Category Archives: Journalism

A writer’s perspective

Writers’ block is something different these days. It’s not just the fear of putting things on the paper and having them stand there in the physical world, to be dissected or dismantled or ignored by readers at some point in the future. Most blocks today aren’t about writing, but of having to deal with the immediate response of people reading one’s writing online.

I haven’t wanted to blog in almost a year. The web isn’t a safe place for writers anymore. Animosity toward “the media” as a whole has been so amped up by government propaganda that readers are open firing on “the messengers.” The user experience for reading online text is so uncomfortable that readers are even less able to differentiate between individual writers than 10 years ago when blogging was just starting to go mainstream. There is a detachment between the text and the people who created it in the minds of most readers. They hate “the media,” or “the liberal media” or “the conservative media,” so they lash out everywhere they can with their ill-informed opinions, not considering that “the media” is just a group of individuals with wide-ranging qualities. If someone says “I hate Americans,” and you are one, you say hey, that’s not fair. There are shitty members of the media just like there are shitty Americans, ones that damage the image of the group to outsiders. And then there’s everyone else. The ones who have to avoid people who think in binary terms.

Some readers of “the media” latch onto articles like toddlers grabbing a toy a few years too advanced for them, slobbering all over it without understanding what it does, and then throwing it aside, not caring if it breaks. The poor toy. That wasn’t how it was meant to be enjoyed.

One of the first interviews I conducted was with Bill Keller, the then-EIC of the New York Times. He described his role as being “a political chew toy.” I didn’t really understand what he meant back then, but I do now.

What if we could write knowing our content would go only where it’s respected? What if we could publish without having to worry about being objectified, insulted, threatened? We pretend like free speech is something that exists here in the United States, but let’s be real: if you can’t write about a touchy subject without having to worry about someone finding your personal information and burning your house down, are you really free to speak? I haven’t experienced a fraction of the abuse some writers have, but it hasn’t stopped me from developing an aversion to the whole system, a system that is mainly designed by men who crave control of the public consciousness.

Life as a writer has been strange all-around, but over the past few years it’s been downright unbearable. Once I met a guy at a party who was studying journalism at a big journalism university here in NYC. I told him I’m a journalist too. “Oh, what do you have like, a blog or something?” “Yeah.. or something.” Sometimes I don’t even want to engage anymore. When I walked away, and someone clued him in that my portfolio extends beyond a blog, he Googled me and came back full of compliments, wanting to get closer, to know me more. Sorry, but I saw you the first time, and I don’t actually want to know you at all.

If you’re a writer and you don’t guard yourself well, people behave like they are automatically entitled to your time, as if you’re a public utility funded by taxpayer dollars. Maybe we should be, because the alternatives are sure as hell not working, but we’re not, which makes our time ours. Sometimes, unprompted, they immediately dump their saddest story or deepest secret on you. I usually listen with inescapable empathy, while I think to myself, I didn’t ask, and I really don’t want to know. Being the bearer of secrets is a responsibility, a parasite that we’re forced to then carry around until we can find a new host. But it seems the machine that used to accept our burdens is only accepting parasites from corporations now. Freelance journalists are left to try to drown their parasites with trusted others in dimply lit bars, and they usually come back.

Usually when I tell people I’m a writer, they immediately try to exploit me. They want attention, they want “press” for their super cool new company that’s going to change the world because it’s the Uber for ___ (insert whatever bullshit people don’t actually need here). Why do they assume that their desire to know me, a New York writer, trumps my desire to be left alone? I don’t like to lie to people, so I just excuse myself and let them think what they want. It was worse when I was at Wired. That affiliation transformed me from Arikia Millikan into Internet Magazine Editor ID # 1835103. I have 150,000 unread emails in my inbox to prove it. To so many people, writers are a tool, a stepping stone, a weapon. Nobody asks us if we consent.

