Leaving Academia For BuzzFeed: Six Months Later

Academia taught me how to do one thing well. It wasn't until recently that I understood how well it prepared me to do another.

At this time last year, my entire body was tensed with a mix of anticipation and stress. I started taking melatonin because every time I woke up in the middle of the night, my brain would run wild with thoughts of the future. I lost weight; I drank a lot of white wine; I fought a losing battle to distract myself. I was delirious with hope and fear.

I was deep in the muck of the Academic Job Market.

That experience — which stretches around six months and psychologically paralyzes nearly all of its participants — did not end well. I lost one job I was certain would be mine; I lost another that could have been. I submitted nearly 50 applications and waited, slowly melting into an Anne-shaped puddle of despair.

I had a Ph.D. and nearly 10 years of teaching experience. Yet I also had no discernable job skills outside of being an academic. In this, I wasn’t alone: Whether you blame the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the corporatization of the university, or the adjunctication of the workforce, for most, the horror of the humanities job market is unending.

But then a confluence of opportunities led me elsewhere: I Left Academia for BuzzFeed. Here’s how all that feels, six months later.

On May 18, I gave my last final, flew to New York, and started work at BuzzFeed the next day. In 24 hours, my life changed completely. Everything I had done as a graduate student and professor had been preparing me for one sort of lifestyle; then I abruptly switched to another. I’d also moved from a town of 30,000 to a city of 8.4 million and nearly tripled my rent. The result should’ve been discombobulating, but it wasn’t. The reason is simple: I’m good at not being an academic because I spent so much time trying to be one.

Let me elaborate. For the vast majority of my time as an academic, I had been honing my nonacademic voice: first (for free) on my blog, then (for marginally more than free) at websites like The Hairpin, and then for a few larger publications with broad internet reach. I’d been trying to refine a writing voice that was both accessible and different, and I’d learned to produce large amounts of copy, often with very little turnaround time. Academia had inculcated me with the work ethic; when it came to writing constantly, I was fucking fit.

But I also had to prove myself. In the academic job market, you prove yourself with an exhausting two- to three-day campus visit, in which you teach a class, present your research, and try to cover your desperation with a fine sheen of aloofness.

For BuzzFeed, my tryout was a longform story about Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls, published just days before last year’s Oscars. I wrote the bulk of the piece on the way back from New Zealand, where I’d given a talk at Webstock — a crazy, SXSWi-like conference in Wellington. Over drinks, I talked with my fellow presenters about the nebulous terror of joblessness. All of them had made their home on the web through the most serendipitous of routes, but what they all had in common was clear: bravery and ridiculous work ethic. By the end of the conference, I was infused with something I’d lost: I think it was called confidence, but it was also emblazoned with something like hope.

I never expected that 6,000-word JLaw piece to garner 1.2 million views over a weeklong period. I didn’t know how my writing would look with beautiful design next to it, or how elegantly a GIF could be integrated into a section on a silent movie star. I didn’t know, in other words, what it would feel like to have someone not just publish your work, but add value to it. I also hadn’t experienced the thrill of watching a post go viral, a feeling as uniquely satisfying as it is addictive.

It would be another month until I received a job offer in the wake of that piece, but I’ll never forget the conversation I had with BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith leading up to it. He started with a barrage of questions — where I was from, where I did my graduate work — and was super curious why I insisted on saying I was from northern Idaho, instead of Idaho. “Sorry for all the questions,” he told me. “I’m just an old reporter.”

Ben also told me that I had written my own job with the Cool Girls piece, and while its parameters would also serve as my general job description — longer pieces that combine the knowledge of my Ph.D. with accessible topics — I’d also be pushed to explore outside those boundaries. I’d have a support system, but little by means of oversight. The ultimate imperative was to be awesome, and I could determine what that might look like.

Being an academic taught me that’s the type of offer to which I should say: yes.

