If you only come to this blog because I post rap songs on here, just scroll to the bottom of this post, I put one of my favorite Freddie Gibbs songs down there.
Let me start off here by saying I’m not trying to call anyone in specific out, and I by no means wish to discount the beyond exceptional efforts of my peers, basically all of whom are talented and kind and extremely hard workers and care deeply about what they do. What I’m about to talk about is a systemic issue and is by no means the fault of any individual or outlet in particular.
So, disclaimers and intra-post directions to good ass Freddie Gibbs songs aside, here goes:
A generation ago, people my age and younger who worked in media would have been reporters at newspapers or magazines. Older editors would have taught us stuff, and we would have learned that stuff, preferably in a plucky and charismatic manner. Sadly enough, high-level positions for older editors rarely exist these days, and when they do they’re at pubs such as the New Yorker, WaPo, or the New York Times, which are decidedly not the publications I’m talking about here. Instead, most of these older editors have found different jobs, jobs that do not punish them for not understanding how Snapchat or Taylor Swift works. Without their mentorship, edit staffs become less learning environments and more environments where you just sort of have to figure it out for yourself. This isn’t to say that there aren’t older editors out there who take time to mentor young writers, it’s just that these people are rare, and now “old” is, like, 35. And they’re also probably too busy dealing with something more important than putting eyes on that 800 word post you’ve got on whether the new Beyoncé thing was feminist enough, so you’re really just going to figure this one out for yourself.*
As you probably know if you’re reading this, genuine reporting/staff writer jobs are extremely rare and have, for the most part, been replaced with titles such as “Assistant Editor” and “Associate Editor.” (Although shouts out to the four people I can think of off top who hold down staff writer jobs at places that aren’t Gawker).
Despite the fact that they’ve got the word “editor” in their titles, jobs like these are less genuine editor jobs of the past and feel more like “traffic cop” sorts of gigs. These are essentially entry-level positions where you’re expected to field, prepare, and disseminate a certain number of “pieces” of “content” per day. You might be writing these posts yourself, aggregating from various primary sources (i.e., looking on a bunch of different subreddits and trying to find weird news stories right as they’re going viral but making sure none of your competitors have written them up already). When you’re not doing that, you’ll be dealing with longer pieces which for the most part, you do not have the time to write. The point is, if you’re a editor who’s low on the new media totem pole, you’re going to be expected to be churning a bunch of crap out. Because of the amount of posts required of many of these editors, they tend to work with a pretty large stable of reliable freelancers who are super professional and know how to turn around quick, clean, well-written copy that is in need of minimal restructuring and note-giving. (The flipside of this is a lot of suuuuuuuuuper shitty writers can sort of get by for years without people knowing they’re shitty, because they’re adept enough at providing their editors with poorly written stories that nevertheless are filed on time and give editors enough to work with so that they can just rewrite the entire thing with minimal effort. Every website secretly has at least one of these writers regularly contributing to it.)
Once you do this low level editing job long enough, you tend to assign and edit so much stuff that you end up internalizing what makes a good piece of internet journalism, and start to understand that often all a web editor (who, again, is dealing with a massive workload) is looking for is someone who can make their job even slightly easier. So, after a couple years on a job like this, you’ve probably built up a nice rep for yourself through a bunch of pithy tweets, plus you have enough experience to potentially command fairly reasonable rates, especially if you’re good enough to make an editor’s job super easy so that they can get on to the other nine bajillion things they’ve got to work on. (In the past couple of years, freelance writing rates have risen dramatically, for a number of reasons which I won’t get into here. But suffice it to say there’s a lot of work out there, and if you work the system you can get some fairly handsome compensation for not, like, that much labor on your end.)
All of this is to say, it’s very possible that we’ve reached a point where, for a certain class of website, many writers have more experience in both life, and the actual editorial process, than the editors they directly work with. That’s fine I guess, and again I’m not knocking anyone in particular, but it does lead to a certain lack of depth in the sites that are structured in this way. The writing’s fine, but it’s nothing special or distinct, because editors often lack the time to help fine-tune a writer’s words other than try to make everything as clear and accurate as possible, because once this piece goes up there are probably three or four others in the queue. And yeah, an editor can learn whatever they need if they google hard enough, but mainlining a bunch of knowledge in an afternoon doesn’t allow you to process it in the same way that picking it up over the years does—without an older, more experienced editor around, it can be hard to discern which details are important or ultimately trivial.
And because of this, it can be hard to discern between what’s a good idea and what’s a bad one, especially when you have only existed in newsrooms where “good”=”this article got a lot of traffic” and “bad”=”no one gave a shit about this article.” And once, as a young editor , you throw up a few bricks—i.e., poop out a poorly thought-out story that causes a Media Twitter firestorm, or put a bunch of effort into a genuinely interesting story that you’re really passionate about but nobody ends up reading—a weird strain of editorial conservatism can rear its head. And by that I mean editors at these millennial-oriented sites tend to run stories that won’t offend hyper-vigilant media types—often, young editors see Media Twitter as a microcosm of the entire world, when in reality it’s just like a group of the last remaining people on earth who think working in media is actually cool. And more than that, they end up primarily writing about things with these huge built-in traffic hooks (i.e., the Super Bowl, celebrity deaths, awards shows, Drake, memes, Drake memes), because they don’t want to piss anyone off and because it’s really hard to convince someone with access to YouTube videos and gifs and porn and shit that a 10,000 word longread on the global footprint of Sealy’s box spring factory in Donald Trump’s best friend’s dad’s hometown or whatever is worth 25 minutes of their time. Instead, it’s much easier to just run stuff that talks about the stuff that people are already talking about, in a slightly more intelligent/interesting/unconventional/funny manner than most people have the time to come up with themselves.
And if every website is using the same group of maybe 300 people (who, again, are being edited for clarity and accuracy rather than style and tone) to write about the same topics, then, well, it’s all the same!
Anyways, here’s that Freddie Gibbs song:
BTW, here’s some stuff that I read that influenced my thinking while writing this.
When Bitcoin Grows Up (this final piece’s influence on the piece that you just (maybe) read, if any, was pretty indirect, but it’s really good so read it if you’ve got some time to kill)
*After I wrote a version of this post, I sent it to a friend, who spent years as a well-respected reporter before recently becoming an editor. She pointed out that while yes, this “new media landscape” doesn’t provide young writers and editors a lot of opportunities for mentorship and guidance, it does allow for writers to immediately write about things they care about instead of sticking to their garbage beat at the local newspaper and hoping a better position opens up eventually. The internet and the general reshuffle of publishing makes it so there’s no more line you have to wait in before you can start publishing at a lot of places that might have seemed impenetrable 25 years ago—because that place has a website, and they need to put some dang posts up on it. So it’s not like everything’s bad.