Where I Am

15 Nov

I’m a bad blogger, and not just because it’s been four months since my last update. Yes, the previous post is dated February 28th, but I actually turned this site into my travel blog while I was in Europe this summer. Realizing how out of place those posts were, I decided to move them to my new travel writing page. That got me thinking about what this blog is about and whether my original premise ­– beginning a career at the end of journalism – still holds up two years later. So consider this post a clearing of the throat, an attempt to figure out how to move forward by looking at where I am in my career and how I got here.

I launched this site just over two years ago when I truly was beginning a career at the end of journalism (as we know it). It also seemed like I was beginning a career at the end of the world as we knew it. Just a month earlier, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, triggering the biggest and scariest financial crisis since – as you’ve heard countless time before – The Great Depression. Barack Obama’s historic election victory was a week away and the world was in a state of nervous anticipation.

At the time, I was living at the epicenter of all this, a journalism student working as a reporter in Washington, DC. I remember visiting the White House for the first time and being more impressed by the modest, less iconic building next door, the Treasury Department. If an unpopular and overwhelmed lame duck President lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue surely contained the men and women who would or would not save the world.

Six weeks and four days after election night I returned to Montreal. I finished up my thesis, overhauled the blog, and began searching for a job at what might have been the worst time, in the worst industry, in the worst market I could have picked – an English journalism job in Montreal during the heart of the Great Recession. Because of my American degree, I was eligible to work in the States for a year and sent off countless CVs and cover letters for entry-level newspaper jobs and magazine internships as far-flung as New Mexico and the Northwest Territories.

Of course, I was competing with hundreds of recently laid-off veteran reporters and fellow fresh J-School graduates for a rapidly dwindling number of positions. I got a couple “Wait, can you even work in the States?” emails and a few “Sorry, not hiring but we’ll keep your resume on file” formalities but that was pretty much it. In the meantime, I honed my craft writing for Masc magazine and at one point nearly moved to Ottawa to write Web copy for Michael Ignatieff who I could have sworn would be Prime Minister by now.

During this time, I did what every good job hunter is supposed to do. I reached out to former teachers and mentors, set up meetings with people in the field whom I admired (or had some tenuous connection to) and cold called a few wish-list publications. I had a great phone chat with Jordan Timm, then at The Walrus and now at Canadian Business, who is a friend of a friend of my girlfriend. Jordan was generous and helpful and said that if my heart wasn’t 100% in the game, that if there was anything else in the world I’d be happy to do other than journalism, to run for my life. I spoke to my thesis advisor at B.U., the amazingly empathetic Boston Globe alum Mitch Zuckoff, and essentially asked his permission to do something else – something that’s not quite journalism – until things picked up. I spoke to my former editor at the New London Day, who said she would love to hire me if only they were hiring. 

In the end, I got a job through a combination of luck, perseverance, social media and good old-fashioned shoe leather. I’d heard years ago that one of the more coveted English media jobs in Montreal is to work for Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. Yes, it’s an inflight magazine but Canada is a very small market and since the magazine has a solid business model and coveted audience, they’re able to hire great editorial and art staff, pay freelancers better than more prestigious national publications, and have an award-winning product to show for it.

Early in my job hunt I had cold called enRoute’s deputy editor, Susan Nerberg, figuring she’d be more accessible than the top dog. She was very friendly and seemed impressed by my background but informed me that no positions were open at the moment. That was before I spoke to Jordan Timm who happened to be a freelance fact checker at Spafax, the custom publishing company that produces enRoute. Now that I had a name to drop, I decided to try my luck with Editor-in Chief Ilana Weitzman. In a carefully worded email, I explained to her that I wasn’t asking for a job, but would love to chat. Her response: “Why aren’t you writing to ask for a job? I’m not saying we’re hiring right now — no one really is — but it’s good for me to know you’re here.”

