As the decade of the 2010s began, I was ensconced in an exciting if modestly paid New York media job, writing every week about the recession-fueled layoffs and closures across the media world, while avoiding them personally. As the decade reached its end, I myself became a casualty of a publication closure and layoff, just another unemployed writer hustling for what comes next. In journalism, as in life, there are only lucky idiots and unlucky idiots. Successful people who are very convinced that they deserve everything they have are not to be trusted.
In 2009, I was working at Gawker.com, a news and gossip site that rested in the sweet spot between the media establishment and the seething hordes – enough of an outsider to do whatever we pleased, but well known enough that the insiders still read us, often out of hate. It was fun. I was a media reporter, and watched wide-eyed as titans of the industry were ravaged by a combination of the global economic crisis and the rise of new media, like us.
As the years went by, what had begun as a little blog by a handful of people working at home moved to a big office in Soho, with parties on a private roof deck, and then to a fancier office in Union Square, with wide open spaces that were the architectural equivalent of bragging. The mid-decade years were the high point; one liquor-soaked holiday bash featured a tower of crab legs and a bowl of macarons the size of a car trunk; famous media people routinely showed up at our parties, eager to slum with the mouthy kids who made fun of them, and to try to be friendly enough to inoculate themselves from criticism in the future. One day Brian Williams, the news anchor, came by the office for a chummy lunch with us, motivated, no doubt, by the fact that his daughter was about to star in Girls, an HBO show we were sure to mock mercilessly. We were loved, hated, and feared in equal measure. We were proud of the quality of our enemies. More importantly, we were financially sustainable and doing what we wanted.
Then it all fell apart. A lawsuit secretly funded by a vindictive Republican billionaire outraged about our reporting on him bankrupted the company. Layoffs became common, and employees started to flee – one’s entire social life could have been built around going-away parties. The company was sold off to a big media company, which handled it ineptly, and after a couple of years sold off again to a private equity firm, often the last stop before the media ownership train goes fully off the tracks. In October, Splinter, the politics-focused successor to Gawker where I was working, was folded. If nothing else, it was a well-timed invitation for introspection on a decade in journalism. That and a box of old notepads are all you can walk away with.
The point of journalism is the stories. Everything else is glitter. Furthermore, the vast majority of everything you write will be forgotten within a matter of days. The sooner a writer understands this, the better. We are all secretly precious, harboring hopes that our wise words will be pored over by future generations. But in reality, written journalism has a lot in common with television journalism: it will be enjoyed or despised when it comes out, and then everyone will move on. There will be a handful of stories you write that will be remembered for years, but you have no control over which these will be. They are just as likely to be your worst as your best. Any writer unable to reach a sort of zen acceptance of these facts will have their heart broken by reality soon enough.
The people who really will remember what you write are the people you write about. The gift of journalism is the chance to tell the stories of those who would otherwise not be heard, and journalism tends to be worthwhile in direct proportion to how much this is its goal. In general, people are happy to have someone interested in them enough to tell their stories; the only segments of society who try to avoid being written about are those who feel that the media might threaten their tight hold on power. If you are a reporter and you find yourself talking to evasive PR people more than regular people, you are probably writing about the wrong things. This is always a hazard. Prestige in media is bestowed on absurd things. The most prestigious job, White House correspondent, is also the worst. At best, it offers the hope of schmoozing with bureaucratic leeches for bits of gossip that can be spun into news; more often, it involves looking good at televised press conferences while being lied to by officials.
Likewise, the media attention lavished on presidential conventions is matched by an absolute lack of news. I covered three of them, and never heard a single newsworthy thing at any of them that did not come out of the mouth of a protester who was barred from actually accessing the convention by many well-armed police. America would be better off setting up a single live camera on the convention stage, and then sending the thousands of political reporters out to talk to homeless people instead. That would offer at least the hope of capturing some insight about what is happening in the country.
There exists in journalism a discernible divide between those who see it as a cause, and those who see it as a career that might enable them to hang out with important people and get a hefty book deal one day. Some journalists will tell you what they want to write about, and others will tell you where they want to work. It is the latter, unfortunately, who get most of the jobs. The most esteemed positions in media are often held by people whose greatest talent is “getting good jobs”. The world is full of excellent writers and reporters who are barely getting by, because they make the mistake of pouring their efforts into stories rather than into career-building. A less self-pitying way to say this is: there are scores of people capable of filling every decent job in journalism. The New York Times could turn over its entire staff 20 times without suffering a loss in quality. This means, in fairness, that we should hold the work of the people at the top of the profession to high standards, because there are a hundred writers standing behind them who could do their jobs just as well. Everyone who has been around for a while has come to understand this. It is what drives the white-hot anger at every half-assed Ivy Leaguer who lands a plum columnist job.
The rage of the creative underclass burns brightly just below the surface of the media. That is why the most meaningful legacy that Gawker left behind may not be any of its big scoops, but rather its role in setting off the wave of unionization that is still sweeping through America’s newsrooms to this day. Unions took off in media because journalists have, if nothing else, enough common sense to see that the people in charge make more money and have more power but are clearly not any smarter than us. That can’t last forever.
Yes, journalism has flaws. Its highest level is full of self-important twits and lazy white men failing upwards; it is dour, sensationalistic, and ignorant of vast swaths of the country; it routinely publishes falsehoods, exaggerations, errors, and lies, due in large part to an unearned conviction that it is competent in many matters that are in fact wholly beyond its capabilities; and it is fascinated with nothing more than itself, forcing countless uninterested readers to slog through navel-gazing tripe such as this essay.
The average sanitation worker contributes far more to the public good in a single day than most journalists do in a lifetime. If you choose to pursue it as a career, you are in for infinite disappointments. You wanted to cover Watergate, but you will end up writing reviews of Waterpiks; your dream job will instead be awarded to some halfwit celebrity’s kid; if you ever do secure a worthwhile position, you will surely lose it; the good times won’t last, but the bad times very well might. Your best stories will be forgotten, you won’t make much money, and your archives will be lost to tech glitches. When it’s all over, your entire body of work will have mattered to only a small handful of people, none of whom you will ever meet.
Which is all to say: I recommend it highly. If you ever get a chance to be a journalist, grab it and hold on tight. It is much, much better than having a real job.