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How will I know if I’ve lived a good life?
Three years publishing this magazine has brought me into—and out of—existential crisis
I founded Latterly around the same time I got married. That was two countries ago. It was a baby ago. It was a president ago. I was 26 then. I’m 29 now. I can’t tell if I’m closer to the end or closer to the beginning.
But it’s got me thinking about all kinds of strange things. When I started working on this essay two weeks ago, it was a straightforward reflection on the magazine. It’s become something else. I hope it’s useful to someone.
If you don’t know what Latterly is, let me tell you that first. It's a news magazine, launched three years ago Saturday, that publishes quarterly print and web editions on human rights, politics and conflict from an international perspective. Our audience is very small but very loyal. Our writers are also loyal, even though we pay them so little. Sometimes we pay them nothing. Revenue is low: We earn just enough to cover printing, shipping and web fees.
Latterly presents a problem for me because it’s the thing I do that I’m most proud of doing, and yet it’s the only thing that doesn’t give me any income. Fine, so it’s a hobby, right?
No. It can’t be because it’s not a hobby to others. To say editing Latterly is just a hobby would discount the money our subscribers pay me. It would diminish the dead serious work of the journalists who write stories like this one for me. Or this one. Worse, it would insult the people who told their stories to those journalists: the mother whose daughter was murdered because she had the courage to live as a transgender woman in Georgia, or the Rohingya women and girls who raised their hands and let themselves be photographed, their faces glaring bravely back at those who raped them.
The difficulty is dinner parties.
“What do you do?” people ask.
How do I convey the significance of purpose I feel about Latterly? What if they find out we have so few subscribers? Won’t I look like a deluded amateur? So I could tell them about the magazines I used to write for and the economic (and other) pressures that led me to seek more lucrative forms of writing gigs, which are either kind-of-journalistic or not journalistic at all. Once, I did this and got cut down by an inadvertently malicious follow-up question: “Did you prefer being a journalist?”
“I think journalism is the only profession I’ve encountered where people hold on to the label,” a friend said after I told him my story. He said somebody he knew was weighing leaving his news organization for a communications job. The comms job was better in every way except one: “I like saying ‘I’m a journalist’ when people ask what I do.”
But when you’re a journalist without the instantly legitimizing affiliation of a recognizable brand, it’s almost better not to say you’re a journalist. Writers and other creative workers are self-conscious by nature. If your affiliations (e.g. The New York Times, Random House) don’t indicate your worth, then your sales volume had better. If you have neither, then you’re probably just somebody who works in your living room while your spouse makes most of the money and you fantasize about publishing “the big one.” It is all so pathetic, and it describes me.
So lately I’ve been asking myself some basic questions, which I’ve tried to answer through this investigation:
- What is a journalist?
- What is the goal of publishing?
- What is the goal of work?
- Who am I?
- How will I know if I’ve lived a good life?
One of my first newspaper jobs was at the Naples Daily News. I covered government and politics, which in Southwest Florida meant I covered Republicans. As a progressive, my beliefs often conflicted with those of the people I wrote about. So I worked to suppress my beliefs. Though I voted Democratic and privately cheered progressive reforms, I tried to remain publicly inscrutable. I wanted my subjects and readers to have to guess where I stood on the issues I was covering so that I could never be accused of bias.
This is how most journalists of my generation were trained to operate, but few still believe objectivity is a possible or even a worthy goal.
It’s not possible because no article is truly objective. Hard as I tried to be “balanced,” I was once accused of attending the George Soros School of Journalism. (There is no such thing, by the way.) And it’s not worthy because it causes an entire class of intelligent, informed citizens to betray their own convictions. For instance, in an article about a marriage equality event for The Boston Globe, I deliberately gave one or two extra quotes to the “traditional marriage” people I talked to. I was trying to compensate for my own bias and ended up overcompensating. The editor caught it and balanced the story out.
But that balance was also wrong. The opinions of those who oppose equal rights are defective opinions. They result from misinformation, cultural brainwashing, and hatred. Balancing those opinions against the fact that governments must protect everyone’s human rights equally would be like quoting Alabamans in a Roy Moore story saying having sex with children is no big deal.
