For 10 years I was a freelance film critic and entertainment journalist. It was a dream come true and a career that I sought and sacrificed for, something I was proud of on paper and in my social media feed. From a distance, it looked like I was thriving.
But it took the first stable romantic relationship of my life to realize that I was in an abusive relationship with my job. And it took a fucking BuzzFeed article for me to realize abusive professional relationships are a generational epidemic.
Anne Helen Petersen’s article about the millennial burnout condition deserved even more attention than it got when it was published in early January. The piece hit me on a personal level unlike any BuzzFeed content since that quiz that told me, with chilling accuracy, which Full House character most represents me.
Before quitting last year, I blamed myself. I hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t networked enough, hadn’t worked for free enough and certainly hadn’t Tweeted enough. Surely, it was my fault. I checked all of the right boxes on the career path laid out to me by various institutions and mentorish figures who’d succeeded in this field before me. Clearly, I had fucked up.
It wasn’t until reading Petersen’s article about the impossible workload and dwindling opportunities available to my irritatingly named generation that I realized I’d just been conditioned to feel that way.
Journalism, even the arts and entertainment variety that I focused on, used to be a realistic career path.
These days, the print industry exists in a perpetual state of crisis and web media never settled into the financial stability everyone assumed was somewhere on the horizon. On the plus side, schools keep pumping out wide-eyed millennials willing to work for essentially nothing to keep content mills churning. There are more writers and articles than ever floating around and begging for attention. As for professional writers with stable incomes and career paths? They are dying off daily.
Content for our distraction devices is in constant demand. So writing opportunities exist, you just need to eat that bucket of shit in the corner to land them.
Want to freelance? Be your own boss? Great! Plenty of opportunities there! Old media empires pay the best, but they also haven’t raised their rates in decades and there’s certainly nothing even resembling a union for the freelancing masses. Gigs disappear as quickly as they appear, typically on the whims of whomever has been assigned an editorial position after the latest round of company-wide layoffs.
(Speaking of layoffs, last week BuzzFeed laid off 15 per cent of its staff, making the burnout article an ironic guidebook.)
I’ve written weekly for a major national publication under freelance contract, only to have a new editor tell me that there was no longer a budget for freelancers and then literally start publishing his freelancing friend regularly the next day.
Freelancers at old media empires are as disposable as the newsprint their words are printed on. We’re routinely ghosted by beloved publications with the impersonal grace of a dating app.
I even had a thriving relationship with an editor until we met in person and he noticed I was overweight. He then immediately stopped using my name in favour of titles like “The big guy!” and cut my assignments down to titles no one else wanted or documentaries about food that he thought were “right up my alley.”
Years later, I got a weekly gig with a national TV broadcaster. It was going great until I was fired without explanation on Christmas Day. The reason? A new film critic was being brought in for a separate program and it was better for the brand (also: cheaper!) for them to appear on multiple platforms. Of course, neither myself nor my replacement (a friend) were informed of that decision beforehand.
I’m not narcissistic or naive enough to think that any of this was personal. Since I began in 2007, every Canadian print publication, radio station or TV network I ever worked for has suffered mass layoffs and cutbacks. Expecting loyalty in that environment is pointless.
And then there’s the online world, which theoretically should make up for the depleted old media market. Freelancing for a website means pay rates less than minimum wage and/or impossible deadlines to meet an insatiable need for content. With a few exceptions, these sites sell clickable headlines, not articles. They don’t care who their freelancers are or what they write, just that they meet deadlines.
Major sites with millions of daily readers routinely pay nothing – or a pittance. I once worked for a site that boasted “3 million daily visitors” on its homepage. They expected me to write daily free content for three months before offering me a job to churn out news stories coming off the wire from 6 pm until midnight, five days a week for $10 an hour. It’s still one of the best offers I’ve received from a website in a decade.
Even when a white whale of a paying new media outlet is found, payments arrive sporadically, late or never. I’m still owed thousands of dollars I know I’ll never receive. Some outlets went away. Some are thriving. Some have long since deleted the content I provided. Some have repurposed and republished my articles for years without even notifying me, much less paying me. None reply to emails or phone calls.
Every freelance writer swallows that pill eventually and, as a result, freelancers are regularly victim to cunning and conning editors who never intend to pay for content in the first place.
One such gentleman got thousands of dollars of unpaid work out of me before his web of lies crumbled. He allegedly did the same to many others. He continues to thrive in the industry, having contributed to many national and Toronto print outlets himself. You may have even seen him on TV.
Being exploited is just part of the job description for “professional” writers. You lick your wounds and take on more gigs, hoping for enough payoff to compete with the ever-rising cost of living in major cities like Toronto that house almost all media companies. Also, inflation only applies to jobs that feel like work. In media, employers assume financial compensation is a bonus!
There were years when I easily wrote between 700 to 800 articles to stay afloat. I didn’t take a vacation for a decade. I couldn’t afford one and naively believed that all the hard work would pay off some day. Someone would notice. Staff writing jobs exist. At some point I’d get my turn.
Nope. So after 10 years, I burned out, gave up and quit.
I can count on one hand the writers of my generation who have landed staff writing positions. Even when boomers retire, outlets typically just move another staffer into the position or double another staffer’s workload. No new jobs are added.
No one lamented my loss when I quit. Most of my peers simply stopped talking to me. Some happily sucked up my abandoned gigs and continued their own struggle. Eventually they’ll flame out and the cycle will repeat itself.
I know my story isn’t the worst example of writing burnout. I got off comparatively lightly, even if you include the story about my first website writing gig that involved daily verbal abuse and climaxed with someone’s suicide.
Since giving up journalism, I’ve decided to try a more profitable, dependable and conventional career path in copywriting.
Everyone told me it was a great idea. Sure, the first copywriting company that signed me to a freelance contract didn’t pay me for six months and the editor won’t even answer my emails anymore, but whatever! I’m sure the next one will work out. This is just that “dues paying” period that my parents, teachers and peers warned me about.
It’ll definitely get easier at some point if I keep at it. I’m sure of it. In fact, if you’re an editor looking for a new sucker, hit me up on social media. I’m available.