This is White Guy Confidence, Karen K. Ho’s newsletter about media, life, and how to avoid her mistakes. If you like it, you can access the online, shareable version (and subscribe) here. Karen is on Twitter @karenkho, and she also has a website. She appreciates your readership and when you share her work.
Who gets to have a career in media?
Media columnist Ben Smith’s latest work in the New York Times is titled “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good To Be True?” Takedowns are about power, and Farrow has won a Pulitzer for his reporting at the New Yorker about several prominent figures, including Harvey Weinstein. However, Smith’s column prompts a lot of questions.
Mr. Farrow, 32, is not a fabulist. His reporting can be misleading but he does not make things up. His work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.
First off, what the heck is resistance journalism? Is it advocacy? Reporting focused on social justice, immigration, systemic discrimination, corruption, or inequality? Historic Black newspapers?
In the documentary Page One, David Carr famously resisted the narrative the founders of Vice told him during an interview for the column Smith is now in charge of.
How do you determine is the “most disliked” or the “loudest voices”? Is this based on television appearances, online metrics, other kinds of news coverage? BuzzFeed News reports showed how trending topics can be gamed to spread political propaganda.
Editor Dean Baquet provided clues about the Times’ definition of “resistence journalism” when he told the BBC “I make it very clear when I hire, I make it very clear when I talk to the staff, I’ve said it repeatedly, that we are not supposed to be the leaders of the resistance to Donald Trump.”
It’s worth noting this interview was done before the US President literally told people to inject disinfectant during a coronavirus press conference, resulting in health organizations sending out public service messages warning against the ingestion of bleach and other household cleaners. A newspaper’s staff should also be leaders of common sense in service to its readers.
Smith acknowledges in the media column that Farrow and reporters at the New York Times itself both produced prize-winning reporting about Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood producer was disliked but still had a lot of powerful friends even after he was outed for his multi-decade history of sexual misconduct.
Reporting on the media taught me the “old rules” of fairness and openmindedness aren’t even clearly defined among journalists within the same news organization. Like many things in the industry, including the concept of objectivity, it’s worth remembering these rules have largely been determined, upheld, and enforced by straight white men. These rules have also historically been unfair and closeminded to issues like civil rights, equal pay for women, and the AIDS crisis.
There are many additional criticisms I have of this particular column by Smith, including the idea of rigor in reporting that is not demonstrated through a simple comparison to Megan Twohey or Jodi Kantor’s methods, Ken Auletta effectively throwing his mentee under the bus, Smith’s stock options in BuzzFeed (which he discloses), or the insinuation the New York Times doesn’t or hasn’t published sources who are wrong or misleading to reporters. There are also many other serious issues in the industry that need additional attention.
If the point of Smith’s column is to raise serious questions about someone like Farrow and his rapid ascension in an industry that increasingly feels like it’s on the verge of serious collapse, it failed. Jezebel did it last October. Investigative reporter and former Wall Street Journal staffer John Carreyou pointed out Smith’s own glass house examples.
More than two years ago, Silvia Killingsworth published a well-written example of professional skepticism when she thoroughly detailed Felix Salmon’s astronomically high salary.
Then again, if you look at who writes media columns, and who does media reporting in America, it’s not hard to notice how homogenous the group often feels, both in who gets to do it and what is covered. During my year at the Columbia Journalism Review, I quickly learned what is considered important and who gets elevated for these opportunities. There are clear trends, and those people don’t look like me.
Smith’s column reminded me why I stopped doing media reporting. My deep interest, experience at Today in Tabs, and year-long fellowship at CJR weren’t enough to make me a serious candidate for a staff position reporting on the beat.
I tried to continue reporting the beat on a freelance basis. Even with pretty good sources and tips, it was tough trying to critique and report on the same places where I was pitching and simultaneously applying for full-time jobs. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was better off focusing on stories about business, economics, and culture.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world, my interest and studies in operations management and supply chains turned out to be far more valuable. I started a full-time job with Quartz after stay-at-home orders had been implemented across Canada and the US.
Several months prior, I seriously considered turning this newsletter into something devoted entirely to covering the media. My editorial strategy: provide practical information, exclusive reporting, and write up the advice I was already giving in phone calls, tweet threads, and emails to students and new freelancers.
Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s cofounders, was pretty encouraging, especially based on my existing bank of subscribers, my detailed list of story ideas, previous newsletter experience, and connections to other high-profile newsletter writers. He said I could charge $70 per year and patiently explained how I could market and promote the new pricing.
But several things stopped me from going forward with the idea.
1. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sign up enough people to make it worth the price, or that I could honor the same regular deadlines as many of the most successful newsletter writers like Nick Quah of Hot Pod, Nicole Cliffe, or Luke O’Neil.
2. Part of my brain that still considers me a nobody. Who would pay for my media analysis and reporting when they could use that money for other stuff, like The Atlantic, their local newspaper, or something like the Revlon One-Step?
3. Even the most successful paid newsletters (six figures in revenue!) don’t come with health insurance.
All of that, combined with my internalized pressure (fears?) for producing consistently high-quality work and the uncertainty of making enough money to cover all my expenses prevented me from making the switch.
I made the jump to regular employment only a few weeks before advertising also significantly dried up due to Covid-19, pulling away much of the media industry’s main revenue source.
On April 10, the New York Times published a report estimating 36,000 people in the news industry had been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced because of the pandemic. This is more than 10 times more people affected than what Maya Kosoff reported on for all of the layoffs that happened in 2019.
The Times report’s most recent update was May 1, but it already needs several additional entries after last week’s extraordinarily bad round of layoffs.
On Thursday, Quartz laid off 80 people, a staggering number of deeply talented people. Many of them were kind, generous, thoughtful, and astoundingly smart. Even though I still have a job, I feel a lot of guilt, distraction and helplessness. (I joined The Layoff Club in 2013.)
Conde Nast, Vice, and The Economist also laid off a lot of people on top of furloughs at newspapers across the country, and it was hard not to feel a sense of despair as individual staffers announced what happened on Twitter. The list below also doesn’t include the layoffs and staffing reductions at California Sunday and PopUp Magazine.
Maybe this degree of loss — during an election year, a massive global recession, and an ongoing public health emergency with more than 86,000 deaths in the United States alone — will be the subject of Smith’s next column.
Still, for all the emphasis on rigorous reporting and detailed criticisms of the New Yorker’s fact-checking process, seeing this was a real surprise.
PRACTICAL ADVICE: A lot of people are new to freelancing, thinking about it, or struggling with it. Here’s my pitch guide detailing my 7-part approach. You should also read and research the publication or news outlet to make sure they haven’t published something similar to your idea in the last year. Be specific! Don’t pitch topics.
If your idea passes this quick archive check, don’t delay sending it out of fear of rejection or anxiety! One time I waited too long and by the time I emailed my pitch to an editor, the publication was working on something related to the topic already.
And an important footnote courtesy of Rose Eveleth, the genius behind the podcast Flash Forward (in addition to this article on freelancing which I still found relevant eight years later):