Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Things That Make You Go, “Hmmmmm….” (Or: A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013)

And here’s a response from The Atlantic‘s senior editor, Alexis Madrigal.

In part:  “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.”

So Madrigal (I have to say, Alexis Madrigal is a helluva handle … but whether real or nom de plume, I couldn’t tell you, not being in the habit of travelling in such rarefied circles as the editorial conclave of The Atlantic) opens with the sympathy card.  While it rings true, it smells a little less like freelance spirit by the end of the piece, and a smidge more like defense of the indefensible.  But see for yourself, and do read some of the very well-presented, thoughtful, and insightful comments by freelancers and editors alike at the bottom.  (And then come back here and share your thoughts on THIS blog, because I’m another starving freelancer who fantasizes that I will be able to monetize this brilliant and under-appreciated blog just as soon as I have enough hits and engagement to spontaneously set the world ablaze.)

In its entirety:  A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013.

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5 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go, “Hmmmmm….” (Or: A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013)

  1. “a young journalist in her first week on the job…”

    Okay, having trouble following all the players, but it sounds as if Senior Editor is throwing his newest hiree under the bus? Classy.

    Dear SrEd: Thayer was not driven to this by an overdose of mangoes but rather by the fact that your magazine offered an unfair deal that he politely declined. Nor can I believe that you let your junior editors offer whatever fees suit their fancy. Get real.

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  2. Bus … oncoming train … Olga is discovering the Interwebz is a cruel, cruel place, I suspect. Welcome to your dream job at The Atlantic.

    The explanation Madrigal offers about the difficulties of feeding the online monster all sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface, but if you’re defending an un-sustainable business model which, at its heart, still basically functions by profiting from other people’s hard work and offers no (or next-to-no) compensation …. then maybe the model needs a rethink, hmmmm?

    I’m not sure I care for the “no harm, no foul” tone either — hey, it doesn’t hurt anyone to ask you to work for free, you can always decline, don’t go getting all nasty and TELLING anyone about it. Isn’t that what lecherous uncles tell their doe-eyed little nephews when they tuck them into bed? Or am I reaching?

    The essay certainly left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth (um … no connection to the naughty uncle ref above) the more I thought about it … and it’s getting lambasted in the Twittersphere for being self-pitying and semi-incomprehensible. Mind you, those commenting might be biased on the side of freelancers. Maybe.

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  3. This entire exchange should leave a foul taste in everyone’s mouth. The publishers complain about declining sales while their magazines are short on content, long on dwindling advertising. Why do they think people purchase magazines? To READ interesting, informative and/or entertaining content – not to peruse advertising. Why do advertisers place ads? To get their message in front of the eyeballs reading…. what?….the content!

    If that content then appears on the interwebz, so be it but this unsustainable model of getting (what you pay for) content writing for free is just that.

    As for the ‘poor’ junior editor? She has a salary.

    Keep up the good, if underpaid, fight.

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  4. Ellen www.blithetraveler.com on said:

    Positioning your junior staff as naive to gain the sympathy vote doesn’t strike me as professional. And allowing your junior staff to believe that devaluting writers and their words is okay spells doom for a magazine like the Atlantic, which requires smart, complex journalism to exist.

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  5. Love that image — the cover for one of my fave Bruce Cockburn albums…

    The whole Thayer/Atlantic dust-up was such total bullshittery. Madrigal’s “explanation” is fucked. You either have a business model (as you pointed out) that works and you pay people for their skills and labor, or you do not. I write freelance for a living (yes, really) and do not give my time or skills away to people sucking up paychecks while also having the dosh to pay their office space, light, insurance and other bills without a thought. Asking skilled veterans for charity just pisses us off.

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