Well, The New York Times still does that, treating deranged school principals amorally, like the subjects of an anthropological study.
Journalism itself is a moral calling. At the very least, a journalist hates secrets and loves transparency, hates lies and loves the truth, hates abuses of power and loves democratic self-governance. A journalist hates waste (especially of taxpayer money), corruption and censorship. Even if a journalist limits their opinions to these, they’ve already staked out a position. On these ethical principles, they will not be objective. So why stop there? Why not affirm one’s stance in other realms of decency?
A journalist may also reject violence, inequality, injustice and hatred in all its forms. These values may lead them to strong progressive political beliefs. If that journalist conceals those beliefs, aren’t they keeping secrets? Isn’t that un-journalistic?
What if a journalist can’t survive on a meager freelance salary and has to make ends meet with corporate copywriting? Does that disqualify their reporting on Haitian politics or famine in Yemen? I don’t see why it should if the reporting is fair and accurate.
What if a journalist uses their skills to expose corruption and human rights abuses for an employer that is not a news organization, like Transparency International or Human Rights Watch? As recently as a few months ago, you could have counted me among the purists. I would have told you a person who works for a human rights NGO can’t be a journalist because their employer’s goals are not the same as the public’s goals. How, I would have asked, can I trust that a writer working for Doctors Without Borders wouldn’t skew information to make their employer look better or to further certain institutional objectives?
But that doesn’t make any sense. Doctors Without Borders is a nonprofit that wants to make sick people feel better. UNHCR, to give another example, protects refugees. I know people on the communications teams of both organizations and have worked with them. Most used to be reporters and editors for top news outlets. So what makes the information coming from Tronc or Dow Jones or, for that matter, the Church of Christ, Scientist, or the BBC (subject to regulation by the British government) more legitimate? It seems to me the definition of journalism should have more to do with the work (that is, the product and the way it was produced) than the employer or the entity that commissioned it.
But this is the cult of the journalist. Narrowly defining who is and is not a journalist is our own way of protecting the prestige of our trade. We don’t have a bar or a board to certify our ability to practice. All we have is a “society” that anyone can join for $75 and a few bedraggled unions, powerless to keep our companies from consolidating and strangling us.
Want to know who’s a journalist? Here’s how you can tell:
Read their work.
Is it accurate and fair to the subjects? Is it thoroughly researched and cited? Does it educate and empower? Is it created primarily for the benefit of you, the reader, and not for someone or something else?
Read their work. You’ll know if the author is a journalist.
Latterly was supposed to be the next Vox or Vice. I drew a lot of inspiration from other publishing startups, like The Magazine, Matter and Narratively. (Only the latter remains.) We got a lot of great press and some critical press and a tweet in which one of my idols, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gene Weingarten, told me “you could be idiots.”
In a way, Gene was right. The principles were good. But the founder is an idiot. I still have no clue how to run a business. Subscriptions stopped growing years ago. New fans start reading at the same rate old ones drop off. Marketing is impossible for me. I have never been able to take a salary from Latterly. I haven’t run the numbers, but I’ve probably sunk a few thousand dollars of my own money into the enterprise. And as you can see, I’m not a very good spokesman; a reporter interviewing me for a story once told me I might be “a little too candid.”
My wife gets on my case when I say Latterly is a failure. Failed businesses don’t keep going, she says. You’re not defining success the right way.
It may be necessary in this era to define a different measure of success for the publishing industry. If profitability and consistent revenue growth are the indicators, few publishers are successful anymore. The New York Times Co. earns half what it did 10 years ago, but you wouldn’t call The New York Times a failure. In that sense, we already rate a publication’s success in terms beyond its finances, such as quality, reach and influence. As a recent study sought to illustrate, that small, independent press can have a large influence without having a large circulation. There are thousands of publications out there, beloved by many, that I’ve never even heard of. In another life, Latterly might have been one of them.
