I joined the rapidly growing ranks of unemployed journalists a week ago today.
Business is down at the publisher I worked for, as it is for almost all publishers, and my boss put me on furlough for the holidays.
But I quit instead.
I suppose I should’ve felt sad or angry. But I didn’t. I’d long expected the axe to fall at Christmas, which is traditionally a slow time for publishing, and I felt both free and oddly defiant. I was journalism’s equivalent of Scottish patriot William Wallace as portrayed by Mel Gibson in 1995’s Academy award-winning film, Braveheart.
You may remember the movie’s climactic scene. After being captured and tried for high treason by the persnickety and somewhat effeminate British leadership, Wallace is taken to a London square and hanged, racked and disemboweled. Most folks would’ve gladly given up the ghost by this point, but not Wallace, whose hatred for the imperialistic British and their overcooked vegetables was boundless. An English magistrate offers the plucky Scotsman a quick death in exchange for a plea of mercy, which the watching crowd supports. But Wallace summons the last vestiges of his strength, turns to the crowd, and defiantly shouts “Freedom!” Seconds later, his head is liberated from his body by a hooded man with an incredibly large axe.
That was me, except for the bit about rebelling against authority and then being hanged, racked, disemboweled and beheaded. I was a good and trustworthy employee who worked fairly hard and grumbled about my petty grievances rather quietly, mostly to a few of my fellow co-workers and my family. Oh, and I didn’t shout “Freedom!” as I left the office, either. I did have a little spring in my step, though. The way I figure it, I was looking for a job when I found the one I had, which means I’m no worse off now than I was then.
Now that I’ve had a few days to think about my decision, however, I realize there are some important differences between Gibson and me. I’m not as good looking or as well connected, for example. I also don’t have any racial issues with Jews, especially if they’re hiring. More to the point here, however, I’m not nearly as wealthy as he is. Gibson is said to be worth nearly $1 billion and rarely worries about money, even with one wife, one ex-wife and eight children to support. I’m said to be worth roughly nothing, unless you count the value of my extensive collection of action figures. Then I’m probably worth $300 at the most, which means I worry about money all the time. I’ll need to get a new job fairly quickly unless my family’s willing to live at one of those shelters downtown, or, worse yet, with relatives. I don’t need William Wallace to tell me that living with relatives would be as oppressive as being ruled by the British.
But I can’t worry too much about money now; No matter how broke I get, it’s time for me to make a change.
I don’t see a future for myself in newspapers or magazines. It’s a dying industry, slain by the Internet and YouTube. Analysts say print revenues have been dropping by about 11 percent a year as companies pour their advertising dollars into new media like the Internet. That might not sound like much, but over time it’s devastating to profits. It also puts a serious crimp on the writers and editors who depend on the largesse of publishers to afford their mortgages, groceries and whiskey, although not necessarily in that order.
I’m not an analyst, but as an industry insider, I don’t believe advertisers are the problem. I just don’t think people read newspapers and magazines much anymore. They’re quaint relics of a bygone era. While some of the more interesting publications may survive—even thrive—most are shrinking month by month and I believe they will quietly fade away over the next decade or so. Magazines and newspapers aren’t relevant or timely enough in the Internet age. I have more readers and receive more comments on this silly blog every day than I received in a year at the magazine I worked for, and I often wrote about serious and controversial subject matter. My conclusion: People are barely willing to read free 140-character Tweets anymore, let pay for the privilege of reading entire sentences, paragraphs and articles crafted by stuffy eggheads who pompously maintain they know what they public’s interested in, or ought to be interested in.
And that’s OK. Things change, even centuries-old businesses like publishing. Oh, and decades-old writers and editors like me.
So I hope you’ll join me this Christmas in shouting, “Freedom!”
It’s a good feeling.