Wednesday, 3 July 2013
I received my new ID card at work today, and I guess it didn’t really sink in until now that, just over four weeks ago, I effectively walked away from a 16-year career in the media.
In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working on The Sydney Morning Herald, the Official Australian Xbox Magazine, Popular Science, Hyper, and a slew of other websites and magazines I’ve lost count of. I’ve been everything from the upstart go-to writer to the gung-ho editor who makes up his own rules; from the uptight publisher that other editors grumble about to the idealistic manager who quietly takes bullets for his team.
A year ago I would’ve thought it difficult to leave. But when the moment came for me to make a decision, it was actually quite easy. Sudden, even.
In all honesty, part of me wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. That was until, of course, I had lunch with some old workmates last week, and I realised upon looking at their faces just how bad things had gotten. Their eyes said it all: relief, hope, longing… relief to see that someone can make it safely out of the industry; the hope that that they can do the same; and a longing for the right time and opportunity for them to make a break for it.
The media isn’t a pretty place to work in right now. Print, in particular. The classic 1950’s notion of the ‘mass market’ doesn’t exist anymore. Thanks to the internet, that market has been fragmented so completely that some publishers are effectively reduced to cottage industries fighting over scraps of niche audiences. Without those big numbers to attract advertising dollars, the industry seems destined to contract, painfully, over the next few years until it finds a new sense of equilibrium.
That’s not to say the reasons for working in the media aren’t still there. The truth must always be fought for. Our stories need to be shared. That’s how we grow and evolve as a society. And, as I always say, it’s not as though people have stopped reading – they’ve just stopped paying for the privilege.
Media organisations are struggling here and around the world. Newsweek? Gone. Australian Good Taste? Gone. Madison? Dead. Sumptuous Magazine? Shuttered. Nintendo Power? Finished. Grazia? Out. The Week? Didn’t make it. Burke’s Backyard? Take a wild guess. Think that’s the Australian edition of TIME sitting on newsstands? They don’t even have an office here anymore (which they didn’t bother to update on their own Wikipedia page).
As an editor, there are multiple things you worry about besides readership figures, such as production costs, advertising revenue, distribution, licensing fees, circulation drivers, publicity, marketing – all the things that make a publication a profitable business unit. Somehow, in spite of enjoying readership growth and appearing to have enough potential and goodwill to drive revenue, those not-insubstantial magazines somehow weren’t cutting the mustard.
There was a time, years ago, when I dreamed of moving to London or New York to try my luck with a much bigger market. Now, amazingly, it’s my colleagues in London and New York who are calling to ask if there’s a viable industry here in Australia!
People have become worried. And paranoid. It’s difficult to maintain that veneer of corporate civility when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for the person who’ll throw you under the bus.
It partly explains the madness behind some editorial decisions these days, or what I like to call SEO-driven publishing. Both in print and online, journalists are being trained and conditioned to write cover lines and headlines that don’t just grab attention, but are provocative and inflammatory; stories that are salacious and optimised to rank highest on Google’s search engine. It’s why newspapers seem to have more opinion-editorials than actual news these days – it’s what web analytics has forced them to do.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched readership figures and advertising revenues drop year on year, forcing publishers and editors to adopt impossible do-or-die strategies to put things back in the black. They’ll expand their web strategy, embrace social media, release a podcast, migrate readers to a tablet edition, or try a combination of those things in varying degrees; and they’ll make a big song and dance about their pioneering new vision.
It rarely works.
One thing I’m sure of is when an industry is contracting, the people working in it suffer. Bauer Media, the publisher I last worked for, was three years into a wages freeze by the time I left. Up until that point, and I imagine still, writers, editors and designers were trying to make themselves more valuable. They were requesting transfers into the web and tablet space, getting training, and taking on additional freelance work to make ends meet.
Some wised up and went completely freelance, trading in reliable work hours for a much higher rate of pay. The work was always going to be there and people in the media tend to go with the people they know anyway.
But then, freelance rates were cut. Payments for republication across digital media were also cut. In my last days at Bauer, I listened in abject horror as a publishing manager promised that it would be “no problem at all” for him to unilaterally drive down freelance rates further for every writer, producer and photographer on one of his magazines – rates that most professionals would refuse to accept – because he feared losing his client. This is one of the ‘being thrown under the bus’ moments people are afraid of.
And it’s not as though these cut-backs were a one-off occurrence. It’s still happening right now. A friend of mine who works in advertising has been scoping out the market, and the only roles he can find are more senior ones that pay significantly less. And in the last four weeks, I’ve been approached by a couple of editors who knew I was available, asking whether I’d be interested in writing for free.
Is it any surprise, then, that coffee and cigarette breaks have become de facto job-hunting sessions where people discreetly trawl through Seek and LinkedIn on their smartphones?
Some of us are incredibly fortunate in finding a publication to work on that’s both stable and rewarding. Some of us even get to write stories that are genuinely worthwhile. I’d be an ingrate if I didn’t acknowledge that I’ve had a tremendous amount of luck in that regard.
But for all the bluster that media professionals kick up about their importance to society, the celebrities they meet and all the freebies they receive, the majority of them are fundamentally not well paid. I know designers and sub-editors who haven’t had a pay rise in more than six years.
They stay with the job, however, because they still have the strength that comes from belief – belief in their audience, belief that they’re leading a discussion, belief that their stories are making a difference, belief in what they’re writing about. In the world of journalism, these are powerful things. But belief doesn’t pay the mortgage.
One colleague, a freelance editor, confessed to me that she can barely cover her living costs. She fears for what will become of her when she retires.
Another colleague, whom I had a hand in training, ascended to the highest levels at Fairfax Digital before unexpectedly walking away from it all. I never asked him why he gave it up, but there were enough signs to suggest he saw, as I do, no easy way to fix these issues (hey, if we did, we’d be wealthy beyond measure).
But, like him, I’ve managed to find a place that values the skills I bring to the table. I really can’t ask for more than that.
Do I feel bad for walking away from the industry when so much change is afoot? Well, it’s not really my fight to fight anymore, not that it was ever my fight to begin with. I never got into the media to change the world – I was always happy to just play my part, and I feel it’s been played out.
If it eventuates that things in the media turn around, and a great opportunity presents itself, sure, I would definitely think about going back. I just don’t see it happening any time soon, and it’d be crazy for me to wait around for that moment.
Until then, I want to see where this new venture goes, what doors it opens, and the bigger possibilities that lay ahead.