What I’m Thankful For

Here is what I am thankful for. It’s not the only thing I’m thankful for. It’s not what I’m most thankful for. But it is something I’m very thankful for and it is the thing I’m thankful for that relates directly to this site. So this seems like the place to give thanks.

From the later years of high school I wanted to be an historian. I stuck to that goal more or less through college and enrolled in a history PhD program a year after I graduated. I went on, through a circuitous path, to get my PhD. But about two years into that program I realized that being an academic would not work for me. At first I wasn’t sure whether it was a journalist, let alone a reporter, I wanted to be. What I wanted to be was a writer, writing for a general audience about contemporary politics and culture. I found my way into working for a small political magazine. I wrote there. I wrote for other publications. By and large I was making a decent showing.

In those days mainly I wanted to be a magazine writer. But you write what you’re given the opportunity to write. So I wrote magazine articles, reported magazine articles. I wrote newspaper opinion pieces. I wrote quick reported articles for online publications, then still in their infancy in the late 90s and very early aughts. I was good at it. But I wasn’t that good at it. That part was a fact – at least a fact based on all the evidence I had at hand. But what I felt was that I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be (or thought I could be) because I couldn’t get the chance to write things just as I wanted to.

Every writer thinks this at some level because an editor, by their nature, stops you from doing things exactly the way you want or at least exactly the way you wanted to on the first go. That’s a feature and not a bug. A good editor helps you to be a better writer by helping you to see that there are ways to do and be better than the way you thought to do it on the first go. A good editor is in a kind of loving war with a writer’s ego. And every writer has at least a decent sized ego because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have started down the path of thinking the things in their head are things other people need to know.

Still, I thought I did know more. Or, rather, I thought that if I could just get a clean shot at writing in the way I wanted, about the things I wanted to write about and making the arguments I wanted to make that I could be as good as I wanted to be or thought I was. Then, I thought, I could get some traction and a following.

I did not start TPM thinking that was what would happen or not in the way that it did. I had watched one journalist who started a blog a year before and another who started a few months before me. Those were the only two I knew existed. The style of writing looked liberating, freed from all manner of formats and genres that seemed arbitrary and confining. When I started my own – 17 years ago as of November 13th – that’s just how it felt.

The key was that I found an audience. I don’t know whether that was because I found an audience or that I was in two way communication with an audience in a way that I could never be at a primarily print publication or one that wasn’t designed to facilitate two way communication. Regardless, I had a place to write the way I thought I should write. I had a blank slate, an open canvas.  I had an audience – minuscule at first but still vital and it felt like it was growing. That allowed me to experiment and develop that way of writing, my way of writing.

In the first years of writing TPM, I made no money. It didn’t occur to me it could be a way to make money. I told myself I was putting the time into it as a way to build what we’d now call my ‘brand’. In building my brand I’d get more magazine commissions and assignments. I saw it as a time-sink loss leader for my professional reputation which might make it possible, eventually, to succeed as a magazine writer. Or at least that’s the way I justified it to myself. And justifying was important because I was into my early 30s and at least on paper had accomplished very little. Since I was making no money other than the money I was making with spotty and stingy freelance assignments, which was next to nothing, a couple times I had to borrow $500 from my Dad. That was difficult because I wasn’t 22, let alone in college, and hadn’t finished the PhD I was supposed to finish and had to face – though he didn’t say so explicitly and didn’t need to – that I needed to figure out if my plan to ever get my shit together was going to pan out. That was hard.

But really the loss leader idea was an explanation rather than a reason. I did it because I liked doing it. I found it irresistible. Eventually, after two or three years, it did start making money. Within a year of that spigot turning on I was making more than I had in the magazine job – which I quit a few months after starting TPM, just ahead of getting fired. Eventually, I was making a comfortable living and I stopped writing anywhere else.

Jack Shafer says he doesn’t buy journalists’ gratitude. He has a column out this week in which he playfully pillories the Times for a marketing campaign in which its prestige reporters send subscribers notes testifying to their appreciation. Here’s a bit from this classic Shafer column.

These corporate blandishments sound wrong coming from journalists because we’ve been trained to regard them as cynical, independent, defiant-of-authority cusses—which they are. The idea that a journalist—especially a Times journalist—might be grateful to his readers doesn’t pass the stink test because almost to a one, journalists feel entitled. They think they’ve got a right to their jobs and that if the river of gratitude must run, it should flow from their readers to them, not the other way around.

There’s truth to this. As I’ve written in other contexts, much of our idea of journalism grows from an era in which the prestige journalism outlets drove huge revenues from de facto monopolies – either metropolitan or nationwide. It was journalists’ job to do journalism not to worry about bottom lines or be sending props to subscribers.

But I have a different perspective. Because this site’s readers gave me a chance and an opening to do what I wanted to do, gave me an opening to try out something I thought would have value or get an audience if I just got the chance to do it. For that I’m deeply thankful, to the readers of this site who gave me the chance and the splendid freedom to write without compromises and the way I thought I should.