Every quarter, after we release an issue, Stefano, my business manager, and I check in with each other to see if we want to keep doing this magazine. First we compare the money coming in with the money going out to see if there’s even funding for it. If there is, we audit our morale. The last time we did this, we agreed Latterly was not an efficient use of our time financially.
“But some inefficiency is OK?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, “as long as it is soul efficient.”
“That is, as long as the compensation to the soul is fair.”
Human activity could be divided into three categories:
- Leisure, which is done for its own sake (an end in itself)
- Work which is performed for the sake of some other objective—e.g. to buy food, to provide for kids
- Work which is a combination of the two: performed for its own sake as well as some other objective
Very few jobs in developed countries do not offer some non-financial reward to those who do them. My mom worked on highway construction sites while I was growing up: shoveling dirt, pouring asphalt, directing traffic. It was hard work. To me, it sounds horrible. But to people like my mom, who appreciate the beauty of a well-built road, there’s the satisfaction of creation.
Some jobs are more soul efficient than others. Corporate defense attorneys, for example, probably do not enter the law profession eager to shield pharmaceutical companies from justice when their drugs kill people. But the money is surreal, and legal disputation is at least interesting. When I’ve been in groups of lawyers, the conversation has almost never centered on the nature of the work itself.
In groups of nurses, humanitarians, journalists and computer programmers, however, they speak passionately about every detail of the work. It seems likely they would continue to work in these fields even if they were rich enough not to have to.
And this is the nut of the problem: If the work is essential to you but you aren’t rich and you aren’t being paid enough to cover your expenses, then you are faced with an existential dilemma. Plenty of professionals are facing this kind of crisis, including journalists, rural family physicians and public defenders.
There’s a history to this problem. It has to do with the power we’ve ceded to others to control our manner of productive activity. Bertrand Russell, in his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” explains how this happened:
Imagine an early agricultural community. Things were peaceful. Everyone worked as much as they needed to sustain their families and no more. But then a few people decided they didn’t want to work at all and found it easier to terrorize the community, forcing them to produce more and stealing the surplus. As generations passed, the non-working class realized terror was inefficient. It was easier to propagate an invented notion: the “work ethic.”
“To this day, 99 percent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man,” Russell wrote. “The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”
The Industrial Revolution was like steroids for this arrangement. The manufacturing economy divided Western humanity into two rigid classes: those who owned factories and those who worked in them. But throughout the middle of the century, an intermediary class of white-collar and knowledge workers began to emerge: people who performed services, required certification and commanded higher salaries. In reality, this middle class was hardly better situated than the manual laborers below them because their productive work was still performed in the service of the owners who employed them. But their new wealth and leisure time provided the illusion of economic freedom. Feeling financially stable, they had no more need for unions (those communist insurgencies) and sided with the upper class in dismantling them.
Journalism, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, was a low-skilled profession. In the eyes of those who owned printing presses, there wasn’t much difference between those who operated the machinery and those who came up with things to print. But as publicists and ad men professionalized, journalists sought to do the same. Schools of journalism were established. Eventually, the owners broke up the journalists’ unions, too.
Today, it seems to me there are still only two groups: owners and workers, plus a third group whose members don’t realize they’re just workers. The owner class today may be broader, comprising not only those who own factories but those who control sufficient assets that they will never have to work. Workers are those who feel the precariousness of their situation—as well as those who are precarious but don’t realize it: the lawyer associates, accountants, nurses, and even surgeons whose jobs could be eliminated as soon as their employers determine computers had become sufficiently advanced to replace them. As machine learning develops, more groups will face the same existential dilemma all journalists are facing now.
There’s a belated unionization drive happening now in the media industry. The Writers Guild of America, East, the NewsGuild and others have been rallying journalists at major media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and Vox.
But there are still people persuaded by the “work ethic.”
The goal of work, in the attainable sense envisioned by these unions, is that there may be no “goal” and that the activity should be an end in itself, economically feasible for those who practice it.
About the existential dilemma journalists face.
If journalism is one of these soul-compensating activities, a kind of work performed by practitioners for its own sake, and if journalists aren’t permitted by their employer-owners to work the way they desire—if they’re permitted to work at all—then what becomes of the frustrated journalist? What kind of a person are they?
