What to Do if the Media Career You Wanted Doesn’t Exist
It would be bombastic and too provocative to say that certain careers in the media industry simply don’t exist anymore. It’s still possible to be a journalist or a publishing house editor, but as the crappy economy is slashing jobs across the board–in an industry that’s been ailing for years–that aspiration to one day have your own imprint at Random House becomes more elusive than ever.
The career track for those who wish to edit books for a major publisher, ride the elevator in the glass Hearst magazine tower up to a corner office, write for The New Yorker from home–or write for really any newspaper in a staff writer capacity–will be marked by a long period of job hunting, perhaps a stretch of unpaid internships, and a much longer stretch in lower-level positions. And all with less job security than ever before! As senior staffers at national newspapers are taking buyouts and magazines are folding left and right, what’s an aspiring media superstar in a bad economy to do?
If you calm down and look closely, the answer is pretty simple: go online. While young people may love the classic depictions of journalists in smoky newsrooms and seeing their names in morning papers–even for those who just loved watching Elaine on Seinfeld chase down jobs in publishing–there has to be a reframing of expectations and a small mourning period for the jobs that just aren’t readily available in their original form any more. But for writers and editors who are willing to do the web versions of their dreams, there are opportunities galore. There are no limits on what can be achieved by those who are willing to go out on their own and use the web to create their own futures.
Here are some jobs that are pretty hard to nail down these days and how the web offers a fantastic equivalent:
In her book Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House, novelist and freelance writer Meghan Daum writes of looking for the perfect piece of real estate to set up her life and she writes in particular about finding—and decorating—the perfect spaces to write. She makes the life of a freelancer, working on magazine essays at prim writing desks in airy bungalows in southern California sound dainty and romantic and artful. Daum doesn’t try to act like her career came easily to her—she is in her forties and spent her twenties living in New York City as an underpaid magazine staffer. But she also doesn’t highlight the less lovely aspects of the freelance life, like skipping showers and working from bed.
Worse yet, trying to make a living as a freelance writer these days is harder than ever before. In fact, it may be fair to assume that even Daum is having trouble rustling up the same number of assignments that she had five years ago (and she may also have trouble commanding the $1-$2/ word that national glossies used to pay as a rule). Those trying to forge a career as a full-time freelance writer may find that they spend 80% of their time feeling like a Verizon salesperson and 20% of their time feeling like a writer.
Writing for blogs and web publications is a less competitive route than trying to place essays in Self magazine, but it’s still tough. When writers launch their own blogs, build traffic, and take on advertisers, their continued hard work (and a whole lot of luck) can lead to the promised land of earning money writing about whatever they want. More and more writers are looking to Byliner.com to write long features and be paid per download.
Even authors who could probably nab contracts with big publishers are saying “Nah” to doing their next book with Random House and instead heading over to Smashwords. Many are writing their books, formatting them for Kindle, and handling everything that goes into doing a book themselves when they go the e-book route. There’s autonomy, there’s full editorial control and for some, there’s more money! Publishing an e-book may feel less sexy at first than signing with a fancy publisher, but e-books are probably the future of reading and it’s better to evolve and be at the helm of the trend.
One can assume that Jane Pratt, maven of self-made women and women’s magazines, has had it with print and corporate media companies. She launched Sassy magazine, one of the most beloved teen magazines of all time and founded a second eponymous magazine; both publications folded when their owners deemed them insufficiently profitable. This spring, Pratt launched xojane.com, a fun, upbeat, highly readable e-magazine that has all the visual elements of a turn-the-pages magazine and all the interactivity of a website. It probably cost a pretty penny to launch, but a collaboration between the right editor, the right web designer/ developer, and a stable of eager writers willing to work for exposure (for now) could make launching a web magazine very doable. Other blog/web magazine hybrids–like theAwl.com and theGloss.com–have shown that websites with great content by energetic writers can really take off.
When inReads contributor Jon Peters moved to Los Angeles, a screenwriter he met agreed to give him some advice but offered a grim forecast: that he couldn’t expect to have a script seriously read until he was 30. The bad economy has hit Hollywood hard and aspiring and working screenwriters alike are waiting for studios to start buying more scripts…but they’re still waiting.
For young screenwriters, there’s always the option of plain-old doing-it-yourself. For Lena Dunham, a 25-year-old Oberlin College graduate, writing, directing, and raising a low five figure budget to shoot her movie Tiny Furniture turned out to be an extraordinarily good use of her time, because her film won “Best Narrative Feature” at South by Southwest.
The internet has made it easier than ever for filmmakers to air their own work; uploading videos to YouTube is as tried-and-true as blogging to build a platform. But now, the “web series” and product placement in viral videos are emerging as new ways for writers and independent filmmakers to make money while doing what they love. And it definitely beats trying to slip copies of your script to everyone you meet in the hopes that they might one day make it into a movie.
Of course, it’s normal—and perhaps important—to have that mourning period if you spent a long period of time hoping to snag a swipe card to the Conde Nast building or to slowly but surely climb the ranks at the New York Times. Going out on your own and building a career yourself can be scary, but if you want to be a creative professional and you can’t see yourself being happy in any other kind of career, you don’t have a choice. If you have something that you’re meant to say or create, you can’t deny that creative reflex! You’ll go crazy. If you’re hell bent on having job stability and a formal workplace, you can definitely keep job searching–you just have to be okay with the fact that it will take a while.
But the bright side of forging your career in a bad economy–and during a major shift in the media industry–is creative professionals’ freedom to create the work lifestyles and careers that fit best. It’s also that sometimes all-too-rare opportunity to see that people can come together, collaborate, and support one another.
If freelance media professionals are to the web as pioneers were to the frontier, one could see the future as terrifying and risky or exciting and full of opportunity. Let’s plan for the latter.
Can you think of anything that media professionals can do to succeed as they transition into more independent, web-based careers?