Usually, I write about people namelessly, as anecdotes to make whatever point I’m making, or just to stretch the blogging muscles. Sometimes they see a post and assume that it’s about them. Usually it’s not, but sometimes they’re right. Either way, someone is out there feeling entitled to qualify my literary perspective. They say: I can’t believe you made me sound so dumb, or so mean. They try to argue with my perspective, if it didn’t align with theirs. They attack me like it’s my fault for observing them acting a certain way. I want to tell them: have you instead considered not acting like that, if you don’t want to be seen as someone who acts like that? But usually I just wind up feeling censored. Inspiring a transformation in one person is never the goal with my writing, unless it’s a personal email addressed to them. If you want to play muse in a writer’s work, whatever, but don’t then go to her with hurt feelings because she saw something in you that you wouldn’t include in your conference biography.

People are so used to having Instagram filters, they forget what reality looks like.

Usually I’m mined but other times, when I meet someone randomly and they inevitably ask what I do, and tell them I’m a writer, they immediately go on the defensive. Like I’m a paparazzi who has somehow telepathically magnetized them over to me at a bar just so I can pry into their life. I then have to explain: I don’t do that kind of writing, I’m at a bar, I’m not working right now, I would never care enough to write about your Wall Street dealings to write about you even if I was paid. In fact, I would quit my job if I was forced to write about you. People are my favorite subject to write about, but I have no desire to write about most people on anyone else’s terms.

Increasingly, that’s what journalists are being asked to do in the professional world. The publishers sold out, the editorial walls have crumbled, or were never built in the first place online, the way they once were with print media. Advertisers feel entitled to demand journalists attention and coverage in ways they define with demands. I may think the more interesting angle is about how your company is destroying the rainforest, but my editor may tell me the obvious angle is to write about what a philanthropist the founder is. Why does anyone wonder why journalism is declining?

Most people don’t know the difference between PR and journalism. Even less people will be able to define in 10 years, as the new generation enters the arena. One time I was at a party for a big, trendy media company, and I went up to the VIP lounge to escape the crowd. I wound up talking to a woman who was about my age when I started off interning in the NYC media world. She was telling me about her job, how she reads the press releases and then she writes them up in fun language. I asked her where she finds stories outside of press releases, and she looked at me with bewilderment. It had never occurred to her that story ideas came from places outside of press releases. I think that was the moment I really lost faith in the industry.

So that’s it. That’s where I am right now, and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. This is my dismal perspective, sponsored by no one. And I am entitled to it.

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The Plight of the Permalancer

The following text was originally published on Facebook. I am reposting it here at the request of a friend who wanted to send this to John Oliver.

I’ve recently been informed that I owe a couple Gs to the IRS from when I was working at Wired full-time. I was the youngest editor on the masthead, running not one but three online verticals of Wired.com, sometimes not leaving the office until midnight and commuting an hour to get home alone through the subways of NYC at night. I was being forced to spend my time dealing with eye-gougingly incompetent adsales people from corporations who were making probably 4x as much as me but couldn’t think of a new idea to save their lives.
Meanwhile Wired was using its own editorial employees to pressure me and other editors to be more lenient in allowing them to insert advertiser messaging into content so as to not disrupt these big ticket ad sales that would let our thick-necked jock of a VP win his internal betting ring against GQ and other Conde Nast publications. I thought I was working for a technology magazine, not a sportsball team–I turned in my cheerleading uniform years ago. But when I protested my editor yelled at me, the only time he ever has, and told me to just “keep my head down.” So I did what he said.

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On editor’s block, the corrosive effects of the advertising industry, and the dismal state of journalism

