August 12, 2013
Two quotes about media stood out for me last week. Here’s the first:
“We’re not ever going to return to a stable status quo where editors know where their audience is and publishers know where their revenue stream is. We’re in an era of non-stop innovation and constant turmoil. [Don’t expect] any kind of settled new order.”
John F. Harris said this on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. Harris, who co-founded Politico.com in 2006 after 20 years as a reporter with the Washington Post, was on the show to discuss the meaning of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Post.
While he didn’t say it, Harris’s web efforts have been largely credited with ending the Post’s dominance in the political arena. But that doesn’t bother me; seeing one organization overtake another isn’t troubling, it’s inevitable. But the thought of living in a state of “constant turmoil” does bother me. That’s when this story got personal.
The second quote is from editor Tina Brown who gallantly tried to steer a merger between the Daily Beast.com and Newsweek Magazine. We learned last week that it failed and that Newsweek is for sale again. Barry Diller, who put down half the financing for the merger, publicly admitted the end was near when he said last Spring: “I wish I hadn’t bought Newsweek. It was a mistake.” What’s more, the attempt to save Newsweek was “stupid.” The fate of The Daily Beast is also in question. I suspect the site won’t be missed if it drops off the landscape.
Loath to admit defeat, Brown, the much celebrated former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, let down her defences just once when she said last week:
“It doesn’t matter how talented you are right now. You used to be judged for your performance, but now it doesn’t matter what you do.”
That may be true. But what this quote really reveals is just how out of her depth Brown is. Knowing that your job pedigree means nothing any more is a very tough pill to swallow. The landscape Brown is operating in now may as well be Mars. That’s why fresh energy is so crucial at this stage of the media evolution.
But what happens when digital natives, the best and brightest of Gen Y, can’t even stand up to the “non-stop innovation and constant turmoil” Harris characterized so well? I’m witnessing Y’s in media dropping from our ranks after gunning to get in with five internships under their belt, multiple blogs to their credit and tons of cheerleading from family and friends. I didn’t see it coming when one especially bright light announced on Facebook last week: “It’s official. I just resigned from my magazine job. It’s off to teachers college I go!”
If, indeed, the turmoil doesn’t let up — and each week burps up some fresh hell in the form of layoffs, mergers, deaths, exploitative business models and unsustainable pacing — the only way to survive in media if you don’t want to get into teaching or PR is to skim the edges of the industry and avoid the eye of the storm. It’s a total shit show in there, where old and new are duking it out. Being on the inside promises certain swift death to sensitive writer types (like me).
In the suburbs of Freelance Nation you can take what’s thrown at you in the form of print and digital assignments and study the new world order up and down, far away from the frantic meetings. The answer, I think, will come from the sidelines where solitude feeds innovation and overhead is still hovering around zero.