For years, even as most print-centric publications downsized, they maintained their status as the crème de la crème. The journalistic reputations of these former titans even increased as their circulation and ad revenues shrank: They were held up as examples of a dying breed, the last outlets standing for those who care about “real” reporting and quality editing. Plus the staff jobs were even harder to get, so they were all the more coveted.
Journalists my age and younger (I’ve been in the business since 2005—right around the time digital media emerged as a plausible career option) have never operated under the illusion that a staff job at The New Yorker or a New York Times column was in our future. But nearly a decade into the digital-media revolution, another shift has occurred. It’s not just that journalists understand former “prestige” jobs will be nearly impossible to get. Now we don’t even want them.
The appeal of working for media standard-bearers has diminished considerably. Sure, we still wouldn’t say no to lunch with David Remnick or delete an email from Jill Abramson. But the definition of “prestige” in media is changing, fast. These days, some young journalists still aspire to be political reporters for The Washington Post or international correspondents on network news. But many others would rather create their own media empire, or be a freelance writer for a variety of outlets, or run a blog for a relatively small community of readers.
Even the most high-profile digital-media staff jobs—which once promised (at a slightly lower salary) all of the audience and opportunities for innovation that stuffy old outlets lacked—have lost some of their appeal. This week, Ken Layne quit his fulltime job as a national correspondent for Gawker to start Greenfriar, a blog about the environment. And Matt Buchanan and John Herrman left The New Yorker website and BuzzFeed, respectively, to take the reins of The Awl, a delightful blog that’s written for and by a relatively small community of New Yorkers and media types. (Disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to The Awl’s sister site, The Hairpin.)
What does the modern media “dream job” look like? Anything and everything, but “nothing really traditional,” Layne says. “If Bill Keller wanders off to do some sort of startup, not even The New York Times qualifies as a rewarding, perfect job anymore.” Layne decided to leave Gawker, a million-pageview platform, to create his own site after he had a great experience writing for The Awl—which was also founded by refugees from traditional media outlets. “I worked with them for awhile last year and I thought it was just an ideal setup: couple of good writers, one or two good business people, and you run this perfect little thing. It’s almost like a salon,” he says, clarifying: “Not Salon.com.”
One of the arguments against older media and in favor of sites like Gawker and Salon used to be that you could find a far bigger audience online. If you want your writing to reach the most people, you shouldn’t really care about the death of print. (I know Newsweek is returning to print and lots of new boutique magazines are coffee-table-ready, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule: Digital is king.) In an age of noxious comment sections, a large audience isn’t the draw it once was. Layne wanted to hand-pick the readership for his work—and set the editorial direction himself.
If it sounds risky, it is. Layne isn’t some brash 24-year-old with no personal responsibilities. He’s been in the business more than 15 years, and when I talked to him, he was on his way to pick up his kids from school. But media staff jobs are unreliable, too. “Being a migrant farmworker is more reliable,” Layne says. “At least you know you’re going to work next year. There’s just no security whatsoever, even if you do want to be an associate editor at a Conde Nast glossy.” In the past six months alone there have been 500 layoffs at Time Inc., 40 at CNN, and 100 at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Working for yourself—or for a startup—seems no riskier than a traditional gig, especially now that Obamacare has made health insurance more affordable for many freelancers.
Of course, there are other benefits to working under the banner of a respected old-media outlet. Sources are quicker to respond when you say you’re calling from the Times than when you identify yourself as an unaffiliated “freelance writer.” But for entrepreneurial journalists, these professional benefits are outweighed considerably by the frustration of a strict editorial hierarchy and outmoded distinctions between a “print side” and a “digital side,” or the persistence of a sturdy wall between business and editorial. With the business of media changing so rapidly, editors and writers are paying closer attention to how their employers make money, and many have come to the conclusion that they’d be pretty great in a hybrid editor-publisher role, exploring new business models.
For freelancers, good money still flows from old-prestige outlets. Few if any digital-only publications are paying upwards of $2/word for in-depth reporting. But the editorial constraints that come with that rate—say, writing in a certain sing-songy tone for a women’s magazine—aren’t worth it for many of us. My highest-paying freelance jobs, which are mostly for print outlets, don’t have much overlap with my most satisfying ones. I’ve opted many times to take a few smaller, lower-paying assignments for newer publications rather than say yes to a single big assignment for an older outlet. I don’t feel like my career has suffered as a result. In fact, I often tell people I’ve got my dream job.