Answering the Next Generation's Question
Every morning, seven days a week, I get up at an absurdly early hour, put on a pot of coffee and begin to write. I have been doing this for more than 40 years. It's part of my DNA, and I'd do it whether I was paid or not.
Fortunately, for most of my working life, I have been paid well for writing. That changed this year. The bottom has fallen out for those of us who pursue creative enterprises.
On the first sign of trouble, businesses fire the writers. They see us as a frivolous expense. For many of these businesses, good writing—a "good story, well told," we like to say—is all they have to sell. But they don't understand that and, to be honest, most of these businesses are not worth saving anyway. It has always been and probably always will be that way.
One of the interesting things about getting older and having survived as a freelancer is that younger people ask for advice. In these tough economic times, I've gotten many more inquiries than usual from college-aged students anticipating careers in film, television, journalism and writing.
These young people are studying hard and acquiring the skills of the trade, but don't see the jobs. The rapid transitions in technology scare many of them. They seek honest advice about what to do next, something they are not getting from potential employers.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We are in perhaps the most difficult period for the business side of all media—including motion pictures, television, and journalism—in more than half a century.
WHY THE CHANGE?
It helps to understand the reason for the turmoil. One is a cruel side effect of the shift from analog to digital technology. Digital is a disruptive technology. It's a game changer. What's changing is all traditional media as we know it.
Physical media—including printed paper, film stock, vinyl records, CDs and DVDs—is disappearing. All this "stuff" is being replaced by digital files. While the file types change depending on the kind of media, they are all essentially ones and zeros.
The manufacturing cost has been erased. Anyone, even a kid at the kitchen table, can create digital files. This shift from analog to digital technology has been going on for more than a decade, but this year the effects really hit home.
Much of the calamity was fueled by the poor economy. Media companies tried to grow too fast. Many lost sight of their core journalistic mission. They consolidated and ate their young. Many mortgaged themselves over the top. Now, with ad revenue down, they are paying the price.
When they pay the price, their workers get laid off. Everyone, of course, knows that has been happening for a long time. There are fewer jobs out there now and employers are paying less—much less. Barely a living wage.
In fact, I often hear of people taking jobs that pay less than what I was paid for entry-level media jobs in the 1970s. There are always the exceptions, but the fact is there are very few good media jobs anymore.
So what is a smart, enterprising young person to do? I'll offer an answer, but many will find it frivolous—especially those seeking the financial security of the past. Sorry, but I think the era of high wages in media businesses is mostly over. That went with the analog past.
JUST SAY 'NO'
My suggestion is to tell these traditional media companies "no." Choose not to work for low wages, or to "intern" with big name conglomerates. You will be wasted learning useless information and will spend the most productive years of your life defending the past rather than planning for the future. This doesn't apply to every job, mind you, but to most.
It's important to understand there is real opportunity out there and it's available now. Virtually all the media playing fields have been leveled. The CEO of a major media corporation has no more of a track record today in new media than a kid in college.
Most of the leaders of old media companies don't know or understand new media and are quietly trying to maintain a delicate balancing act. Most, in the end, will fail and they deserve to do so.
In fact, it was kids in college who invented some of today's top media businesses. Mark Zuckerberg and his college friends at Harvard invented Facebook, now with more than 300 million users worldwide. No media executive with traditional experience could have conceived of an enterprise like Facebook.
I got an e-mail recently from a film student at the University of Colorado. He wrote that he's "sick to death" of today's media climate. "Sick of being around people content to make Spiderman 35; sick of people who care so much about the newest HD camera that they forget all about the narrative (or even the frame); sick of the way the so-called 'future' of the art feels." Then, he added, "The only other thing I've ever been good at is writing."
My answer to this student is to pay attention to the writing, his core strength. Well-crafted words are the centerpiece of all media and very few know how to write well.
But he should also acknowledge the things he's already learning—video production, audio production, still photography and the processes that tie them all together. By having skills in each area, he can become a producer of multimedia with working knowledge of all the basics.
Then, turn to the Internet, the world's largest free media platform, to use those skills to create something unique. One can easily reach millions with the right combination of words, pictures and sounds.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
What kind of media should the newcomer produce? Ah, that's the hard part. Whatever makes you tick is my answer. Just look at all the junk around you on television, in movies and on the Internet. You think most of it is trash? Good, because it is! Recognize that fact. Then do something unique and original that interests you.
The big difference today is you're probably not going to be paid for your work in the beginning. That's just a fact of life of living in our time. However, the tools of production have never been cheaper and distribution is essentially free. If you create something enough people want to experience, you will get paid. It's all very democratic.
Today, we live in a world of independents. It doesn't matter where you live. The New York-L.A. media hubs long ago dissipated. Unless you have the connections to get a very good job, media professionals are better off working in independent groups to create media directly for audiences. It may mean taking a non-media job to support your habit, but so be it.
Rather than being discouraged about the future of media, young people should be optimistic about the unique time they live in. It's a time to think boldly and creatively and ignore the old media that's gradually dying around you.
In the 1970s, when small-format video was just beginning, the possibilities available today are something we dreamed of. It took another 40 years for the opportunities to actually arrive.
Your timing is very lucky. You are in on the ground floor of something extraordinarily new. Build the next generation of media while you have the chance. Seize the opportunity now.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York City. Visit his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com