Lest they offend their many laid off friends, anyone who's kept their job in print media will tell you they're one of "the lucky ones." But privately, survivors talk of the malaise sweeping medialand. This is one of them.
Our correspondent, who's bounced between magazines and newspapers for about five years now, is glad to have a job, obviously — and is staying anonymous in hopes of keeping it. Please don't turn the comments into a blind item guessing game.
The other night, at one of those standard-issue media cocktail parties at a bar on the Lower East Side—the type of casual post-work affair that was a dime a dozen in 2005, back when people had both work and the desire to congregate at a geographically convenient watering hole after it—I ran into Q, a former colleague of mine. We'd worked together for 18 months at the same magazine a couple of years back, after which he left to take a gig at a fashion rag and I went to work at a newspaper. I hadn't talked to him in a while, so I asked him how his job was going. "My job?" he scoffed, almost laughing at the question. "Dude, it is fucking terrible."
"Well at least you have a job!" I offered up. And one that pays pretty well. Look at the bright side!
It turns out the bright side for Q is still pretty dim. "Basically," he goes—and Q was being totally serious when he said this—"I'm 31 and at a professional dead end. And so are most people in here." We both surveyed the scene, about two dozen veteran Media Professionals posted up by the bar, with a smattering of others smoking cigarettes and chatting in enclosed circles outside. "I mean, think about it. What actual skill do I possess?" He took a gulp of beer. "I edit quips about Marc Jacobs' boyfriend for a living. 'Editing' is not really a job. Not anymore, at least. There are about a million younger, cheaper people who can do what I do, who also happen to know a thousand times more about the internet than I do. Eventually, I'll either die of boredom or get replaced. And then, what? I'll be 35. What the hell am I gonna do with the rest of my life?"
Admittedly, complaining about your well-paying job at a time when a lot of very capable people are out of work altogether won't engender any sympathy. But Q's little booze-soaked soliloquy does raise a question that seems to weigh heavily on the minds of media folk of a certain demographic these days (those over the age of, say, 27, who have already spent 5-plus years toiling in the trenches at publications that are vastly different in scope and size than when they started). Namely: Where do we go from here?
Because right now, as the Summer of 2009 gives way to fall, the answer is pretty damn unclear.
When I graduated from college several years ago, the boilerplate career arc in publishing went a little something like this: pay your dues as an editorial assistant for a couple years, biding your time until you either 1) got promoted and became an associate, or 2) jumped ship to a magazine (or newspaper, or book editing shop) where a better gig opened up. Hang in that new station for a couple years before rinsing and repeating, upwards and onwards. It was an arc that, if you played your cards right, culminated with a six-figure job you'd stick with for the rest of your professional career. (With a much higher degree of job satisfaction compared to your friends who went to law school, too.)
Even those who "made it" before the fall-out are bummed. A pal—a senior editor at a glossy Conde Nast fashion mag in his early 30s—summed it up like this to me over email: "Look, I have a wife. There's no way I'm gonna quit. Who in their right mind would quit right now? And hopefully, I'm not gonna be fired. But honestly, a little part of me does sort of hope that I'm next. At least that way, I'd be forced to explore other options."
His attitude makes a perverted kind of sense. "You should see this place in the mornings," he continues. "There's absolutely no energy. We're all just resigned to slogging along. At this point, I feel like every month I'm still in this job puts me a month away from being prepared to do my next one. All these young kids still wet from college complaining about the lack of media jobs—at least they're young enough to figure something else out. It's the guys like me, who've been doing this shit for a decade and don't know how to do anything else, who are fucked."
Keep in mind that this coming from a guy who gets summer Fridays and an expense account. For those unfortunate souls toiling on the internet, working (in most cases) for significantly less money and without the benefits bestowed upon hacks at brick-and-mortar joints, the disillusionment is even more palpable. "This is such a depressing grind," says one 28-year-old former magazine staffer who jumped to the web after his print publication folded. "On the web, we're operating under deadlines on a daily basis that I used to only have to deal with a few times a month, during close, when I was at a magazine. I do probably three times as much work now as I did before. In return, they don't give me health insurance." (It's not like you can readily make up the lost income by freelancing online, either. Even at the flush Daily Beast, where they make a gesture of good faith and actually pay you for contributing, anyone not named Christopher Buckley or Meghan McCain is making only $300-$500 a story—less than half of what you'd have made sending the same word count to a place that uses paper.)
Obviously, no one gets into this line of work for the money. But I did go in thinking that there'd be a way to have some fun, maintain some integrity, and still hash out a decent living. Now? You better pick one of the above, 'cause you sure as hell ain't hitting the trifecta.
At least based on anecdotal evidence, it seems as if everyone has come to this realization at the same time. People also seem to realize that this isn't just some transitional phase in which the wheat is being separated from the chaff, either; even the best talent is getting screwed. So where does that leave us? I'm not really sure. If I'd have known things were gonna shake out this way in college, I'd have probably thought twice about applying for that first magazine internship. But now, after five years, the point of no return is getting awfully close.
If I haven't shot it by already.