Update: Please excuse the title of this essay. It was written at a time of immense self-pity. Rather than make changes, I’ll let it stand as an honest reflection of my disposition at the time of publishing.
It’s a particularly grim time to be a journalist, especially in America. Jobs are scarce, freelance budgets are thinning, and the President is constantly undermining the integrity of the press. As a Calgary-born writer studying at New York University, I’m experiencing first-hand the difficulties of trying to “make it” in a moribund industry. Since arriving in New York, I’ve run the gamut in terms of opportunities and cruel rejections: I wrote a story for the New York Times that never ran, won sixth place in a national competition only to have the honor swiftly revoked, and got stiffed by the editor of a major American sports site.
The cliché of the college student in NYC evokes images of people ambling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sipping highballs at trendy cocktail lounges in the West Village, or thumbing through classic literature in Central Park. There’s plenty of that, sure. But I spend most of my time hunched over a desk in the library, hoovering cups of coffee like a bleary-eyed lunatic, and editing rough drafts until the words dissipate into a blur of strange symbols.
“But why?” you might ask. Why devote so much time and effort to an industry that seemingly conspires to repel the incoming workforce with long hours and relatively low wages? Why spend days crafting a story that will ultimately be ignored by an audience with attention spans calibrated for Tweets, pictures, and videos? Well, despite my better judgment, I can’t seem to shake this annoying compulsion to write, and, in the least, my adventures in journalism have left me with some great stories.
For one of my classes, I wrote about a street hockey league on the Lower East Side. My professor, who worked at the New York Times for more than 30 years, thought the story had some potential, so he sent a draft to his former colleague at the prestigious paper. This particular editor liked the story, too, and I was able to arrange a meeting at his office.
Staring up at the Times building, a stately glass structure in the heart of midtown Manhattan, reminded me of my time as a lowly intern at Metro News in Calgary. Back then, publications such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic, existed as a glamorous abstraction, a far-away dream that I’d never realized. Now I was in that stratosphere, a feeling both surreal and unsettling. I smoked an American Spirit to calm my nerves, but the cigarette didn’t do much to quiet my paranoia. Instead, I stepped into the elevator wondering if the stench of hot ash was baked into my clothing.
When I met the editor, he made no mention of my smoky aroma, and told me to rewrite the story. So, I descended upon the hockey rink with a photographer and a newfound swagger. As you can imagine, it’s fun reporting for the Times. Everyone wants to be interviewed, and they respond to your questions and existence with complete reverence. This was a refreshing development, since, earlier in my career, people would avoid me like a mysterious airborne disease.
I wrote a couple drafts of the updated story and the editor liked it. He wrote: “Matt, so we’re ready to run your story. The pictures are great, and it’s an ideal joint.” Upon reading this email, I nearly dropped my phone. After all, I don’t have a traditional news background. I studied philosophy and creative writing at Western University, not journalism, and somehow, by the grace of some benevolent heavenly force, I was going to sneak into the fold of what’s widely considered the greatest newspaper in the Western world. Until, a few days later, I got another email from the editor.
The story couldn’t run, he said, since the Times had written about the league in 2012. To be honest, I knew about the other article and willfully ignored it. I was writing the story for a different section of the paper and I thought I had a unique central character, or so I reasoned. This was wrong, of course. My job as a journalist is to uncover new stories, not simply rehash old ideas with updated cast members. Luckily, the editor caught my mistake, because it would have been more embarrassing had the story been published. As quickly as my opportunity materialized, it vanished.
Shortly after that, NYU entered me into a national writing competition. Then I got an email: “Hi Matt, your ‘Jeopardy!’ piece that we submitted for a Hearst Award finished in the top 10 (#6). Congratulations.” I was in the middle of celebrating with my girlfriend, when I received a call from an NYU representative. “We just spoke to the competition board,” they said. “Sorry, this was an undergraduate competition. We accidentally entered you.” Brutal. The sixth-place finish, though not entirely legit, gave my work some validation. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t slap it on my resume. As much as you’d like to think your work stands for itself, which is some instances it does, any sort of award gives you a big bartering chip when applying for jobs and internships. It was another opportunity lost.
Early in 2018, I met an editor from a major American sports publication at a job fair. When I told him about my time as a college athlete, he encouraged me to write about it. So, I spent the next week crafting a 2,000-word essay about my experience, under the assumption that he would consider the article for his site. After several attempts to reach him, via text and email, he never responded. I had excitedly hammered away on a story for nothing, not even a pity edit. Then, I bumped into him on the street. He apologized and promised to edit the article by the end of the week. We exchanged a firm handshake, some respectful eye contact, a confirming head nod, and went our separate ways. Then he fell off the radar again.
Until I saw him again outside of a coffee shop in August. He tried to sneak past me, looking timid as a mouse, probably expecting I’d be pissed off, which I had every right to be. I asked: “What happened to the article?” He rattled off a litany of excuses, some exactly like the first time I saw him: he was on vacation, their company was up for sale, they didn’t have money in the freelance budget. Then, with complete sincerity, as if his word was an unimpeachable bond, he said he would try look at the article… by November. It was May.
I pitched a different story to another major sports publication. The editor told me that he loved the idea, but couldn’t pay me. I assumed that I’d be able to write the story for free, which I was willing to do just to build my portfolio. It’s a big publication, after all. But he wouldn’t even let me write pro bono. “I’m not in the practice of not paying a writer for their work,” he wrote. “It sucks. It blows. I hate it. But I’m not stooping to the level of other places that don’t pay writers ANYTHING for their work.” His stance, while respectable, left me unpaid and without a solid writing credit.
It seems as if gaining entry to the industry isn’t about talent, credentials, or finding a great story, like we’re initially told. A freelance journalist can do everything right: find a compelling idea, do the appropriate research, find dynamic characters, and send a bulletproof pitch. But the publications can simply choose to ignore the email, or turn the pitch down without giving a fair explanation. We often get: “Sorry, this story just isn’t right for us, but keep pitching!” Freelancers can’t complain, because they don’t want to burn a bridge or earn a negative reputation in such a tightly-knit industry. So, they absorb the disappointment and pitch again, hoping for a lucky break.
I had my breakthrough moment recently. All of my work over the past year got me an internship with New York Magazine, one of the top publications in North America. It’s a career-defining opportunity and maybe, just maybe, made all of the frustration along the way worthwhile. Not too shabby for a kid from Calgary.