September 14, 2016

Some thoughts on media and competition

I was at a trade event recently when I started chatting with another journalist standing near me. He was a middle-aged man who'd recently been laid off from a three decade-long tenure as a senior editor at a big publication because of cost-cutting measures at the publishing house. The conversation started out normally, joking around trading media industry war wounds. When we started talking about recently leaving staff jobs to go full-time freelance, he debriefed me on his long career and then, in all seriousness, said the strangest thing to me: "I bet you're thinking to yourself, 'Man, now I've gone freelance, how will I compete with people like this guy?'" And then he chuckled in what I think he thought was a self-deprecating/self-congratulatory way.

It took me a full five seconds to realize that he was (1) insulting me and (2) creating some kind of hierarchy between us. And then it only took half a second after that to realize that this guy was kind of a jerk and I just didn't care.

But I've been thinking about what he said, and I understand what he means because I started my career with a seven-year stint at a daily newspaper—and you don't get any more old-school media and print than daily newspapers. But since 2010 I've been working purely on digital platforms. There are obviously lots of differences between print and digital media—especially in the mass market lifestyle space where I've always worked. One of the most fundamental points of difference is that print is, well, obviously, printed—which means it's finite, it's only published once every day/week/month/year, and whatever number of stories or words fit on the page are the number of stories or words that fit on the page. There's really no wiggle room—and that clearly bound end result perpetuates a work environment that I find to be far more competitive, both within the newsroom, among reporters/writers, as well as between publications. These aren't bad things—I loved my time at the New York Post—they're just things.

Digital, on the other hand, feels infinite. Online, there aren't physical limitations on word or story limits, you can publish at any time of the day, there's really no such thing as a digital exclusive (though there is such a thing as first), and publishers can build 360-degree immersive multimedia experiences for readers—showcasing sound, visuals, videos, dynamic graphics, links to related stories, and even create an opportunity for interactive dialogue and community-building. The concept of competition also changes in digital media environments—while site directors will glance at comScore once a month (more for self-edification and just to make sure that ads will keep rolling in), the real sense of competition within any digital newsroom I've ever worked in is with itself: month over month, year over year. Those KPIs aren't set against anyone else's metrics but your own.

So that's why what that guy said was so baffling to me—because it's a sentiment from the past. The media industry in 2016 isn't high school in the '90s. I never feel competitive with my peers and colleagues because the opportunities in media now are endless. Every morning when I get up at 5:30 or 6:30 and start pitching and writing—sometimes for eight to twelve hours straight—I know that how successful I am that day, that week, this year, will be completely up to me and how much time I put in, how much thought I devote, and how hard I work. It has nothing to do with anyone else.