Anyone who has ever worked retail or food service jobs (raises hand) or droll office jobs (raises other hand) has a solid baseline against which to assess their current job. Former Deadspin editor David Roth worked enough dead-end jobs in what he calls a “fluorescent mehscape of anoffice” to know when he found great media jobs, but even those soured or squeezed him out, and he ended up basically where he began: at the mercy of other people and forces he could not control. For Hazlitt, Roth writes about the media plague that was known as “pivoting to video,” a plague he both contracted and unwittingly became the face of for a short time.
Facebook lied about the demand for video content. Many websites listened to Zuck’s overinflated numbers and replaced writing with video. Many writers like Roth suffered, and it’s still unclear how much video people even want to watch online. Sure, media is a fickle industry. Things change constantly. Great jobs end. Writers and editors struggle to find new ones and wonder if this one should be their last media job before they pivot entirely to different professions like advertising or nursing, because damn, dude, you’re getting old, and media’s getting even tougher than it already was. Thankfully for readers, Roth has stayed in media. He’s as incisive as he is hilarious, breaking down the dark comedy of media work in the internet era and his own wonky place in it. His sentences are killers and all the more proof that we need him publishing. “Much of my job,” he writes, “there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day.” But even in that grim environment, he found reasons to work hard and take pride in his projects.
My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken.
Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good.