escape hatch

here's that 'why i left journalism' newsletter nobody asked for

A bit of housekeeping: I hit pause on my Patreon for the time being because I don’t want to commit to writing on a weekly schedule right now, and frankly, I need your money less than your local mutual aid networks and nonprofits do, and I’d rather you either hold onto your money if you need it or reallocate it elsewhere. I’ll bring it back in the future! Now, onto the good stuff, by which I mean a newsletter that possibly makes no sense because I dashed it off at 11:45 on a Sunday night.

I expected to feel some kind of way about taking a job at an agency after working in journalism in some capacity for six years. But it turns out that after you watch more than half of your friends get laid off, it’s really quite easy to imagine yourself doing something else. You realize there is no nobility in staying in a field with generally not-great pay, no security, and so much stress. When I got a job offer earlier this month, it felt like a life raft and a chance to do something new and exciting. I accepted it happily and readily. 

Something that really crystallized that hitting pause on whatever career I’d developed was the right move for me—besides reading stories almost daily about furloughs and layoffs across the industry—was this New York Times column Ben Smith just wrote about how Conde Nast is adapting to this particular moment. Specifically, the kicker caught my eye:

The only people with nothing to fear appear to be the veterans of the glory days, when senior editors were promised pensions for life equivalent to more than half of their generous salaries. Three former executives, including Mr. Carter, who now runs an upscale newsletter called Airmail from the south of France, said the company’s current woes had not affected their paychecks. Robert Gottlieb, who was fired by his good friend Si Newhouse from The New Yorker in 1992, told me the checks have been coming steadily ever since.

“I get a notification every three years or so if there’s been some inflationary upturn in my income from a person I don’t know,” he said.

When you work for a legacy magazine, you sometimes hear lifelong employees waxing nostalgic for the good old days of magazines, when they themselves were assistants in the 1980s and 1990s and could take a company car out to Sag Harbor on a Friday if they wanted to, or expense lavish spreads of alcohol and food, or generally behave in ways that are incongruous with one’s understanding of how much cash a media company has on hand. You hear these stories at happy hours or at farewell parties as a young, cheap, generally expendable employee and you think about how you’re a couple months behind on your student loan payments and have $52 in your checking account until your next paycheck and you sort of nod and smile weakly and stare into your vodka soda. When people tell these stories they aren’t thinking about you, I would tell myself afterwards, trudging toward the R train. They’re thinking about how things used to be. For some, though, things clearly hadn’t changed that much.

By the time I was signing my acceptance letter for journalism school in 2010, the global recession had already happened. I had a limited grasp on what this meant for journalism and my future but that, I reasoned, was four years away, and things would be different by then. Indeed they were, though not how I was expecting. By the time I graduated from college in 2014, VC funding was propping up a number of media startups with no innovative business model that I could discern beyond “raising more capital.” I was working at a media startup when it sold for shy of half a billion dollars in 2015. The finance team had this running joke during those days where they’d call the top of the bubble (further reading: this classic Myles post). Standing on the roof of our building on Fifth Avenue the day the sale was announced, I remember thinking: this is the top. It won’t get better than this, and for me personally as a person without any stock in the company? This is not even that good.

Things have generally declined for most people I know in media since then. Last year, I reported that more than 3,000 media jobs had been lost in the U.S. in 2019. It’s heartening to see new media companies pop up, but any vote of confidence I have in them succeeding sometimes very quickly gets dashed. I’ve bought drinks for dozens of laid off friends, sent people who lost their jobs suddenly a few bucks on Venmo, offered to connect friends with editors or with freelance clients outside of journalism. Friends who still have jobs worry they’re going to lose them, or are getting worked to death. Freelance friends panic while they watch their editors’ budgets contract during the global pandemic. What can you do? What can I do?

I didn’t leave journalism because I don’t love it anymore—I’m actually still freelancing because my sociopathic need to report and write still exists and no matter what I do, it won’t just go away. And who knows, maybe I’ll find myself working back in journalism again someday. But given the state of everything right now, leaving just felt like an act of self-preservation. Any time I talked to a media company about a potential job, all I heard were promises of short-term stability and all I thought about were the ways in which I’d seen company after company slash budgets or lay off employees. I’d been lucky in my career: I’d never been laid off, which feels like a statistical aberration. Why change that, if I could help it? Maybe that makes me seem scared or weak, but honestly, I’m just tired! I just wanted a job where I can do good work with good people and then go home (by which I now mean “switch from my work screen to my fun screen”). Anyway, when I read that story about execs at Conde Nast collecting lifetime pensions equivalent to more than 50% of their salaries, it explained why I wanted out better than I could. Until and unless these companies radically change the ways in which they insist upon operating for the benefit of a very small group of people and to the detriment of the business and the majority of their workers, there’s simply not gonna be much for me in journalism. And that’s fine!