Topic A in Rapidly Shrinking Medialand: What's Your Plan B?

In the Midst of Seismic Shifts in the Industry, It's Not Just About Job Loss; This Is a Full-Blown Identity Crisis

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A famous newspaper columnist calls me to seek deep background about a company I used to work for, but instead we mostly end up talking about how much we're worrying about our newly unemployed media-world friends. Over coffee, an influential blogger tells me he's relieved his paycheck still clears, and then speaks of a depressed former colleague who, laid off and unable to find work, moved back in with his mother. An agency executive tells me of the "morgue-like" atmosphere in his newly downsized division. A former editor of mine, unceremoniously released from his gilded cage at Condé Nast, calls to tell me he's thinking of abandoning his two-decade career in magazines altogether, since there are simply no jobs to be found. Another famous newspaper columnist tells me that Topic A in his newsroom is, "What's your Plan B?"

Land of the Lost: Hey, dinosaurs! Run for your lives! (To where, we're not sure.)
Land of the Lost: Hey, dinosaurs! Run for your lives! (To where, we're not sure.)
It's all very "Groundhog Day": the same conversation over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the story that dominated the top spot in the "Most-Read" list last week at AdAge.com: "Ad Industry Cut Another 18,700 Jobs in December."

A lot of us have been through media- and marketing-industry downturns before -- post-9/11, in the aftermath of the bursting of the first dot-com bubble, in the early '90s -- but this is, of course, something of a vastly different order. The mad rush of downsizing at some media companies and agencies has almost begun to feel like an emergency evacuation, as if wildfires have engulfed the surrounding fields -- which leaves those not (yet) told to leave the building wondering if the place will burn down around them.

Or, as Gawker Media owner Nick Denton has put it: This is "an extinction-level event." (How surreal it was, then, to read last week in Washington Square News, via Jim Romenesko's blog, that New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson told a New York University audience, "Call newspapers dinosaurs if you like, but remember that dinosaurs roamed the Earth for millions of years." Um, OK. Somehow the newsflash that a comet has hit the Earth hasn't quite reached the Times newsroom, despite ad revenue at the paper having plummeted nearly 20% in the past two years and digital revenue starting to crater. And I don't remember reading about dinosaurs having to borrow, at 14% interest, hundreds of millions from a dubious Mexican billionaire to meet their debt obligations.)

It's akin, I suppose, to living in Detroit and having proudly thought of yourself as an autoworker your whole life, but now you're not anymore, so what are you left with? The difference is that while politicians and economists are talking about investing in a radical rethinking of America's car-manufacturing infrastructure, there are effectively no new ideas on the horizon for rescuing the media business. (How heartbreaking to see Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, the former editor of Time, holding out the metaphorical tin cup, begging for consumers' spare change on the cover of his old magazine last week by attempting to revive the micropayments-for-news-stories idea from last century.) When it comes to the auto industry, at least, there remains a basic article of faith: People still need to get from Point A to Point B, and when their current vehicles wear out, they'll still have to pay for some kind of mechanical conveyance, whether powered by biodiesel or batteries or whatever. Workers somewhere -- maybe not Detroit, but somewhere -- will still get paid to make those vehicles.

But in media, the faith is gone. Because of the likes of Arianna Huffington (business model: bloggers should work for free!). And the managers at the Metro newspaper in Toronto (which, as we learned last week, is using unpaid interns to do the work that unionized staffers used to do). And, especially, Google: The specter of algorithms that measure and manipulate the clicking behavior of consumers -- all of us reduced to Pavlov's dogs -- rapidly replacing Madison Avenue's creative efforts to position products and communicate brand value.

What's my point? I guess I'm trying to remember that I love "my people" -- the creative types in media and marketing with whom I've worked my entire adult life. All of you. All the creative misfits. The bona fide geniuses but also the cockeyed blowhards (hello, Peter Arnell, with your "breathtaking" Pepsi logo!) that keep American media culture -- life in general -- interesting.

As much as I worry about us, I also believe in us. If I have any sort of media faith left, it's that, while there are clearly many companies and business models that are dinosaurs, we ourselves are not -- our creativity itself is not -- doomed to extinction.

So I turn to you, beloved reader, at this existential moment -- this mass identity crisis for tens of thousands of media and marketing workers -- and ask: Who are you? If you're still in it -- still fighting the good fight -- well, why? How do you rethink or redefine your personal reality, not only in a major downturn but in the midst of seismic shifts that conspire to rob you of the basis for your professional identity?

And if you've got a Plan B, does it still allow you to be who you thought you were?

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E-mail me or leave a comment below. I'll quote from the responses in a future column.

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