Afew months ago, I was invited to give a lecture to students in a publishing and editing program. My proposed talk was about digital media: the churn and instability of it and how an editor can steer through those currents. I planned to be realistic but forward looking about the challenges facing contemporary journalism—I wasn’t going to stand up there and tell the students they should quit before they even started trying.

Then, weeks before the lecture, the digital magazine I’d been working for was shuttered. I still delivered the talk as planned, albeit with the uncanny sense of attending my own wake. During the Q&A, the first student to raise their hand didn’t ask about the future of media or sustainable funding models or pitching advice. They asked: “So what are you doing for money now?”

I mean, fair. That probably should be the first question you ask when you’re paying five figures for a very specialized degree while watching the bridge to the professional world crumble in front of you. Rather than spend their program preparing for a future in media, these students were studying its erosion in real time. Can you imagine how demoralizing that must be? As if that weren’t enough, now the magazine professional who’d been invited to give their annual lecture didn’t even have a magazine job anymore. This is why I tried to be sympathetic to the more prurient-seeming questions, like when another student asked whether I’d have taken the position if I’d known how the story would end or, if at this point, I simply considered mass layoffs “par for the course.”

Those students’ chilling questions—and the generation of aspiring journalists they speak for—were on my mind when two prominent outlets announced significant reductions in their workforce on the same day in April: BuzzFeed shut down its Pulitzer Prize–winning news desk, and Insider announced it would cut its staff by 10 percent. Not two weeks later, Vice fired a portion of its staff and was reportedly preparing to file for bankruptcy. (At the time of writing, they’re looking for a buyer.) Then, on May 9, 25 percent of employees were let go across Showtime, Paramount Media Networks, and MTV Entertainment Studios, a move that included the shutdown of MTV News. Every round of layoffs is a travesty, but the BuzzFeed News news—and everything that’s followed—feels particularly upsetting. The generation of online publications that were once heralded as the future of media is vanishing at a terrifying rate despite having set the tone in which much of traditional media now speaks. These closures represent a tremendous loss not only of talent but also of critical onramps into the industry: places that aren’t cordoned off by house voices and legacy branding and where writers can pursue their hobby horses, land a first byline, or break bad on social media. Where being subversive or pioneering or niche is the point. The thinning conversation means readers lose out too. It feels like there are almost no places online to have fun anymore, let alone get a job.

BuzzFeed News joins a growing number of outlets that have gone under in the past year, many of which prioritized essays, cultural criticism, and books coverage—common inroads for emerging writers. Aside from its award-winning investigative work, the BuzzFeed News culture desk took pop culture and criticism seriously. It was the place where I landed one of my earliest and most consequential bylines, and where I had space to think through ideas nobody else was talking about but that blossomed into a robust social media conversation and helped shift the tenor of my career. (My first shot at writing for The Walrus came about in part because I could point to credits I’d already accumulated in outlets—American ones, notably—like BuzzFeed News and Vice.) These are the kinds of opportunities being made scarce by the closures—along with, of course, stable employment.

Though the problem is accelerating, it isn’t new. In 2018, the year I finished grad school (not in journalism) and entered the job market, Pew Research Center reported that 14 percent of the biggest digital-native news outlets went through layoffs—as well as about 25 percent of US newspapers. BuzzFeed alone has undergone a near-annual sequence of “shifts,” “pivots,” and “restructures” that culminated in last month’s decision. I used to worry that I’d tried to sneak into the industry too late, after the venture capital–backed media boom had slowed and the personal essay had supposedly died and the scam of “pivot to video” had curtailed opportunities even further. Those hurdles are nothing compared to what aspiring journalists are facing now.

As the ice floe keeps shrinking, watching the cycle play out feels increasingly grim. Online, writers and editors trade condolences, often in lieu of being able to offer one another anything more concrete, like work opportunities. In the past, “when people would get laid off everyone would be like ‘hire them!’” tweeted writer Sarah Hagi after the BuzzFeed announcement. “[N]ow nobody does that bc there are no jobs.” There are also fewer places to pitch. Sonia Weiser, a writer who collects submissions calls in the newsletter Opportunities of the Week, announced on Twitter that there were no longer “enough freelance opportunities to warrant sending out the newsletter twice per week.” I, too, have had a taste of this sudden chill. A couple times in the past month, in response to pitches I sent out, I’ve gotten back that old editorial chestnut: Best of luck placing this elsewhere. What used to scan as pro forma politeness has soured into something like sadism. Because there isn’t much elsewhere left.

The phrase “end of an era” has been thrown around a lot in the past few weeks as an imprecise descriptor of media companies downsizing and shuttering. It’s been used to proclaim various deaths, from the relationship between news and social media to the idea that digital-first outlets like BuzzFeed News and Vice represented a legitimate challenge to fusty old legacy media. But what’s truly ended is something more fundamental. It goes down to the bedrock of journalism as a career—even as an idea or desire. What are journalists, both would-be and employed, supposed to aspire to now? Of course, there will always be people who luck into the rare staid post and can stagnate there for decades. But the unbroken arc of a career seems more and more like an outdated model, especially when you look back on your resume and realize it’s all a bunch of sunken ships and dead links. “There will always be stories that need assigning,” I told the students in my lecture, “always be an audience who needs something to read.” I still believe that’s true. But with the industry being what it is, career seems like the wrong framework—it’s more like a monetized hobby.

It’s a bleak situation that serves neither readers nor writers. I was just about to get in touch with the BuzzFeed News culture desk too. I’d been thinking about pitching them a new idea—one of their editors had sent me a kind note a couple months back, right after I lost my job.

Tajja Isen
Tajja Isen is a contributing writer for The Walrus.