I'm a Little Worried About the Impending Death of My Entire Industry
It can be hard to believe from the grim vantage point of 2018, but in the late 1990s, the economy, propelled by the dot.com bubble, was so strong and investors so drunk with delusional optimism that economists foresaw a day in the not-too-distant future where companies would be forced to battle each other for star employees.
It wouldn’t be enough to merely provide good salaries and impressive benefits anymore, these financial Nostradamuses predicted. No, in order for a hungry young company to truly compete, they’d have to offer sought-after employees perks like in-house masseuses, stand-up video game arcades and trips to exotic locales.
I know that when I started writing for The A.V Club at the height of internet madness, we received what was essentially an eight week paid hiatus via a four week publishing break in the Summer and a four week publishing break in the Winter. Christ, I can barely even remember what that most of been like except for fucking amazing.
I suppose you could say that I started my roller coaster ride through pop culture media at the very top, as a twenty-three year old, salaried head writer for a website and newspaper that wasn’t just successful: it was a goddamn pop culture phenomenon. People loved The Onion. Rightfully so. It was brilliant and original and essential and devastatingly funny. It would take a very long time for the back half of the newspaper—that would be the section that I wrote for and was either ignored or grudgingly acknowledged by a press infatuated with the satire side—to even begin to catch up.
I like to say that being head writer of The A.V Club was a dream job that got worse every year. Over time, the creative freedom and autonomy I enjoyed at the start of my career as a pop-culture writer dwindled and the pressure to continually grow in terms of page-views and advertising and clout increased. The bigger the site got, the more joyless, stressful and impersonal the work became until I was moved to quit my job after sixteen years of hard work for a completely untested new site that would, as I’m sure you are well aware, not make it even two years.
I lost a lot of my faith in the industry when I was laid off from The Dissolve, and then the site itself closed about two months later. For a long time I imagined that I would spend my entire career happily writing about movies for The Onion. I fancied myself a newspaperman and The A.V Club was my great passion in life before it became a site that I worked for but barely recognized anymore.
I’m not sure what made me so damnably, deludedly optimistic, but I was such a workaholic company man that I could never envision myself getting fired. Then came the first job termination since I was fired from 4 Star Video Heaven some twenty one years earlier and suddenly I couldn’t see myself being employed in any capacity.
Since then things have only gotten worse for the industry as a whole. It really feels like online media, and particularly online pop culture media, is crumbling at an alarming and terrifying rate. It’s affected me on a huge level. I’ve watched the number of outside columns I write dwindle and the competition for an increasingly few number of professional expand exponentially.
I can’t say that I was shocked by the end of The Dissolve. I don’t think they would have fired me unless things were desperate but, to be brutally honest, that’s not much of a consolation. I’ve watched websites launch with incredible fanfare and excitement, like Grantland, MTV News and The Dissolve only to be put down a few years later.
I’m old enough to have seen the newspaper industry devolve into a sad, ghostly shell of its former self. I’ve seen the world of professional film criticism similarly shrink, as older film critics were put out to pasture and replaced by syndicated reviews.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when The Dissolve went out of business but it’s been jarring and disconcerting to see websites that I always saw as huge, lucrative winners, like Upworthy (founded by a gentleman who used to bring me mail when he was a teenaged intern for The Onion), Cracked and even The A.V Club struggle so publicly and dramatically just to survive in a brutal market.
Now it seems like online media is crumbling the same way newspapers, books and film criticism did. Just today I learned that Village Voice was shutting down production. I’m never surprised to see a publication or website go out of business but The Village Voice is different. This was no fly by night online operation. No, this was the fucking Village Voice. They were legendary. They had credibility. They mattered. They had history and now, depressingly but unpredictably, they are history. Now it seems they are no more.
My heart goes out to all of the Village Voice writers and editors who will be joining the ever-growing ranks of freelance writers or folks so dispirited they've left the industry entirely for something more stable and less insane. I’ve been where they are and it fucking sucks.
If pop culture media is a sinking ship then Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place has been a lifeboat that has allowed me to survive instead of drowning in hopelessness and despair. When I started my career near the apex of the pop culture media ladder I never could have envisioned that two decades and many books and columns later my livelihood would be largely dependent on strangers giving me money to work on a site that I control every aspect of, that’s got my name and my aching yearning for contentment and belonging in its title. Nor could I have foreseen that that going the self-publishing, crowd-funding route would be so challenging and creatively fulfilling.
I am living proof that there is life after losing your job. It might feel like the end of the world at the time, or like the universe is violently rejecting you and stomping all over your hopes and dreams but if you’re scrappy and hard-working you can find ways to re-invent yourself in new and exciting ways while building upon the work you’ve done.
Perhaps the industry isn’t dying or crumbling so much as it is evolving in weird and scary ways. I just hope that I can continue to evolve with it or meet the same grim fate as dinosaurs of a less metaphorical nature.
I make my living through Patreon, so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging even a dollar over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace it’d be