The biz ain't what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was.
Man, I feel everyone on how scary it is to be in journalism. When I made the transition from a would-be fiction career paired with writing research reports into full-time journalism, I nearly drowned in a sea of debt and self-doubt. I was writing posts on my own blog, which almost nobody read, but it did, with an assist from my now-wife, get me a couple gigs writing for some known websites. I got paid $12 a post by one. The other was generous, and I got $50. I was grateful as hell to have this toehold in the world. I remember walking down Bartlett Street in the Mission and saying to myself, out loud, "I'm a writer. I'm a writer! I'M A WRITER!" It was all I'd wanted to be since I was 16 years old. And I was making it.
Except I was not making it. Every day that went by, I was draining the little bit of money I had. I started selling anything I'd acquired to that point in my life that had any value. After the last Craigslist purchaser walked away with my stuff, I stood there in the living room of our apartment staring at the books and crying.
I had so little money and so much debt that any time I had to go to an ATM, I was seized with horrible anxiety. I practically could only do it drunk. You know those ATMs that display your balance EVEN WHEN YOU TELL THEM NOT TO? Well, I hate those ones. I would take my money and as it displayed my balance on the screen, I would carefully unfocus my eyes so I couldn't really tell how little I had. The credit crunch was happening and I didn't have any credit left. My loving, wonderful, brilliant parents were going through a rough patch, too, and they couldn't help, either. I was tortured by the idea that I'd taken on this new career when my family needed me. I asked myself whether I should have stayed at the hedge fund job that I took right out of college and hated so much I quit before the summer ended.
I sometimes hoped that the whole world would collapse -- it certainly seemed possible back then -- because my debt would be swept away along with the rest of civilization. My dad had once said, right during the credit crisis, "Don't worry, we'll all be potato farmers soon anyway." And I would think about that and it would *make me happy*. At least then I wouldn't worry that I was going to be torn apart at the seams by the demands of a work life that couldn't even keep me afloat in an expensive city. I really, really resented people who could count on financial support from places unknown. They didn't seem to get how hard it was to keep it together when you might drown under your own debt at any minute.
Like an idiot, I figured I could write a book and use the advance to pay off my debt. That kind of worked, though the process of doing the book melted my brain. I was so tired and my mind was so filled with words that I would forget where I was, almost coming to in supermarket aisles wondering why I was staring at mangoes. I hate mangoes. But at least the money gave me some breathing room. I could approach an ATM without feeling weak in the knees.
So, all this to say: I know the pressure these debts can put on you. I know how angry it makes you, at yourself, at other people, at the world. Why didn't I save more? Why did I buy that thing? Why did I have to pick up that tab when I didn't have any goddamn money? How could I support a family like this? Why won't the world recognize my talent is worth more!?
And so when Nate Thayer published emails with our newest editor (second week on the job), I can see how that might happen. How you might finish writing your last email, "No offense taken," and then staring at your blog's CMS that night, decide, you know, what? I'm tired of writing for peanuts, because fuck that. And if a young journalist in her first week on the job was part of the collateral damage, hey, the world just isn't fair, kid. Pay it forward.
I get it, but it was still a nasty thing to do.
I'm glad Thayer's post has garnered him lots of attention. He is a great journalist and I genuinely hope the spotlight gets him more work. Don't get me wrong. I'm still incensed by what he did, but I want journalists to prosper because I believe, like he does, that what we do is vital.
Let me show my colors here. I am an Atlantic person. I love this place. I feel it in my bones. If I open up one of our musty tomes at the office, I can get sucked in for an hour just looking at the ads, or marveling at the eloquence of W.E.B. DuBois. When I look back at old Ta-Nehisi posts or see Fallows in the halls, I can get emotional. I was watching Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, and he notes, offhandedly, how stories that ran in our magazine helped preserve Yosemite for future generations. He talks about how we published this wild holy man, John Muir, thereby promoting the idea of National Parks, which as Burns' rightly argues is one of the best and most populist ideas to ever become law in this country. These are my people. These are my colors. This is my institution, my connection to a legacy and a lineage. And if you come after one of us, if you come after it, I am not going to take it lying down.
And so ... Twitter was a contact sport yesterday. I practically put in my old mouthgard from football practice. Seemed like every reload brought another attacker and it was instinct, really, to keep them away from my QB, Olga. I know how to block. I know how to hit. You can just see me at my computer, sweating, steam (or is it smoke?) coming out of my ears. Bring it. And I hate that mode. I hate it. It makes me feel bad and say fuck a lot and I TYPE IN ALL CAPS. I want to do those pushups where you clap in-between because I just get so much something, emotion, intensity, adrenaline, running in my veins. (Much love to Becca Rosen, my brilliant, grounded lieutenant for telling me to put down the twitter and pet the kitty and go for a run. That was a good call, as always, BR.)
But that's not what this should all be about, if by "all," I mean the maelstrom kicked up by Thayer. Because the truth is, I don't have a great answer for Nate Thayer, or other freelancers who are trying to make it out there. It was never an easy life, but there were places who would pay your expenses to go report important stories and compensate you in dollars per word, not pennies. You could research and craft. And there were outlets -- not a ton, but some -- that could send you a paycheck that would keep you afloat.