The Wind and the Current
THE NEW ECONOMICS OF CAREER MANAGEMENT
I was twenty-two years old and fresh out of college when I started my first job at The Washington Post. My job description in those days was to report and write about local companies. But it's more accurate to say that I was simply a worker at one end of a long assembly line.
After I finished writing an article—say, four hundred words with a boring headline like "CyberCash to Unload Assets for $20 Million"—it would be launched on a step-by-step process that was repeated hundreds of times each day. First my editor would revise my draft to try to make it better. Then it would go to the copy desk, where another editor would make sure it complied with the paper's Byzantine style rules; God forbid I ever mention a company without spelling out its full legal name and noting the town in which its headquarters was located. Then a couple more editors would give it yet another look, before passing it along to the prepress department, whose role in the process I never totally understood. After that, it was printed and the resultant paper folded, bound into tiny packages, moved to trucks, and finally dropped off with individual delivery drivers who would deposit it on hundreds of thousands of doorsteps in the Washington metropolitan area.
Careers in those days were equally linear. If a writer did a good job, he or she might be promoted to become an editor overseeing a few people, and then an editor overseeing a lot of people. Many of my colleagues had done the exact same job for years, even decades. Those who were ambitious knew exactly how to channel that ambition.
Even if you weren't able to snag a job at The Washington Post or my current employer, The New York Times, it wasn't a big deal, because dozens of newspapers in other big cities offered career opportunities and compensation that were nearly as good. The technology of print newspapers created local monopolies that allowed at least one big paper in each city of any size to be highly profitable and offer many good jobs. In career terms, there just wasn't that big a gap between, say, The Philadelphia Inquirer or The Baltimore Sun and the Times or the Post.
What I didn't know at the time was that the economics of our industry were about to change, with radical implications for people like me trying to make a career in it. If you visit the Post or the Times today, you will find not a single giant assembly line in which reporters feed articles into the newspaper, but rather teams of people with a myriad of skills creating not just newspapers but a range of products—addictive podcasts, apps optimized for mobile devices, and immersive virtual reality experiences, to name only a few.
As you'd imagine, this has upended what it takes to have a successful career in the media industry. When the underpinnings of a business are in flux, and the best work is done by teams of people with dramatically different skills—a team might include software engineers, graphic artists, data scientists, and video editors, along with writers—it is no longer so obvious what people should do to ensure they will remain employed, let alone get ahead.
The gap between the top handful of publications and the next tier has widened, both in terms of the number of jobs available and how well they pay. In digital media, the handful of organizations with the very best products and technology reach readers around the planet, while the old local print monopolies are no more. Consequently, if you want to sustain an upper-middle-class life as an investigative reporter or foreign correspondent, opportunities are fantastic at places such as the Times or Post or Wall Street Journal—the top handful of organizations with global reach—and brutal if you are in a second-tier organization.
And long gone is the old pattern in which people who got hired at a leading media outlet could expect to remain employed there for decades doing mostly the same job. Those who do stay with an employer for a long time tend to do so by adjusting to changing strategies and ways of working; those who fail to adjust are likely to find themselves laid off.
I've had to pay close attention to these changes in my industry for existential reasons. But the more I've spoken with people in other industries, the more I've been struck that people who seek a well-paying, professional-track career in nearly every sector are grappling with the same challenges: reinvention of business models due to digital technology; the rise of a handful of successful "superstar" firms; and rapidly changing understandings around loyalty and the level of mutual commitment to the employee-employer relationship.