I think I may have said this before, but I’m often struck by the similarities between working in media and working in academia.
Both fields are going through upheaval. Both fields enjoy less and less security. Both fields are increasingly squeezed. Both fields do a lot of navel gazing. Both fields indulge in a lot of self-deprecative grumbling and moaning – it’s that love/hate thing that often comes with passion industries.
This is stuff that’s been weighing on my mind of late, what with Nieman Lab’s recent coverage of the NYT – especially the comprehensive, exhausting chronicle of a homepage editor’s day and succinct extraction of the key points from the paper’s leaked innovation report.
By the time we graduated, lots of my classmates were already bemoaning the implosion of the print market, and of course, that’s an echo reverberating all through the industry. As Allyson Bird’s viral post pointed out: “There was never such a thing as an eight-hour workday at newspapers, but overtime became the stuff of legend … when it came to watching out for themselves, the watchdogs kept their heads down.”
Not that I necessarily went into this thinking I wanted to work in print. I fell straight into the world of digital, and in hindsight, of course it makes sense. I’d been writing for online magazines throughout high school and started my first website back in about 2000.
The barriers to entry for online media are low. You can start up something yourself or nab a staff job, and in some situations, it’s easy to move up quickly. Traditional print news is fairly hierarchical, but the online environment is infinitely more flexible and, by necessity, welcoming to Gen Yers who get the web. As Emily Banks (ex-Mashable managing editor, now at the WSJ) once told me, getting to where she is now in such a short space of time would be more or less unthinkable at a more traditional place.
But it’s not an easy path by any means. It’s still bloody hard to make money in online, even as print revenues slide. And feeding the beast that never sleeps is a thankless task. As Andrew Nusca, the Editorialiste, writes: “We humans are just not built for this level of productivity – whatever the quality”. And ex-Venturebeater Bekah Grant actually quantified this on Medium: “I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane.”
You can’t be on all the time; you can’t be producing 100 percent of the time. You need time to pause, time to think, time to analyse things. I’ve giggled with fellow onliners about what it must be like to be on staff at quarterly, monthly, or heck, even weekly magazines. What luxurious deadlines they have, we chuckle. What could they possibly do on some of those days? But by jove, wouldn’t a day or two every now and then at a less frenetic pace be nice?
We’ve heard plenty about plagiarism over the past few years. Some blame the industry as a whole. There’s less training, support, mentorship. No longer do subs upon chief reporters upon editors question everything, as old-timers recount. Stretched thin, with the layers of backup eroded, we get Elizabeth Flocks and Jonah Lehrers. That’s probably not going to improve.
Is constantly doing more with less sustainable? We’re searching for the silver bullet, media and academia alike. But not everyone is willing to stick around to find out what it is. This passage, I think, will resonate far beyond just the chemistry community: “You can recognize that our choices to leave are rational decisions that demonstrate self-knowledge and self-respect. We have weighed whether we love the work more than we hate the context we do it in. You can accept our analysis and respect our agency, and not try to convince us that you know better or that we should have worked (even) harder.”
I don’t have any answers. And now that I technically no longer work in publishing, I guess I won’t be part of the solution, if one emerges eventually. Instead, I’ll watch from the sidelines, having chosen to walk an easier path, like many before me have and many after me will.