It's a Business Where You Never Know
A little tidbit in Choire Sicha’s post about the NYT’s recent efforts to rein in the use of Twitter by their staffers:
An extremely successful reporter, when I worked [at the Times], once asked me if she was in the “rubber room,” referring to the detention places New York City used to send its bad teachers. She was! She had offended a senior leader and was being iced out, but no one would tell her.
This is, before anything else, just a reflection of a specific organization and its famously complex internal politics. What happens at the NYT is to some degree sui generis, a consequence of employing a roster of deeply ambitious people and of being one of a tiny handful of publications whose presence on your resume can still get you a book contract or a big-money job elsewhere. But I also want to nominate this dynamic, of never knowing if you’re in trouble but sensing that you are and facing career consequences because of it, as a ubiquitous feature of professional life in media. Everyone who works in the industry lives with a dim but persistent feeling that they have committed some kind of faux pas and are paying for it, but never know where, what, or why.
I should start with the requisite caveat about myself, which is that I had a very public scandal and, while I think people discuss it in a dishonest way and interpret it based primarily on their preexisting attitude towards me, I have never thought that facing stiff public censure and major career consequences for what happened was inappropriate or unfair. I did face both and accept it now as I did then. It might be the case that my position is so weird, and so influenced by said scandal and my broader antagonistic relationship with the industry, that I can’t really draw meaningful conclusions. But I have been in the business for about a decade and a half now, I’ve published everywhere, and I still have a network of sorts of people in the business. And I think it’s accurate to say that most people in the industry are forced to worry about their reputation among peers to a toxic extent, in a way that both produces misery and distorts the profession.
It happens that I have recently had to wonder about similar concerns myself. I was published in the Times last November, and when the piece ran the editor I had worked with suggested that we work together again in the new year. So a month or two ago I reached out and pitched an idea. I never heard back. Not unusual, at all. But at the exact same time (around the same week, I think), my guy at the Times magazine with whom I had been doing some very preliminary hashing out of a potential story stopped responding to me. Neither was a big deal - a previous polite invitation to pitch again and some early exploratory back-and-forth about an idea. But is it possible that I didn’t hear anything from either because I’ve lost NYT privileges for some perceived sin I don’t understand? Yes, it’s possible, and in fact at some point years ago a steady freelancing relationship I had with a publication suddenly ended without notice or explanation. I only knew the door had really been shut because I was friendly with an editor there and they told me that I was on the outs. Couldn’t say why. That sort of thing happens, and not just to me.
Let me be clear: the most likely reason in both cases is that the editors simply didn’t like the ideas and never got back to me. (It’s easy to not do things, but nothing is easier to not do than to not send an email.) Had I simply cold pitched them and gotten no response, I wouldn’t bat an eye; that’s the business. That I had been specifically invited to pitch again, and was in the process of a back and forth fleshing out a concept, only makes me marginally more concerned that there’s something else going on. They probably just weren’t interested and didn’t get around to telling me so. The point, though, is that you just never know. The entire short-form nonfiction writing economy operates based on reputational issues that are both immensely important for careers and entirely vague and abstract, defined by broad peer attitudes that everyone perceives differently. Being a professional writer or journalist means that there’s this big HR file on you that can either save or damn your career, only rather than being in a corporations’s cloud partition somewhere it sort of floats around in the atmosphere. You know it’s there, and you know it matters, but you can never know exactly what it says or who wrote it.
Part of the issue is that there isn’t much objective evidence that people in media can be evaluated by, measures that prove success. Yes, there are popularity metrics such as clicks, and they are important, but the problems with them are well-known and they tend to be fickle and contextual. Neetzan Zimmerman was a traffic god at Gawker, then he left, Gawker was murdered, and I haven’t heard from him since. As Twitter has deepened the insularity and patronage that were already endemic to the industry, writers and journalists have become more and more anxious about their perceived place in the social pecking order, and not for no reason. Catty high school bullshit really can make the difference between career success or failure, which of course incentivizes more backbiting and rumor campaigns. Worse, though few people in the profession seem to doubt that these issues exist or are pernicious, there’s a prisoner’s dilemma dynamic that keeps people from not playing the game, and a dogged dedication to not talking about it in public.
You might take the ever-swirling controversy around Taylor Lorenz, now of The Washington Post. I’m on record saying that the suggestion that she must not be criticized, for fear of engendering online abuse, is ridiculous. I also think Lorenz is one of those people who simultaneously gets away with things she shouldn’t and takes shit she doesn’t deserve, all the time. It’s a quality I can’t help but admire, chaos agent stuff. Frustrating attitude towards legitimate criticism aside, I suspect that what a lot of people in the business find untoward about her is that she wages in public that which her peers prefer to consign to group texts and chats at the office; she violates certain dictates of secrecy in a professional culture defined by passive aggression. When she talks about journalists developing their brands, the vocabulary is a little gross, and she would do well to point out that she’s not advocating careerism or inauthenticity. But she’s also simply stating the plain reality about making it professionally as a writer in 2022. (You may or may not have a brand, but you have a professional identity that you trade on, like it or not.) Likewise, when she feuded with Maggie Haberman on social media I suspect people found it embarrassing not because of what she said but because she kept it public, rather than in the backchannels that putter along relentlessly in media circles. Gossip and bitchiness are the lifeblood of the industry; sometimes Lorenz pays a price not for engaging in them but for breaking the code of omerta around them.
For myself, the stakes are pretty low, ultimately. I was sure I’d never really freelance again and anything I get now is gravy. For as long as this Substack success lasts I don’t really have to worry about money, and when it’s over I suppose I’ll get a job in a salt mine or something. But I admit that the personal inconsistency does get to me. Because of everything that happened my assumption is always that people would rather not associate with me, and again I do accept that and understand. But there is this tendency for people in the biz to be friendly with me, sometimes to write me emails about how much they liked something I wrote, have a back and forth, and then later I’ll reach out again to say hi and never hear anything back. I can’t help but wonder what it was, in particular, that turned enthusiasm into silence, but it’s best not to think about it. It’s more likely because of something someone else said about me than because of something I said, and I can’t live that way.
In the past decade I’ve talked to dozens of journalists and writers, away from the internet, about the ceaseless task of managing your professional and personal reputation in a business where innuendo and false friends are ubiquitous. I have never been shy about the fact that I think the obsessive pursuit of popularity with media peers badly hurts the industry, the work it produces, and the people within it. And while the people I’ve talked to away from the public record have pushed back on details, or had their own takes on the issue, or disagreed about the scope or direction of the problem, I have never talked to one of them who did not acknowledge that people in media are in general obsessively concerned with their reputations among their peers, that this has consequences for the industry, and that those consequences are pernicious. But nobody ever seems to want to talk about it. And I get it, I guess, mostly thanks to the previously-mentioned prisoner’s dilemma. (I am also not immune to the desire to be liked by peers, and pointing out that your peers care too much about being liked by peers is a good way to not be liked by peers.) But it’s like that poor NYT reporter, who had to live in a state of quasi-banishment where she was aware of being punished but was never directly told that she was or why. It’s a weird, disordered, gross thing to have to experience. And for untold thousands of staffers and freelancers, that condition is perpetual. Rather than suffering under the whim of some bigwig at the New York Times, they’re being frozen out by a big amorphous and accountability-free blob, which is something even more fickle and unkind.
Don’t be a writer.