Say you work for 30 years as a journalist. More than half your waking hours have been dedicated to journalistic activity. You consider “journalist” to be your essential quality, and this is how others define you as well. Then your company lays off a third of the staff, and you’re one of the expensive old staffers that gets shit canned. You receive an undignifying severance, and in three months you’re forced to take the only job you can find, as a publicist for a brand of telephones. Your essence has been stripped away. Is it replaced with a new essence? That of the telephone publicist? Of course not. This new activity is foreign and imposed.
Rather, you and everybody else was wrong about your essence in the first place. Journalist was your adjective, not your noun.
Your identity is the sum of your thoughts and actions. Your identity is also the thousands of ways others perceive you. (It may also be how computers perceive you based on the constructed self you present online, but that’s for another essay.)
Your essence, therefore, is whatever you endeavor to make it. And so long as an economic system circumscribes our freedom, contentment may depend upon an elastic sense of self.
Some people are more free than others. Economic impotence is bondage. It affects most people, to greater or lesser degrees. Because of these unequal constraints on our freedom, it’s not possible to judge “a good life” against a single standard.
Nihilists say it’s not useful to qualify life at all, regarding it instead as a mere biological state—upon which our species is cursed with the ability to reflect. I think of Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. The final scene is like watching a wave of sadness devour your happy thoughts. A voice narrates:
What was once before you, an exciting and mysterious future, is now behind you: lived, understood, disappointing.
You realize you are not special.
You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it.
This is everyone’s experience.
Every single one.
The specifics hardly matter.
Everyone is everyone.
So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen.
All her meager sadnesses are yours.
But I believe the specifics matter a great deal. The curse of self-awareness creates the conditions for deep emotional pain. For example, a cruel, offhand remark may live inside the memory of its victim for decades. And it will have been one meager sadness that could have been averted.
Maybe you aren’t as special as you think, but you are special.
You’re special because you retain a specific kind of power to affect every other person. This power varies from person to person in potency and effect. My power to affect my 1-year-old daughter is almost godlike in strength, reaching into every aspect of her life at this stage. My power over you, stranger reading this, is weak but important; and by granting me your attention you’ve altered me in another kind of way.
This power to manipulate the lives of others confers a binding responsibility on each of us to enrich rather than destroy. The duty applies to our whole selves, and not only in certain roles. People who make a living at the expense of others will have to reckon with their choices at the end, if they permit themselves to dwell.
Kaufman allows some light at the end of Synecdoche, a flicker of dialogue that seems to suggest he agrees with me.
In the scene, a dying son approaches a mother. He asks:
Would you sit with me for a moment? Because I’m very tired and… and lonely. There’s everyone’s dreams in all those apartments. All those thoughts I’ll never know. That’s the truth of it.
The son thinks back to a promise he made to the mother. That he would take his daughter on a picnic. He never did.
I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter… I feel like I’ve disappointed you terribly.
He begins to cry, and the mother clutches him, looking warmly into his eyes.
Oh, no. I am so proud of you.
You may pave a good road. You may write an important article. You may win justice for a deserving client. You may produce a magazine which doesn’t make you money but represents something good in the world. You may teach love to your child.
You will disappoint and be disappointed, too. That’s another truth of it.
There’s a moment in life with no metaphorical equivalent. It is raw and charged with despair. It is the moment before a natural death. I’ve been in that room twice. Weakness reduces the dying person to an elemental core: a heartbeat, a spasming diaphragm and, before the drugs fully take hold, a head full of thoughts. The loved ones gathered are thinking about their life with the dying person and also wondering what the person is thinking about.
Do they regret?
Do they fear?
Someday you may be that person on the bed slipping in and out of consciousness as your organs die one by one and your lips chap with thirst. Your head will swim in drug-induced nonsense, but occasionally your consciousness will come up for air, begging to live.
And in that moment, someone may touch your hair with immeasurable love and say into your ear, “I am so proud of you.”
And you’ll know.