In the six months I’ve been at BuzzFeed, I’ve written more of the standard celebrity analysis that helped me get this job, and I’ve written think pieces about breaking celebrity scandals. I’ve written about books and interviewed showrunners; I’ve written about my childhood. I’ve also created a Tinder simulation to talk about semiotics and class — something that would’ve been impossible, especially on the scale I performed, without the resources (including an art design department and data scientist colleague Jeremy Singer-Vine) and signal boost of BuzzFeed.

Academia prepared me, in various ways, to do all of that. But it never taught me to be brave about something that, to most journalists, will seem ridiculous and old hat: reporting.

Until recently, I’d never used “report” as a verb. As an academic, I collected “discourse” (just a fancy word for all that is said and recorded about a thing) in its myriad forms. Others in my discipline performed “field interviews,” which is academese for “talking to people.” I synthesized; I analyzed. But I never “reported.”

Take my BuzzFeed feature on TMZ. Much of the skeleton of that piece was present in an academic paper I published in the academic journal Television & New Media, which, like the vast majority of academic publications, is locked behind a very pricey paywall, like upwards of $40 an article paywall, like We’d Really Like You To Never Read This paywall. To write that 10,000-word piece, I’d watched a fair amount of TMZ and dug deep into its web archives, but I’d spent most of my time reading all that had been written about TMZ elsewhere — in trade publications like Advertising Age and Broadcast Engineering and in the mainstream press, from the New York Times to Slate.

I was putting together the history of TMZ, but what I was really doing was assembling a hodgepodge of how TMZ had told its own story. I read interviews with TMZ founder Harvey Levin, pieces that focused on TMZ’s partnership with Fox affiliates, and trade news that used words like “penetration rate” and “first-run syndication” and other deep-cut telecommunications industry slang. I made some observations about TMZ’s place within Time Warner, and how that differentiated it from similar publications past and present.

I turned a draft of that paper in at the end of the semester, responded to a few remarks from my professor, and submitted it to Television & New Media. After three months, I received two paragraphs of comments from peer reviewers (other academics in the field, enlisted by the journal to read the piece) advising slight revisions. Ten months later, it was published in a slim, black-and-white volume, with all of the statistics, ratings, and data claims already out of date. (To be clear, this was the quickest turnaround rate of any print academic journal that I or any of my academic friends have encountered.)

The text looked like this:

I am and was proud of that article, but my analysis was ultimately exterior: Here is a thing, and here is me looking at this thing from my observational perch. But it was that way, at least in part, out of necessity: I didn’t have the funding to go to L.A. and dig around, and queries from academics only intermittently yield results.

Contrast that process with what I did, nearly five years later, at BuzzFeed: I emailed and LinkedIn-messaged and called nearly 100 past and present employees. I went to L.A., drove all over town to meet various ex-employees, and scouted the courthouse where TMZ employees scanned every case that went through the docket. I had to figure out how to sell who I was, and the story I was telling, in a way that made people comfortable talking to me — even off the record — because TMZ’s founder, Harvey Levin, is not only enormously powerful, but often enormously vindictive. I had to learn, in other words, how to report the shit out of the story.

But I’d never even written for a high school newspaper. When it came to journalism, I was a complete novice — a feeling that I hadn’t felt in years. As a professor, I was solid in my routines: I’d written dozens of syllabi; I knew how to prep for class and lead a discussion and grade and conference. I’d been teaching for nearly 10 years, and routines were crystallizing; jokes had been repeated for four, five years. I was comfortable, and that felt good. Suddenly I was talking on the phone constantly, and figuring out the difference between “off the record” and “on background,” and pretending like I knew what “dek” and “TK” and “PQ” were in my editor’s notes. I don’t say all of this to be cutely self-diminishing but to emphasize just how blindly I was thrashing around within a new occupation, attempting to find footholds.