gonewriting
This weekend a friend gave me something I needed very badly. It was something I never would have bought for myself, but didn’t have the audacity to ask anyone for. And he just knew, and he could, so he did. If you ask me, that’s the way gift-giving should be done, not in the context of some capitalistic ritual.
This friend was an instant friend, the kind of friend I don’t need to use falsities or filters with. He is also one of the original architects of the internet. When it comes to publishing, and most other stuff, I trust him. He knows my style, knows my flaws, knows that I care deeply about improving the condition of this world if it is within my reach. So when we got up to leave his favorite Ukrainian diner, and he asked me to something, I listened.
“Just write,” he urged me. “No matter what else you do, just keep writing.”
So I am. This is me writing.
As he and others have aptly noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately, for publication, and there are three main reasons for this. Better to be a writer who writes about writing than a writer who doesn’t write, I suppose.
For one, I have, not writer’s block, but editor’s block. I used to publish something every day, for fun, for justice, and for the sake of writing. But when you spend so much time editing and processing and publishing other people’s work, your own becomes but a shadow of a priority, the last thing on the to-do list. I enjoy helping people publish the best possible version of their writing, so it’s easy to feel that I am doing something meaningful *enough*. I am not immune to the illusion of productivity. In working behind the scenes, like a ghost, with authors whose ideas I support, and who have a bigger megaphone than I, I have been able to feel content in a way. But, as my friend told me the day we met, if I don’t act now while I’m young, I could wind up content—or worse, married. I’ve luckily dodged the later, but the former is a work in progress.
The second reason I haven’t been publishing much lately is that the process is unpleasant on the whole. Publishing tech still sucks, despite all its promise, and writing professionally involves doing many (IMO) degrading things that have nothing to do with writing at all. Sometimes by the time I “sell” my writing, my initial idea has been bent so far away from its original orientation that I don’t even know how to write the new thing it is supposed to become.
My ideal editor just says “Yes. Assigned,” to good ideas, and offers the support to help elevate a work from draft to ready-for-publication quality. That is the kind of editor I have always tried to be. I still know a few good ones, and they are prepared to ditch the click-driven jobs they hate and work with me on the kind of writing we believe should be produced as soon as the option presents itself.
Our publishing industry in the United States, in its current iteration, doesn’t incentivize the publishing of ideas that are worthwhile of being discussed in and of themselves. There is a capitalistic undercurrent to almost every form of paid writing that selects for things that exploit the reader using all the original tools of captivation (comedy, sex, violence), refined into the art of public manipulation as described by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. This is, of course, until you’re able to break through to the literary level in which you can write whatever you want because you’re a “thought leader.” But by that stage, you probably don’t need to be paid to write. It’s probably more of a hassle invoicing through the archaic payment systems in “modern” media than to just call it a trade, your work for their platform. I find it a serious conundrum that the people who should be writing the most, are the least incentivized by the industry to do so.
An essay shouldn’t be a vessel for ads. It should be a tool of transformation in and of itself.
Finally, and frankly, I am disgusted by the state of the world. As I have observed in my travels over the past three years to 30 different countries, the dismal state of human affairs is directly connected to the state of the publishing industry—globally, but driven by the failings of the American media.
I have made my career out of creating jobs for myself and other within institutions I wanted to believe were good and just and shared my ideals for producing the kind of journalism that fuels democracy. But it has never taken more than a month inside each institution for me to understand the flaws, the poor decision-making, and ultimately, the greed that corrodes its editorial goals in practice. I have made it my hobby to usher talented individuals around the industry, plucking them from toxic institutions and placing them in places that are at least a step up, where they may have the opportunity to gain control. But something always stops them from truly breaking through.
If my experiences over the course of my career in media, which include founding and operating a media company, have led me to one conclusion, it’s that the advertising industry is a plague on the journalism industry, and on humanity itself. I won’t contribute to it any longer (in so much as that’s possible while still remaining connected to my peers on the internet). And I don’t need to.
I’ve tested my limits of existence and I know what I need to survive in this world, and it is not much. I won’t waste a day of my time doing something I don’t believe in. And who on the publishing side wants to work with a journalist who can’t be bought and owned? I’m not good for your business models. But that’s OK because I’m creating new ones.
If only the our government took care of us all so we could focus on improving the world through our art. Absent that in American society, we must rely on each other.
So I will write. But I won’t write for the advertising industry, or for capitalism. I will write for my friend, and for fun, and for justice. I will write. No guarantees on what about, but I’ll keep doing it.
And if I don’t, I don’t. But the only way I’ve ever done anything in this life is by lighting a fire under my own ass. So here’s hoping.

An open letter to the individual who first prompted me to contemplate law school

Dear Kelly,

How time flies! It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since you were doing everything your scheming little mind could conceive of to prevent me from exposing the administration’s corruption at my good old alma mater, the University of Michigan. We had some fun conversations back then, didn’t we? Me attempting to uncover the truth about unlawful transactions, you blatantly lying to cover it up, me filing FOIA requests to catch you in your lies. You were such a prankster back then, too! Remember the time you walked over to the Michigan Daily and held a secret meeting with my editors threatening to stonewall the entire publication’s access to members of the administration if I was appointed news editor? You sure got me that time, Kelly.

