This is the first of what is expected to become a weekly guest posting here at Diatribes. This one comes from a good friend who lives in New York where it turns out working in journalism can be journal-worthy.
It’s 11:15 p.m. I just got home from the opera with girlfriends (Puccini’s Edgar) and have settled down to write 1,000 words on the magazine industry for my friend Joah. Seeing the opera for free is one of the media’s many perks. A friend once said that journalism was invented so that geeks would get invited to parties and converse with the popular crowd. It’s true. That and well, the whole watchdog thing. But back to perks. I’ve shaken hands with the 80th richest man in the world (George Soros), flown to Miami business class to review a 4-star resort, and have never bought a single shampoo, conditioner, or cosmetic product since I moved to New York three years ago (no, I’m not on a bathing strike; I just snag $80 moisturizers from the beauty closet).
Before you call foul and question my journalistic integrity, consider this: $32,000 initial salary. That’s what I made my first year here. No, scratch that. I couldn’t get a job for eight months, so that’s what I made once someone hired me full-time. Before that, I worked part-time in a prominent Chelsea photo studio for a man who would continually sexually harass me (once, he licked my back while I was typing a memo) for six months. I’m not proud of it, but I did meet Fergie my first day and continually met magazine editors on photo shoots. Once I got out of there (and yes, I considered suing but paying legal fees was out of my budget), I freelanced for about a month at a national fashion magazine but budget cuts landed me jobless again. So, I packed up and headed to California and Vegas to ignore reality for a few weeks. That was followed by Christmas, and by February, I had found permanent employment at a national men’s magazine.
They told me that it was what I could make of it. I could either be a receptionist as the previous girl had been or I could apply myself and end up with a writing gig. This turned out to be tougher than expected and was my first run-in with the very real glass ceiling that I had once thought fabled. After countless attempts of pitching, I’ll admit, some mediocre ideas but mostly good ones, I was jaded, disgruntled even. One day, I looked around in the archive (where I spent many hours as I was asked to copy articles for various editors) and noticed that there hadn’t been a female editor in a decade. The last one had gone on to a women’s title and since her departure, girls only held assistant positions like mine and never advanced. Knowing this softened the rejection a bit. It wasn’t personal. This was a sexist institution. But the men I worked with seemed genuine and fun. I was never sexually harassed as I had been at my last job but was liked by all, but still, not respected as a journalist. No, I was the assistant who made copies and got the mail. I was actually so good at this (not like it takes much skill), that I was done with work by 1 or 2 p.m. and spent the rest of my day reading The New York Times and political blogs online wondering if my coworkers knew I graduated with two degrees and a French minor from a prominent university.
This research came in handy when they hired a Web editor. All the magazines were doing it. A new trend emerged and everyone claimed the Internet was the future! Better create your own Web presence than let other sites swallow your readership. It was this threat that gave me my best friend there. Although the guys were sweet, it was a bit of a boys’ club. I ate lunch alone and didn’t quite sip whiskeys with everyone after work. Enter the Web editor. All the other guys considered him a nuisance at first. He wore designer kicks and forwarded funny, although grotesque, e-mails. Plus, he was just a genuinely happy guy—not the serious editor that most of them were. I liked him from the start. The no-frills Web geek and I became pals. He taught me how to write for dot-coms, and I amassed clips—both on the site and in the magazine. It’s true that media is like high school. It’s very small; everybody knows everybody. But more importantly, if one guy thinks you’re cool, then others follow like sheep. Once the online editor gave me a chance, my pitches weren’t discarded but read, and if they weren’t up to par, I was given feedback instead of simply ignored. Things were looking up until a lunch with our interns.
At the end of each season, the magazine’s editor-in-chief would take the interns out to lunch as a thank-you and also as a Q&A session. Nothing was off limits. On this particular day, we had a bold intern who asked the question that had plagued my mind all year, “Do you believe in female editors at a male magazine?” I expected him to look at her and spout the whole “you can do anything you set your mind to” speech I was given on the day I was hired. Instead, he calmly said, “No. I don’t think Kate White (editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan) would want a man telling a woman what to do.” Nail. On. Coffin. That was it. Tomorrow I would make it my job to look for a new job.
It took a few months to find one. I completed multiple edit tests, which are judges of skill level unique to each magazine. The way it works is you apply for a job that you either hear of through word-of-mouth or via a website. If you really want an interview, you’ll find a contact at the publication to vouch for you, otherwise your resume will never make it to the top of the stack. Case in point, O, The Oprah Magazine listed an entry-level job opening, and within a day, they had already received over 200 applications. With all these journalism schools spitting out graduates by the thousands, there simply isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. If you are lucky enough to get an interview and they like you, then comes the edit test. It usually consists of editing an article or two and brainstorming about five story ideas, although I recently encountered one draconian test asking for a 1,000-word critique of the publication. And if you make it past this, then they’ll e-mail you a congratulatory note and talk salary. But if not, there’s no “Sorry, but thanks for trying” in your inbox. It’s not that the editors are callous; it’s just that they don’t have time to e-mail hundreds of rejection letters.
Finding a magazine editor gig is a crapshoot. You might be passed over because the boss’ niece’s friend also applied or because you went to J-School in a flyover state while some NYU alum racked up five national magazine internships during undergrad. It’s completely random and you shouldn’t take it personal. So I didn’t. And now I’m at a new publication, which after seven months of working there, am ready to leave. Is it the 10 people that they laid off last month and low office morale? Or the coworker that thinks she’s God’s gift to publishing? Possibly. Or is it because the media are never satisfied?
Last week, Amy Gross, the editor-in-chief of the aforementioned O, The Oprah Magazine, resigned telling the New York Post, “I've been at the same job for eight years. That's longer than I've ever been at any job.”
--Name withheld (because as I mentioned it’s a tiny industry that loves dirty laundry)