It was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. During my first reporting trip to Los Angeles, I’d sink down into my Airbnb couch every night in a daze, surrounded by piles of rumpled notepad paper on which I’d attempted to keep pace with my interviewees. It felt like the first year of grad school, when I split my time feeling like an impostor and a firecracker. It felt so weirdly awesome.

I came back with 10,000 words of copy, because why wouldn’t the reported version be as lengthy as the first? My editors told me to cut 2,000 because people only read 10,000 words when the name Ta-Nehisi Coates is on the byline. I hemmed and hawed and stared at the screen and did it. They asked for a better lede. I googled “lede.” I made a better lede. Ten more people joined the Google Doc of my draft. I was fact-checked. Extensively. A lawyer vetted every word for potential libel. Four additional editors read it. I cut more extraneous words. The piece began to feel like something taut, readable, compelling in a way that nothing I’d ever written, including my much-belabored dissertation, ever had.

I sent a “No Surprises” email to TMZ to tell them everything I was alleging and chewed my fingernails for the three days they had to respond.

They didn’t. The head of our design department made a beautiful facsimile of a TMZ post. It looked like this:

The day the piece was to go up, I went to a long lunch with the former longtime editor-in-chief of Entertainment Weekly at one of the old hangouts of the magazine establishment. He had contacted me after I wrote a piece on the history of his publication — the conceit of which had started as a chapter in my dissertation and, with the help of journalism contacts, been fleshed out from theory to testament.

We talked about what magazine publishing was like in the ‘90s and in the decades preceding. I told him about TMZ and he was elated that I had compared it to Confidential, a magazine that only “old dogs” like him generally knew. He told me that I was the next generation. I told him I hadn’t earned that designation, but it felt good to be thought of that way. He politely but firmly told me I was wrong.

When I was teaching — especially at the University of Oregon and the University of Texas — my experience was always defined by limits. How many copies I could make; how much space I could take up in the shared grad student office; how little money I had for research. That’s not a problem inherent to the engaged and in-depth study of a discipline; rather, it’s born of the fundamental insecurities of academia as a contemporary institution.

Humanities academia is defined by lack and thus by its fraternal twin, desire: for jobs, sure, but also for systemic change, for less exploitative treatment of graduate students, for a staunching of the gradual adjunctification of the workforce. Operating in an atmosphere increasingly defined by limits and fear, it was no surprise that the atmosphere often felt toxic, competitive, and imbued with paranoia.

I had wonderful and supportive academic friends. But so much of what we talked about was undergirded with anger and despair. It was so difficult to keep ourselves buoyed by hope and altruism when the walls seemed to be falling down around us.

Which is why entering a landscape that is promising and productive — defined by an atmosphere of plenty, and a lack of limits — has redefined the way I approach every workday. For the first time in years, I’m not anticipating the job season and the cycle of crushing rejection that accompanied it. Freedom from fear is incredibly liberating — intellectually, psychologically, financially.

I’m well aware that even five years ago, the atmosphere within journalism resembled that of academia. But for now, my imperative for the foreseeable future remains the same as when I started: Do awesome stuff. Do it with history, do it with reporting, do it with theory, do the very best and most innovative work you can with the freedom and platform you’ve been given.

In an ideal world, that would be the same thing expected of our professors and educators: Find the most fulfilling and illuminating path, and follow the shit out of it. Ten years ago, I thought that was the path on which I was embarking. I knew there was economic and administrative red tape, but I also thought that I could will my way past it. I was wrong, and I spent a lot of time coping with the shame of that wrongness.

But six months into this Second Act, I can appreciate, in a way that I hope is instructive, the ways that the Ph.D. not only imbued me with a well of deep historical knowledge and an extensive theoretical toolbox, but an appreciation for this different set of experiences, relationships, and attitudes toward what it means to do a job well.

This essay ended a long way afield from where I intended. But then again, so did my life. Academia taught me how to do one thing well. It wasn’t until recently that I understood how well it prepared me to do another.