Out of all the memorable encounters we had though, I’d have to say the one that stands out in my mind the most is when you gave me a bit of unsolicited advice. My memory is a bit hazy on this one (getting old!), but I believe we were in the midst of a conversation about the proposed construction project to renovate the football stadium. You were telling me all about how the project would be economically sustained by the athletic department. I listened to you lie through your teeth for a few minutes, and then I surprised you with proof the athletic department was actually skimming money out of the University’s general fund — a fund strictly reserved for academics.

I’ll never forget the look on your face! It was priceless, Kelly. Even you have to admit, I got you there. But what you said to me in response really struck me. You didn’t address my point, you just looked at me with an expression somewhere between disgust and defeat and said: You should be a lawyer.

Well, Kelly, after all these years, you’re still wrong. Some things never change! Navigating the world of freelance journalism has provided ample opportunities for me to experience institutional corruption, abuses of power, breaches of contract, and even discrimination — just like old times. No, Kelly, journalism is the career for me, but I still think about your suggestion from time to time, especially when I triumph in tough negotiations. In fact, just this past week I encountered three instances of people trying to screw me out of money, and in each situation, I considered that maybe I should quit journalism and go to law school. I can’t imagine what kind of a soulless bitch I’d turn into if I had to deal with that every day, though. You were a practicing lawyer for a while, weren’t you? Maybe you can tell me what that’s like sometime.

Anyway, Kelly, it sure was fun reminiscing. I hope those college journalists aren’t giving you as hard of a time as I did. I wouldn’t want to lose my edge in the industry ;)

Best,

Arikia Millikan, c/o 2008

Thinking about writing

They say those who can’t do teach, so when a writer writes about writing, you know something is awry. At this moment in time, I am generally happy: I’m healthy, I have great friends who have gone out of their way to do incredibly sweet things for me ever since I announced I’m leaving New York, and I just spent a lovely evening coordinating a fundraiser for the Museum of Math at Science House and was able to come home and put the money I earned in my parrot fund. However, there is a cloud that has been looming over me for the past month — the deadline cloud.

While I was an editor at Wired, I gave my freelancers deadlines all the time. Miraculously, I picked amazing writers who turned in quality work on time with only a few exceptions. But actually being on deadline is pretty new to me. I wrote articles at Wired, but they were never on deadline because it was understood that my writing was basically free time work that came secondary to my editing responsibilities. Nobody was going to ask that I put their request for me to write above my own job, so the things that I’ve had published at Wired were all kind of random passion projects.

Now though, I do have deadlines. Deadlines given to me by editors I respect just as much as my freelancers respected me. I’m not complaining about the fact that I have deadlines. I love deadlines. I love them because writing is fun and all but publishing is the really rewarding part. I mean, I write on this blog and sometimes it’s good and makes sense, but I’m mostly writing to think here. That’s probably the core of why I’m a writer, because writing helps me think. All my life I’ve been getting into these confusing situations and I can’t make sense of them until I write them down.

Which is the whole stupid conundrum I’m having lately. Writing helps me think, but when I think too much about writing, I can’t write.

I never understood why print magazines let their writers take so long to write feature articles. I figured the writers had to be milking the system — jerking off, playing games on their computers or something while they were supposed to be working. But now I get it. When someone gives you a topic and tells you to write the best thing that you possibly can in an hour, that’s easy. You just do it, and it’s done in an hour. But when someone gives you a 2,000 word goal and wants you to write something epic and evergreen what will withstand the scrutiny of millions of misogynist commenters and reddit trolls, that requires a lot of thinking. I mean, is there ever really enough thinking to prepare one for that?

I’m sorry I doubted you, feature writers! It’s true, writing feature articles takes a long time. I just wrote this essay about cholera in Haiti, finally, after thinking about it for a whole year. A year. And when I actually sat down to write it, it took a day. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t on the page for a year, so it took a year to write. That’s what most of writing is for me: thinking.

