I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in my own era. Not in a “Midnight in Paris” Belle Époque, nostalgia-for-an-era-that-never-existed kind of way, but in a brutally utilitarian way. My skills, insofar as I have them, are no longer needed, so I’m told. So of course I went right where I belong: a mid-size daily newspaper.
The last opinion piece I wrote for The Argus detailed why I’d rather be a journalist than a politician, and I’m happy to report that a summer at the Albany Times Union only made me more enthusiastic about writing and reporting. There was, however, always the elephant in the room of the so-called “dying newspaper.”
I wasn’t given full access to the financial data for the TU, and it’s important to note that there have been longstanding labor issues at the paper, which is owned by Hearst (you know, the company founded by the guy who “Citizen Kane” was based on). I was, however, allowed to sit in on workflow meetings that often concerned the future of the paper. Those meetings were completely confidential, but the basic principles behind the threats to print journalism are undoubtedly in the public domain.
Perhaps the biggest problem in print journalism now is the vast discrepancy in value between print advertisements and online ads. Print ads have long been far more expensive than online ads, and with declining circulation and the expansion of Internet accessibility, print newspapers have lost billions in revenue and have subsequently cut back on staffing in the newsroom.
To a certain extent, I owe my formative experience this past summer to these cutbacks. I was free labor in a newsroom that used to be packed with reporters. I was able to get quality assignments from my editors that made TV news reporters constantly say, “They let you come here on your own?!” or, “How are they letting an intern cover this?”
Quite honestly, the view from the so-called dying newspaper was more inward than outward. Covering crime—often violent crime, and sometimes horrifyingly violent crime—taught me far more about myself than I thought it would about the human condition. I learned that I am only a few decisions and circumstances away from my subjects, who were often close to my age and were far more frequently male than female. Despite my protections from their fates, such as my education, my upbringing, and my narrow conception of morality, I learned with each crime article that I wasn’t much different than these guys.
I also learned that I rely far too much on instinct and flare rather than what I knew concretely, and my editors helped me become a sounder reporter. They instilled this in me to such an extent that in the last few weeks of the internship, I felt genuine anguish when I would do something as small as spell someone’s name wrong.
Despite the growth and self-aware realizations, there was always a lingering feeling that I was writing in the wrong era. One editor told me that if I were writing 40 years ago, I would start out at The Village Voice—where he had once worked—and work for Rolling Stone. Today, however, I don’t even know if I could tolerate working for hip publications like Mic: horizontal leadership structures, casual dress, sensitivity, and all.
Another way of seeing this was through my boss at The New Yorker,whose career I realize I can never have, whenever I’m not fanaticizing about having it anyway. He started at the magazine at age 24, having only worked for The Tulsa Tribune and the Yale Alumni Magazine beforehand. A grandiose part of me feels deep down that I could swing it at that high of a level at age 24, but it will never happen.
Talking with my boss in his apartment and over the phone made me long for a community of writers like his. He’s good friends with Garrison Keilor. He fishes with David Remnick and Ian Frazier. He knows more writers on his bookshelf than I know out of my Facebook friends.
These millennials, I say from up high as someone born in 1994, will never have a community like this because we produce all of our content on our computers, separated by servers and screens. We are desired and commodified for our tech savviness—our advantage of having grown up with social media—not for our actual skills or ideas. As writers, we’re considered to be closer to social media interns than storytellers.
Then I stop and think, “Wait, I go to Wesleyan! We have Anne Greene! And Charles Barber! We’re a media saturated powerhouse, and it’s all happening here.” And I genuinely believe that, except when I don’t, but maybe that has more to do with self doubt than any empirical measure. Every time I feel good about the work I’m doing here, my imagined 2026 self swoops in and questions whether my education will be worth anything if I didn’t learn a coding language.
But before I give into that, before I punch in and out of the 21st century, I should give this a shot, all in the hope that one day, I can call myself a writer without feeling like a pretentious loser who missed the trolley back to the 20th century. And maybe I’ll get paid for it. A boy can only dream.