredible corporeal extremes to grind out views. (One dude methodically demonstrated how one can boil a slimy, but calorie-rich, "fish head soup" from the eviscerated remains of a river trout. You get the idea.) I was hoping to embed with these guys over the course of their various limb-risking, clout-mining expeditions, because I was fascinated by the idea that someone could be millions of miles from civilization and still be totally beholden to the omnipotent Cloud. The magazine took the pitch, offered a generous rate, and pared down the scope into a handful of Zoom calls. That was good enough for me. We set the parameters in July, and I had a draft ready last August.
That story hasn't run yet, but I did receive my full remittance earlier this month — which is why I'm comfortable writing this essay now. We completed a single round of edits back in October, and there's been a near-blackout on the email chain ever since. The last thing I heard from my editor is that the magazine is "rethinking their 2023 strategy" and that they need a beat to "sort things out internally," and most forebodingly, that I would know more "soonest." (One of the truly cursed free-associative terms that seems to exclusively exist within the editor's vernacular.) There was a time in my life where this sort of legacy media ghosting — akin to the text exchange after a sparkless third Tinder date — would've destroyed me, because there was also a time in my life where I was young enough and foolish enough to believe that journalists are perpetually one life-changing story away from entering an aureate, (and eternally ill-defined) pantheon of writerly prestige. But those delusions have been mercifully beaten out of me over the years. These days, I'm just happy that the checks are still clearing.
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My 2022 was full of incidents like this — finished drafts, paired with consummated invoices, that were nonetheless orphaned by the unknowable forces of “restructuring” beyond the veil. An Atlantic story was abandoned for over a year as it awaited pending top-edits that simply never arrived. I sent in a New York Times editorial and followed up, over and over again, until Gmail kicked back a deactivated address. There was a BuzzFeed story that landed with a thud on the desk of an inheriting editor, after the person I initially pitched departed the company. (A kill fee was swiftly issued.) And there are scores more thousand-word-or-so takes — the lifeblood of my bank account — that languished in the ether until all of their paramount timeliness eroded into dust. Again, I was paid for all of this stuff, even as the product itself slowly fossilized in the bedrock of my Google Docs, and I’m not really bothered by the desertion. After nine years of freelancing, I've learned that in order to be a professional writer, you will occasionally be writing for exactly nobody.
The media industry is currently in the midst of one of its bleakest seasons on record, so this tumult has been more common than usual. Nearly every major newsroom in the country is undergoing a significant headcount purge — Vox, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, CNN, the list goes on — with leadership citing the vague specter of looming, scapegoating "economic headwinds," or a cluster of bad bets that were poorly conceived from their genesis. (Case in point: BuzzFeed was trading for 80 cents a share in December.) The carnage has been comprehensive; affecting artists, managers, accountants, and reporters alike. Editors, in particular, are spread ridiculously thin as they attempt to manage freelance budgets that are either enfeebled or frozen outright. My contractor peers have scurried to verboten arenas of publishing to keep the lights on, which makes me feel a little bit like a rat on a sinking ship. (Someday I will pen a newsletter entry about the somber humiliation and bonkers rates of "consulting gigs.") It is within these conditions that you might find yourself becoming basically ambivalent about whether or not your stories run, or how they perform, or if they spark discourse either legible or insane — for that is the only way one can buffer themselves against the senselessness of a dying industry. Here, at the end of all things, my only desire is that the invoices are processed.
Maybe that's myopic, but I promise you, I wasn't always like this. I maintained an outrageously quaint labor philosophy when I penned my first intrepid blog posts as a college student, believing that everything under my byline, no matter how transient or disposable, opened the door to greater leagues of opportunity — and therefore, sustainability. I paid my dues with the Noisey takes, the Complex slideshows, and the reams and reams of South-by-Southwest blurbs for tiny music blogs, as if I was scaling the rungs of a very tall ladder leading up towards the terrain of objective success — a place that was different, in a concrete way, from where I started. There is obviously some truth to that premise; I can generally expect a response to my pitches in 2023, which is not something I could say in 2017. But as those divine career echelons came into view, I began to realize that they've withered into something progressively more topsy-turvy and fucked-up — disfigured by attritional layoffs, institutional precarity, and heartbreaking all-hands meetings — as the digital media boom went bust. Everything still hangs by a thread; everyone is at the mercy of authorities they don't fully understand; all my friends still constantly talk about quitting their jobs. It doesn't matter if you are writing print features or $20 album reviews — I have done both, and I can report that there is no method to escape the roiling entropy of media employment.
Shannon Liao, a reporter who was discharged during The Washington Post layoffs, made a salient tweet from the wreckage where she noted that her dream job — as a video game reporter with a muckraking verve — no longer exists in this increasingly austere media ecosystem. Launcher, the Post's gaming vertical that is being shuttered at the end of March, allowed its staff and contributors to chase a complicated story for months without being derailed by SEO exigencies, traffic quotas, or dramatic reductions in ambition; you know, all of those self-preservation measures newsrooms must enlist in order to stave off the prospect of a Bezos liquidation. (IGN has assigned me stories derived wholly from Twitter trends to soak up residual, semi-sentient engagement. Liao is right to be wary of the rest of the field.) She was specifically commenting on her own beat of games journalism, which is in the midst of a free fall, but it made me wonder how many genuine, aspirational dream jobs are left in the media writ large. It’s telling that everyone who doesn't end up at the Times seems to leave the industry entirely. Maybe the best Liao can hope for — the best a lot of us can hope for — is just a job. And frankly, that doesn't give us much room to complain.
I'm always going to love writing. This newsletter is lots of fun, same with the book proposal I'm finalizing. There are a handful of features I pick up each year that challenge me as a reporter and a thinker, and I appreciate — and will defend to the death — the art of a proudly belligerent white-hot take. But as my mid-30s threaten on the horizon, I'm capable of admitting that some of the glamor has faded from the endless slate of assignments that pay for my rent and indulgences — the grind that is commensurate to calling yourself a professional; the job part of this job. Have I fallen out of love with the craft? I don't think so. Instead, when I was a younger, greener journalist, it was simply easier to believe that the future was bright; that every byline was a step in the right direction; that the dream was fingertips away. Or perhaps most plainly, that it was still possible to be a professional writer in the way I imagined. I'm not sure where that leaves me. But hey, at least the checks are clearing.
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Phew, love it all. I did the full-time journo job for years (I was lucky) then quit when a horrific nonprofit newsroom boss drove me into the arms of corporate comms writing because I needed some other writing job, any job (nonprofits...never again).
Best decision I ever made. I have a job where I write boring stuff and edit boring stuff and I WFH and have work-life balance and steady paychecks and don't think about work when I'm not working. It gave me the emotional space and actual time to write on the side. But as you said, freelancing was/is a hellscape. Still do it sometimes, but decided to just take to Substack and do shit on my own terms. There, too, I had to accept I would occasionally be writing for exactly nobody. Persisting despite that reality leads me to believe I must still love the craft, so I'm glad.
Extremely good piece