Ilana sat down with me for a full hour at Spafax headquarters, for which I’ll always be grateful. She gave me the lay of the land of the Canadian magazine landscape (sadly, pretty sparse) and wondered, quite reasonably, why I wasn’t in Toronto. I left her my CV and she wished me luck. Then, a couple of weeks later I was at a neighbourhood café for what I thought was a reading by CBC radio host Jonathan Goldstein. Turns out I was a day early and found myself engulfed by an event called “Fiction Bitches” where a parade of female writers read excerpts from recently published books. The last person to read was Arjun Basu. He stood out because he was a man and instead of reading from a book he recited a bunch of 140-character stories he’d “published” on Twitter. They were funny and I told him so as I passed him on the way out of the café.

The next day I began following Arjun Basu on Twitter, which I had signed up for a few months earlier. Within minutes I received a direct message: “I’m going to follow you on my “corporate” page – have a better chance of connecting. Thx for follow here. You were at reading last night no?” That’s when I learned that honourary fiction bitch Arjun Basu sunlights as the editorial director at Spafax! I realized I had unwittingly made my way up the Spafax chain of command and soon made the trip back to Spafax headquarters for a corner office chat. Arjun confirmed that they weren’t hiring (in fact the hiring freeze was handed down by WPP, Spafax’s giant British holding company), but he said he had a feeling that they would be in a few months. In the meantime, I was welcome to come in at my convenience to help out and learn how magazine are made. Living just up the street (and not having much else to do), I happily accepted.

On the first day of my internship Arjun told me they were about to launch a new, “lightly-branded” corporate blog “that’s not really a corporate blog” and started assigning me things. I put together a piece about airlines on Twitter and a so-called charticle unpacking Robert Scoble’s social media starfish. The blog went live a month later, which is when I found out its name: Sparksheet. The following week I happened to be in Toronto for a wedding and Arjun suggested I take the time to meet Raymond Girard, Spafax’s President of Interactive and the man behind the blog. A couple weeks later I became editor of Sparksheet.

I’ve had the job for a year and a half now. Sparksheet has grown and gained a fine reputation among media and marketing folk. Last month we won a record four Canadian Online Publishing Awards, more than any other publication. CBC.ca put us in the lede of their story on the event, alongside them and the Toronto Star. This fall I hired Sparksheet’s second intern, interviewing her in the same conference room where I met Ilana two springs ago. I’ve also started finding myself on the other end of queries for advice on breaking into the biz. In effect, I went from cold caller to cold called, from someone’s intern to someone’s boss within one session of US Congress.

Which brings me back to this blog and the question that inspired this long-winded post: Does the premise (and tagline) of Hopeful & De-Pressed still hold up? Breaking it down, am I still at the beginning my career? Are we still at the end journalism as we know it? And what do we know about journalism anyway?

As I discussed in my previous post about branded content, my peers and I have been charting some new and ambiguous territory in the journalism world. Sparksheet is an independent-minded industry publication with an arm’s length relationship to its publisher. But it’s also a strategic corporate property that must ultimately shine a positive light on Spafax and avoid embarrassing its clients. I’m extremely proud of our content, our ethics, and our transparency. But I still have enough J-School baggage to wonder if I’ll ever have to plead my case to a future prospective employer who might frown upon Sparksheet’s corporate provenance.

Sometimes I get rather indignant about the whole thing. After all, it wasn’t for lack of trying that I’m not working at a small-town newspaper or fledgling indie magazine. I got a master’s degree, did all the right internships, amassed a pretty solid portfolio of clips. By no means am I suggesting that I’ve “paid my dues” in the industry. I realize how privileged I am to have had these opportunities, which ultimately came with a hefty tuition price (I’m quite sympathetic to the notion that high-priced journalism schools and the necessary evil of unpaid internships are turning journalism into an upper-middle-class profession).

