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Oct. 10, 2023, 9:15 a.m.
Business Models

Five former journalists on why they left the industry

“I felt like I kind of hit a ceiling. And the ceiling was dropping.”

Shortly after graduating with a master’s in journalism from New York University in 2011, Marni Chan, 39, landed a job as a culture editor at Mic, then a buzzy digital publication. As someone who’d loved writing since she was a kid, the role was a culmination of her childhood, professional, and academic ambitions. “It was the dream,” she says.

In theory, at least. In reality, “it was a nightmare.” Chan was responsible for posting 12 to 15 articles a day, many of them about politics. (It was the run-up to the 2012 election.) In addition to writing her own stories, she oversaw an ad hoc team of freelancers, many of whom lacked previous reporting experience and whom she was supposed to edit with only the lightest touch. Errors were frequent, she said, but leadership didn’t care. “Everything was about hit counts,” Chan says. “It was just eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs.”

The job paid in the mid $40,000 range and didn’t include health benefits. Chan suspected she had hypothyroidism, a chronic condition that slows down the metabolism, and the lack of health coverage ended up being the breaking point.

One of Chan’s friends worked at a PR agency that needed a writer. In 2013, Chan applied and got the job, which paid double her Mic salary and came with good health coverage. Today, she makes $120,000 a year at her PR job.

“For a long time, the part of me that’s very hard on myself felt like I had failed at being a real writer, whatever that means,” Chan says. “But the part of me that’s older now is really at peace with it. I wanted other things in life.”

Many journalists have surveyed their profession’s collapsing foundation and reached similar conclusions. All together, the media landscape is sparser than it was 20, 10, or even a couple years ago. For journalists on the ground, this has made it increasingly difficult to find a staff position, not to mention keep one. Even those lucky enough to hold onto a job aren’t always able to make enough money to pay the bills, particularly in cities with high costs of living like New York and San Francisco.

Erica Martin, 33, realized this fairly quickly. Gaining experience in the industry wasn’t an issue: she landed a series of unpaid positions at prestigious publications as a college student at NYU, culminating in a paid internship at New York Magazine in 2012. But making enough to survive in New York was another story: the internship paid $8.25 an hour, not enough to cover Martin’s share of the rent for an apartment in Harlem, and so she worked part-time as a receptionist at a spa to make up the difference.

“I was young and naive and had this idea of New York as being the center of the universe,” she says. “It was really depressing to be in the place that I believed had the best music, the best culture, the best restaurants, and the best nightlife, and I couldn’t actually afford any of it.”

In 2014, when Martin stumbled on a job opportunity as the arts editor at an English-language publication in Shanghai she took it, despite never having been to China before. It paid 13,000 RMB a month, the equivalent of roughly $1,800, but the cost of living was so much less that she was able to afford her own tiny studio. “It was enough to be an independent adult in the world, paying your own rent, living your own life,” she says. “That meant a lot to me.”

At first, the job was exhilarating. After a couple years, the long hours and unrelenting pace had sucked most of the joy out of it. She was burned out, especially when she realized she could make the same amount of money freelancing for luxury brands working just 10 to 15 hours a week as she did at her 50-plus hours a week full-time job. She exited the industry. Today, Martin works for a Danish mobile game developer. She describes her salary as “very much a living wage” that is significantly higher than what she ever made in journalism.

Staying in journalism is hard, but leaving can be hard, too. Like most so-called “passion” occupations, many journalism jobs rely on the premise the work is inherently good, worthy, and important. Partially because the pay is often bad and the hours are long, it’s easy to turn the job into your identity. It’s a deal you’d only take it if you truly love it.

Passion is what drove Ashley Lose, 31, to study journalism as an undergraduate at Georgia State University. As a little girl, she excelled at writing and wanted to become a magazine editor. In college, that dream felt close enough to grasp thanks to professors who helped hone her reporting and narrative skills.

After a brief stint as an unpaid intern at Atlanta Magazine, Lose landed a job as a general assignment reporter at a local newspaper in 2014. Green and flush with energy, she dove into chasing stories. But very quickly, the walls began to close in. The job was emotionally demanding — Lose, who is Black, was tasked with covering a KKK rally and interviewing a mother who had lost her child in an apartment fire, among other difficult assignments. Despite reporting on heavy, complex topics, Lose’s mandate was to generate maximum clicks as quickly as possible, a model that didn’t allow for the layered features she aspired to write.

But the real breaking point was the company culture. “It was a toxic work environment,” she says. “I’m the person that comes into the cubicle, and I’m like, ‘Good morning everyone!’ And my coworkers would be like, ‘Why is she so happy?’” She was the target of regular, uncomfortable remarks including from colleagues who took issue with the fact that she was in an interracial relationship.

All of this, Lose thought, for $40,000 a year? She still loved getting people to share their stories, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the emotional toil, toxic workplace, and low pay. Burned out, she quit her job and moved with her then-boyfriend (now husband) to Colorado. At first, Lose couldn’t bring herself to write — what had been a joyous practice felt tainted. For three years, she made money walking dogs. Slowly, she edged back into writing, but made the explicit decision not to pursue a career in journalism. Today, Lose is a user experience writer for a learning management company. The job is remote, which gives her the flexibility to spend time with her young son during the day. Just as importantly, it pays an annual salary of $90,000, more than she could envision making as a reporter.

While the role isn’t as creative, Lose regularly works with a team of designers, developers, and product managers, all of whom she’s found to be collaborative and respectful. “I do enjoy it,” she says.

When it’s going well, journalism can provide a ready-made filter through which to seek out and process new experiences. “It made me a whole different person,” says Logan Hill, a former longform journalist turned screenwriter.