Often times when I’m working on a story, I’ll tell people about different parts of it first. Friends, strangers, doesn’t matter. They’ll ask “what are you working on?” and I’ll say “a story about so-and-so,” and they’ll say “oh, what about it?” and I use that prompt as my test bed. I’ll tell them about it one way, and if it makes sense than I remember the explanatory process I used and incorporate it into the narrative thread that exists only in my head. I weave these threads in my head constantly. There are thousands of them, all tangled up with each other, waiting for the moment I find the end and tug it out of my head onto the page so it can exist there forever. When I finally find an end, it just comes out like a spool unraveling. It’s just a matter of looking for it, and getting it, and sometimes it takes a really long time.

Sometimes though, things stop me from looking. It’s an irrational fear. A fear that maybe the thread that exists in my head isn’t worthy of paper or even internet space. Like my new boyfriend David Foster Wallace once said, people who worship intellectualism are always worried about being found out for being some kind of fraud. But then most of the writers I respect say they constantly worry about being found out and this is how they know they’re good journalists. They say that if they every stopped worrying about that, they would then know that they’d lost it and should quit the profession immediately.

I think that good editors know this, because they have all gone through it, which is why they’re considerate with writers going through it. But how does one learn how to stop thinking about writing and just fucking write? How do I put aside all the little things that are easier and more immediate and less about fulfilling of my own professional desires, and work that thread into something awesome without thinking about it until I go insane with deadline-pushing guilt?

Le sigh. I guess the key is to stop thinking about writing, and blogging about writing, and just write. In the time it took me to write this blog post, I could have written most of the other thing I needed to write. At least now I feel a little more clear on what I have to write. I will hammer it out! Sorry for being so meta.

The incurables

I’m working on the most interesting article ever right now. There’s nothing that gets me going like digging into a sector of really specialized science.

I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to be a science journalist. I’d been told by a guidance counselor my freshman year of high school that as a woman with a high aptitude for math and science, I would make more money than any of my peers if I went into engineering. But I’ve always been a writer and, when I got to engineering school, was quickly disgusted with the way writing was used. We were told to “forget everything you ever knew about writing, because you’re only going to write technical papers now.” And I thought, What? Science is already hard enough for people to digest as is, now they want us to use language to obfuscate it even more form public understanding?

After two years in the biomedical engineering program, I transferred to the Literature Science & Arts college and ended up majoring in psychology because I’d already had a ton of credits from taking those classes for fun. I joined the student newspaper the summer before my junior year. They’d just scrapped their weekly science section because nobody wanted to write about science. So I single-handedly covered all the science I could in this massive research university.

In my run at the Michigan Daily, I tried other kinds of journalism too—political, academic, cultural. I hated all of it, and I suspect the editors used to give me dull assignments like covering the student government’s meetings in retaliation because they would get frustrated trying to edit me on science. They would always try to change my language to make things more sensational or dumb stuff down, but often times it would change the meaning and make a statement inaccurate so I would insist they change it back. I did, however, take in interest in legal and political journalism, and got quite involved in covering a multimillion dollar lawsuit the University was facing for attempting to violate the American’s With Disabilities act to renovate The Big House, the football stadium. I enjoy debating, and the University’s plot was rich with semantical holes and numbers that didn’t quite add up, which I just dug into. I made quite a few enemies, one spectacular one who told me I should be a lawyer. I’m still considering this advice.

What I eventually concluded though is that science journalism is my calling. I never get bored. I never run out of ideas. I rarely get stressed because I can’t find a route to understanding some concept that I must then find a way to explain. And the best part is the scientists. While most people journalists need to interview spend a tremendous amount of effort figuring out how to side skirt questions and hide the truth, the truths that scientists have is already hidden. They are hidden in concrete basement laboratories, behind the wild eyes and bizarre mannerisms of people who care so deeply about one tiny sliver of the physical world that they sometimes find themselves locked away from the rest of humanity behind the same communication walls I saw myself approaching and decided to James Bond it around the ledge instead. Scientists are thrilled when someone has a genuine interest in unearthing their secrets. They are my favorite.