But I wasn’t asking for a staff position at Maclean’s right out of grad school, just a chance to chase ambulances in Saint John or cover Synagogue board meetings in Brookline. But whether it was the recession, the print industry implosion, or an industry-wide disdain for cup reporters, even those perfectly unglamourous gigs were closed off to me in the long winter of 2009. In Spafax, I found a company where my skills are appreciated. Where my enthusiasm for the Web and the way it’s changing the media world is seen as an asset, and not a Pollyanaish idea to be snuffed out by cynical, Luddite veterans.

Faced with my imaginary future interviewer, I’d also argue that the role of the journalist is changing. I tend to agree with folks like Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen who say that journalists should become more like entrepreneurs. After all, they were the ones who got screwed when their colleagues on the other side of the Chinese Wall fell asleep at the switch, failing to recognize how the Internet would shake up print media just like the music industry before it. Lately, I’ve been brought into discussions about future opportunities to monetize Sparksheet. It feels good to have a seat at the table in conversations that may impact whether or not I continue to have a job. In this age of personal branding and “slash careers” journalists ought to be able to wear more than one hat – as long as they’re still able to distinguish between them.

It may not be as romantic as chasing ambulances or bootstrapping it at a quarterly arts magazine, but it’s nice to work at a company with resources, to be in a position to think about how we should grow and not how we’re going to scale back. It’s also nice to work in an age and industry where I can go from intern to editor to perhaps something bigger in less than two years. And to wonder whether I’m still beginning a career at the end of journalism or whether this beginning might never end.

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7 Responses to “Where I Am”

  1. Charles November 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    Ahem… let’s not forget that you work with a VERY talented designer 😛

    Congrats Dan, it’s a pleasure working with you everyday. Here’s to many more years of success.

    • Dan Levy November 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

      Wow, Charles, you read the whole thing? Pretty fast for a design guy 😉

      In all seriousness, you are the man and make us look very good everyday. And you make it look easy. Here’s to Sparky!

  2. Arjun Basu November 15, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    Nice job here, Dan. Your story is a good lesson for aspiring journalists and j-school kids. This might not have been your dreAm job, but you made it into something and made it your own. I’m happy I played a small part here. It’s been my privilege to work with you.

  3. VBG November 16, 2010 at 1:52 am #

    Fascinating article Dan! You raise important points through your life as a journalist (until today). Which one do you think stand out the most though?

    From an academic point of view, I would be interested to look at how not just the type of medium, but the organizational changes affect the way journalism is done today. My research topic has nothing to do with what you just wrote (because I am looking at broadcast journalism) but seems to me that changes in the industry – more or less on the organizational level – has affected the way in which the profession is conducted. Any thoughts on that?

  4. Dan Levy November 16, 2010 at 2:02 am #

    Arjun, you played a pretty big part in this story. Thanks again for the opportunity and I look forward to working together for years to come.

    VBG, that’s a really interesting question. I think my story does touch upon the organizational side of things. As I wrote, it’s nice working at a company with resources and with an alternative, evolving business model(s). I also think the whole journalist-entrepreneur/straddling the Chinese Wall thing is an organizational shift. I think. It really depends on your definition of “organizational.” I’d be happy to chat more if you’re interested,,,

  5. Tamara November 17, 2010 at 6:29 am #

    Hey Dan,
    Great article. Nice to get the inside scoop on where you’re at. And some great links too. You got a new follower. I usually try to avoid blogs about journalism….but am a complete sucker for the de-pressed of the world.
    Glad to have rediscovered this and I really like the new design too.
    Hasta pronto!
    TK

  6. Sunny December 3, 2010 at 9:06 am #

    Interesting post, and I like your honesty about your doubts on where you’ve landed up.

    One question/comment – you talk about having done “all the right things” and I’ve seen many people (me included) do all the right things. Emphasis here on “many people.” There’s a lot of talk out there on how the industry has changed and whatnot, but very few people seem willingly to examine the supply-and-demand side of the equation. There are too many people with journalism degree for the current demand.

    What’s depressing though, is that most of those people are writing fluff – so really, too many of fluff journos. And not enough hard hitters uncovering our scandals and all those other things journalism fantasies are made of.

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