Streams

Laid Off Media Workers Pick up the Pieces

Sunday, December 21, 2008

For several years, book publishers, newspapers and magazines have struggled to stay profitable. Now it looks like they are losing that struggle. Publisher Houghton Mifflin has stopped buying manuscripts. The Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy. And the mighty New York Times is so squeezed it’s taking out a big loan against the value of its corporate headquarters. When WNYC’s Ilya Marritz caught up with some laid off media types at a holiday party in the East Village this week, he found they are not optimistic their jobs will come back.

REPORTER: Even after Wall Street imploded, Stuart Miller thought he had dodged the bullet.

MILLER: In September October when the meltdown was happening and John McCain was rushing back to Washington, I was thinking, Wow am I just immune to this? I was busy, I had so much work, and it was great.

REPORTER: And then, at the end of October, Miller heard rumors of cutbacks at the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s biggest newspaper. Miller had been a regular contributor to the arts section, and had a great relationship with the editor.

MILLER: I called her up panicked, said what does this mean? She said, well, there might be a buyout.

REPORTER: It turned out the Star-Ledger was slashing its staff by nearly half, and Miller’s editor did indeed take a buyout. The spigot was shutting off.

MILLER: She’ll be leaving at the end of the year. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I suspect there will be lots of wire copy.

REPORTER: Miller says everywhere he turns, assignments are drying up.

MILLER: My editors are either saying we have no budget for this year or we may have no budget for next year or they’ve been bought out and are losing their jobs.

REPORTER: And so Stuart Miller finds himself at a bar in the east village, drinking pink vodka and mingling with other unemployed and underemployed journalists. It’s a holiday party for a new group, ASSME.

REPORTER: ASSME?

GELL: ASSME. The American Society of S***tcanned media elites.

REPORTER: Founder and president Aaron Gell.

Gell started ASSME just a few weeks ago, after he was pink slipped from the pop culture magazine Radar, where he was executive editor. Gell says Radar filled a niche by mocking celebrities, and the magazines that fawn over them. But in October Radar’s funders saw an economic tsunami coming, and pulled out their cash.

GELL: It’s the usual story, they call you into the conference room…

GARRY: So we walk in there’s all these fat guys in leather trenchcoats.

REPORTER: Former Radar photo director Greg Garry.

GARRY And they were like you have to pack up your stuff and be out by three o clock. I’m like, I have 2 and a half years of memories to pack up! It was fine though whatever. It’s never pretty, it’s better when it’s quick and painless.

REPORTER: All across the city, editors are cleaning out their offices and photo directors are turning off lightboxes. The media portal Mediabistro.com says new job listings are down about 30 percent since September.

The reason so many media outlets are shutting down? As the economy has soured, companies have stopped buying advertising. Ads are the oxygen magazines and newspapers need to breathe…and so they’re choking.

Publicist Shawna Seldon used to count Radar Magazine as one of her clients. Now she’s representing ASSME pro bono.

SELDON: I am so worried about my business and the economy.

REPORTER: Nine years ago, when Seldon started in PR, almost all of her clients were magazines. Today?

SELDON: Now I actually have no print media outlets.

REPORTER: American Society of…you know what founder Aaron Gell, and the rest of his team know how to book a bar, get a liquor sponsor, snag a free publicist, and make a great event. They just don’t know what they’re going to do next.

REPORTER: Do you think you’ll work at a magazine again?

GELL: Uh, I’d like to. Maybe I’ll work at ASSME the Magazine.

REPORTER: Anyway, he’s identified a growing market for it: unemployed journalists.

For WNYC, I’m Ilya Marritz.

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