How the Internet Is Impoverishing as It Empowers

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our latest reader contributor, Scott Shepard of Memphis, Tennessee, responds to the previous reader who once earned six figures as a newspaper editor but is now unemployed, cash poor, and living in her son’s converted garage. Here’s Scott:

An early sketch of the cover from Darhil. More here.

Linda’s tale is very nearly the same as mine. After more than 25 years in the newspaper business, I was downsized in 2008. (The managing editor told me privately that I was the highest paid person in the editorial department, so canning me would save the most money.)

After months of fruitless searching for another job, I accepted an invitation from a friend and moved to Taiwan to be an English teacher. A grand adventure, but after more than six years I yearned to be home. (Most foreign English teachers are from South Africa, so as an American I always had more work than I could handle; everyone prefers an American or Canadian.)

If Linda is interested in being a foreign teacher, I’d be glad to give her some guidance. Otherwise, go through the help wanted ads and see what is most in demand, and train for a new occupation. I’ve enrolled at my local community college to learn PC Networking, a field in which I know I can find work.

I’ve been back from Taiwan for a year, doing whatever I can find, from food service to working in a warehouse. I took training to be a forklift driver, but I’m left-handed, and you really have to be right-handed to drive those things. I’ve picked up some freelance work, but not much. I started two businesses that both failed to take off.

When I started at my last newspaper in 1989, there were 13 reporters. Today, there are three. Those jobs are not coming back. The Internet has completely changed the publishing industry. Nobody wants to pay a writer when there are thousands of others who will do it for free—quality be damned.

And increasingly, the best pay for journalists on the web is writing sponsored content, the form of advertising meant to resemble editorial content (though it’s clearly labeled here at The Atlantic, in contrast to less scrupulous actors like the one Fallows highlighted last year). If you haven’t yet seen John Oliver’s detailed look at sponsored content back in 2014, you really should:

And Jacob Silverman recently wrote for The BafflerConfessions of a sponsored content writer,” centered on his experiences writing for our site. Here Silverman gives some perspective on the economics of the media industry right now:

But my new Atlantic contact gave me the lowdown: the magazine was looking to expand its sponsored offerings, and it would pay obscenely well—up to $4 per word in some cases, a rate that can be found these days only at the glossiest of glossy mags. I had written a few pieces for The Atlantic’s website before, at the measly rate of $150 each.

It’s definitely tough out there, and not just for legacy newspapers like the ones Linda and Scott worked for. From Ken Doctor’s latest diagnosis in NiemanLab:

At BuzzFeed, a 32 percent miss in 2015 revenue and a halving of its 2016 revenue target, according to the Financial Times.

At Mashable, a massive layoff after the company failed to sell itself.

At Yahoo, an upcoming sale of its news-producing assets, portending great uncertainty for journalists employed there.

At Medium, a new way forward focused more on curation and licensing its platform for publishers and less on original content creation.

The list of cutbacks — at The Huffington Post, at Gawker, at Al Jazeera, at International Business Times, and at Salon among others — keeps growing. And each round poses new questions for a news business struggling to find a way forward in this millennium. After all, even if the old world of news faded (like its readers) into older age, at least we could point to the cohort of digital-native outlets with a bit of optimism.

I feared this day would come — the new digital news companies bumping into a wall.

If, like Linda and Scott, you’ve also hit a wall and want to share your experience, drop us an email.