In November 2018, Ariana Grande released “thank u, next.” It resonated with me on a spiritual level.
In particular, the song’s pre-chorus struck a nerve: “One taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain.” At the moment it reached the zenith of its cultural relevance, I was being laid off for a third time in my first three years in journalism. I’m 26.
I was platforms editor at the digital startup Mic. That meant audience development—the euphemism for attempting to ensure, mostly through social media and sharpened headlines, as many clicks as possible for whatever we published. My job sat squarely between the journalism I had grown up idolizing and the business interests that have laid off nearly half of American journalists since 2007.
The first signs I was going to be laid off from Mic came as I sat in a noisy Financial District bar with a few coworkers. Rumors of layoffs had been circulating among the staffers, some of whom had already survived one painful layoff after a much-maligned “pivot to video” in 2017. There was less of a feeling of whether a layoff was about to occur and more of how devastating that inevitable layoff would be.
And then, as we were sitting in the bar, a Recode article hit everyone’s phones. Mic was in talks to sell to Bustle, another startup company that attempted to make money from clicks. The small group that had gathered read the article in near-silence, peppered with occasional incredulous laughter. I stopped short when I got to this line: “Right now, it looks like Bustle would consider bringing in half or less of the Mic staff.”
I needed to get some air, to be by myself. I left the gathering abruptly, took a PATH train to Hoboken, feeling completely numb, and wept in my wife’s arms as soon as I entered our apartment.
The feeling was all too familiar for me. Four months earlier, in July, I was one of about 90 people laid off after the New York Daily News was acquired by Tronc (now Tribune Publishing, again). And in 2016, I was laid off from my first job at a website called Slant, a sort-of Medium or Huffington Post that sought to publish contributors. The venture fund that had been bankrolling it was moving on to a new project: a $14,000 smartphone.
Growing up, I was lured by the romantic notion of wanting to be “a writer,” coupled with the pragmatic understanding that writing doesn’t necessarily present the most linear career. As the child of two Wall Street parents turned middle school teacher and bartender, I craved “stability,” whatever that meant. At the time, journalism seemed like a perfect fit.
Slant hired me as a social editor in 2015, because, I believe, I used social media personally and was willing to do anything to get my foot in the door at a journalism company.
Like many other digital publishers, we leaned heavily into Facebook as a way to rapidly scale. I loved working with individual writers to collaborate on how best to “sell” their piece on social, or how to optimize it for search. Our morning meetings revolved around discussing “wins and losses”—what drove traffic and what didn’t drive traffic. Soon, I was constantly chasing the high of watching stories take off and occasionally go viral.
They laid me off via Facetime. I wore it like a badge of honor, remembering the cliché that successful people experience a string of colossal failures before finding any success.
I had also convinced myself that, in a time of digital transformation, intimately understanding the platforms that distribute content to consumers was an invaluable skill. Publishers who didn’t take distribution seriously would be bested by those who did. My ideal was not just to help a publisher survive, but to thrive in a landscape where data and analytics tools could sharpen strategy and ultimately maximize the impact of journalism.
When I entered the industry, I thought that bloodletting was a natural result of publishers failing to evolve. I was horribly naive. I’ve now realized I had a front-row seat for the decision-making processes and warped priorities of publishers, who chase scale with abandon, pay gobs of money for traffic, and preach an ethos of independence while quietly maneuvering toward a lucrative exit for themselves following a merger or acquisition.
As I’ve tallied up layoffs, a number of younger friends in the industry have come to me for advice after losing their jobs due to downsizing or restructuring. The basic question that is almost always asked is, “Should I continue doing this or should I find something else?”
My answer is always the same. If there’s something else that will bring you as much joy that journalism does, do that. But if you feel like you have unfinished business, and that your perspective and talent would be wasted by getting out of Dodge, then you’ll always regret leaving.
Fortunately, my story has a silver lining. I started a new job, as deputy editor of content strategy at Men’s Health magazine, this month. And I’ve realized that the initial panic and pain of being laid off (not to mention the enforced patience of waiting for that next offer) has always quickly been replaced by love; an outpouring of compassion and kindness from coworkers, union representatives, and from total strangers.
It’s an American ethos that predates Ariana Grande. In 1776, Thomas Paine, the great philosopher of the early days of this nation, wrote, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.” In essence, it was the Revolutionary era “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex.”
TOP IMAGE: Spencer Dukoff. Courtesy photo.