Like Martin, Hill got his start in journalism at New York Magazine. He was hired as an assistant editor in 1998, making $27,000 a year. Unlike Martin, who never escaped the intern pool, work provided the best of what New York had to offer on a shoestring budget. A pop culture addict, Hill got to meet his heroes: lunch with Colson Whitehead, studio time with Sonic Youth, regular phone chats with Arthur Miller. “The proximity and the contact high of that was very exciting,” he says. Even better, he got to write about it.

Hill spent 13 years at New York, eventually becoming a contributing editor, writing everything from a feature about the family drama at Benihana to a profile of actor Helen Mirren. In 2011, after getting a divorce, Hill left New York for GQ — he couldn’t support his daughter on $80,000 a year. At $140,000, his new annual salary was much better but the job itself wasn’t a good fit and Hill was laid off after a year.

For the next half decade he freelanced, writing print stories for publications like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Esquire. He did far better financially than he’d expected, charging a nearly unheard of rate of $2 to $3 a word. At the height of his freelancing run, Hill estimates he made between $180,000 and $200,000 a year.

From a distance, Hill was living every journalist’s dream. And it was good while it lasted. Journalism had become “my whole being and identity and my way of socializing,” Hill says. But even his connections, experience, and skill couldn’t keep the industry from eroding around him. But by 2016, his rate was wobbling. Editors were offering less or reducing the word count to keep his per word rate the same. A men’s magazine offered him the chance to write a 5,000-word cover profile of a buzzy actor for a project rate of $500.

“I felt like I kind of hit a ceiling,” he says. “And the ceiling was dropping.”

What’s a journalist to do when the industry they thought they’d commit their professional — and personal — life to is no longer a sustainable option? For those earlier in their careers, a switch means abandoning the skills and values they’ve just started developing. For veteran writers and reporters, it means a fundamental shift in one’s professional identity.

When Christina Farr, 35, decided that she was ready to look outside journalism for her next chapter, she treated the inflection point the way she would a reporting assignment. First, she sifted through her network to identify anyone who had an interesting job she could see herself potentially enjoying. Altogether, Farr estimates she had informational interviews with about 50 people, asking them to break down their day-to-days and how long it took for them to feel competent in the role. She knew her research, reporting, and source-gathering skills were transferable; she just needed to figure out how and where she wanted to use them. There were multiple avenues to pursue, including strategy work or a chief of staff role. “I had an openness to whatever potentially would come out of these conversations,” Farr says.

Investing was an obvious fit. “The way that it was described to me by VCs, I thought, ‘Okay, well, I do that type of thing,’” she says.  She’d need to learn the ins-and-outs of the business, but she already possessed many of the skills required to perform due diligence on a startup before writing a check.

Knowing what you don’t like can be just as important as what you do. When Martin left journalism, her parachute was writing branded content for the hospitality industry. The pay was good “but I absolutely hated it,” she says. So she kept her feelers out. After building a rudimentary game in a class taught by a friend, she applied for a job writing scripts and plot points for a mobile game. To her surprise, she got the job. In her current role, Martin is responsible for writing game dialogue and developing characters. Growing up, she wanted to become a novelist, but tucked the dream away to pursue journalism which felt like a “safer” path. Writing for games is “the closest to what I wanted to do when I was young, much closer than journalism was,” she says. “It was just astounding to me that this is actually a position people do.”

Her advice? Try “not to feel like you have to be closed off to anything else, or [as if] your life path in journalism has to go any one specific way,” she says. “I think I limited myself with that a lot. Don’t turn your back on something else that might interest you.”

Leaving journalism often means redefining, or at least reexamining, one’s ambitions. For Hill, falling freelance rates provided the out he needed to pursue a new style of creative work. After writing hundreds of arts profiles, he felt like he’d written his way into a rut.

Hill was able to land his first screenwriter and produce credit when one of his articles— a longform piece about cruise ship entertainers —was optioned for the screen. Since then, he’s worked as a writer or story consultant on seven released documentaries and sold original features and TV pitches to Sony and Apple. The pay is erratic and all told, he’s making slightly less than he was freelancing, but “I enjoy it so much,” he says. “I had lost a little bit of the joy and the fun of journalism. And I’ve found it again, writing screenplays.”

For many former journalists, as the years and responsibility pile up, building a life outside of work becomes the driving ambition. A few jobs after Mic, Chan found herself writing for William Sonoma’s home catalog. The role was satisfying, the pay was decent, and the hours were reasonable. “It was very much a nine-to-five job. I worked very hard when I was at work, but I never had any off hour emergencies,” she says. By providing a good salary and not demanding all of her time, the role allowed her to have other ambitions, which is exactly what she wanted.

Chan still loves writing for a living. “I think there’s just an openness now that I didn’t have when I was 27 and in journalism school,” she says. Her priorities have shifted, too. Chan is married and has a young son. She’d like to get promoted to be a creative director someday, a job that would come with a significantly higher salary. The real possibility that she will continue to make more money is freeing. “It gives me more options that I didn’t think were possible when I had this very narrow view of what it means to be a writer,” she says.

Lose feels similarly. “I have a family. I just bought a house,” she says. “Knowing that I have a career that supports me helps me feel stable and not constantly in stress mode.”

For Martin, the opportunity to build a career that will support a comfortable lifestyle in the U.S. has given her room to breathe. “It’s peaceful,” she said. “I don’t feel this sense of looming dread.”

Laura Entis is a freelance writer and editor. She was previously an editor at Fortune Magazine and Entrepreneur.com.

Photo by mk. s on Unsplash.

POSTED     Oct. 10, 2023, 9:15 a.m.
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