|LIFE AS A LOSER #76: "BRILL'S DISCONTENT."|
|By Will Leitch|
From my very first day at Brill’s Content, weird shit started happening.
I’d been on the job for about three hours when I received an e-mail from a man I’ll call “Daniel Hopkins.” He said, and I quote, “Dear Not-So-Good Will Leitch: I thought I noticed a sudden dip in quality of the All-Star Newspaper. Sure enough, you’re name has been added where Jessie Roben’s was previously. Please resign now, and ask the estimable Mr. Roben to resume his former duties. To remind: resign now.” I’ve reproduced those e-mails before, to my own detriment, so I won’t bore you with them again here (though you’re getting more tomorrow).
Now, I had no idea what to make of this e-mail. Hell, I didn’t even know where the bathrooms were yet. I hadn’t even had time to screw the site up. Yet here was this unhinged loon of indeterminate origin out to humiliate me every day by 2 p.m.
And it was all downhill from there.
When I look back at the particulars of my brief tenure as editor of the All-Star Newspaper site at Brill’s Content (terminated last week, thanks to the Brill’s-Inside.com merger), I probably won’t remember much of anything, to be honest. I wasn’t there long enough to make any real friends. In fact, the cliquish nature of Brill’s made it unlikely I’d even meet anyone; during my entire time there, I had conversations with maybe four people, one of whom was my direct boss. My job had little to nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the magazine, meaning that I would go in at 8 a.m., put on my headphones, do my thing and then leave, with few people ever noticing I was even there.
What I did learn, however, was the importance of first impressions. And the staggering power of paranoia.
Everything was fine at Brill’s for my first three weeks. I got along well with Lovely Heather, my immediate superior, and I totally dug Alex, the blue-collar, Brooklyn-bred, tattoed researcher who worked with me. One guy, one of the top reporters there, even joined me for an enjoyable night of about 1,000 Rolling Rocks. I never met any of the big dogs over there - it wasn’t until the merger that I learned what Steven Brill actually looked like; he’s kind of puffy, like a blowfish - and that was fine. I was just happy to be working again, to have my own desk and phone and computer and pens. No problems. Just wanted to fit in.
And then came Romenesko.
Jim Romenesko, that is. The guy who runs www.medianews.org, the Poynter Institute’s news gossip Weblog, which Mr. Romenesko operates out of his office in, uh, Minnesota I think. [Editor’s note: Romenesko is in Illinois, actually.] I don’t know a single person who works in media here who doesn’t read it at least daily, and more often hourly. I’ve always admired the site, because Romenesko is unassuming, fair and seemingly greatly amused by this insular community of media people who take themselves, and what they do, way too seriously. It’s gotta be the most fun job in the world; he posts stories and then sits back and watches a bunch of self-important dorks who couldn’t get laid in high school get pissy with one another. (I say all this fully aware I’m one of those self-important dorks, and as someone who definitely couldn’t get laid in high school).
I’d had two major incidents involving Romenesko before. One was relatively minor, a skirmish with a media reporter who edited our site for a day. I remain close friends with him. The other was more serious. I wrote a scathing rebuke of Roger Ebert’s embracing of television stardom at the expense of his newspaper column - and the memory of the late Gene Siskel. To emphasize the point, I (foolishly) overstated my case and said, I felt in jest, “I’m getting really sick of seeing his fucking face.” I didn’t think that much about the line when I wrote it. I was just trying to be goofy, poke a little fun at my childhood hero and college mentor, and besides, it’s Ironminds. Like he’ll ever see it. I came into work the next day, loaded up Romenesko’s site and saw Ebert’s mug shot next to a link to my piece. An e-mail from Ebert was waiting for me. He was not amused. The phrase “I hope you feel like shit this morning” stands out. I do not remain good friends with Ebert.
Anyway, Romenesko was tipped off to my “He Hate Me” column - a compilation of Mr. Hopkins’ hysterically brutal e-mails, a column I thought merely funny, not the least bit scandalous; I’m such an idiot - and made it the top story on Medianews. Now, there were two facts I didn’t know when I wrote the column:
1. People at Brill’s are very protective of their image. That is to say, they’re total control freaks about how the outside world sees them. All information must be run through the infrastructure. They also claim to dislike Romenesko.
2. They check out Romenesko every hour on the hour. I know this because within five minutes of the posting, people who had never talked to me before were coming by my desk with smirks, patting me on the back - the congratulations to the doomed.
After about 10 people came by, I packed up and went home. Typically I would stay until 4 or 5 - even though I was done with my job by 1 - but I had no desire for the gallows humor my new “friends” at Brill’s were dishing out. I came back to my sublet, checked my Ironminds e-mail account and had 50 messages (Romenesko is always good for traffic, at the very least). In the middle of them, a message from Lovely Heather: “Will, call me at 212-XXX-XXXX when you receive this. Heather.” And I knew I was fucked
I smoked about 10 cigarettes and then called. Lovely Heather told me that even though she was thought my piece was totally funny - this was a common reaction, which is depressing; the Loser column people love most is the one I didn’t write - some folks at Brill’s were a little upset by it.
(I feel bad for Lovely Heather. The way Brill’s is set up, someone smart and funny and creative like her has few outlets for expression and is inevitably shoehorned into a semi-middle management position she’s too good for. She ends up answering to everyone and no one, full of opinions she’s not allowed officially to state. A few people have been lucky - or just really talented - enough to escape this, but let’s just say I worry about some of those folks at Inside.com, who are more accustomed to, say, smiling and laughter and joy. But I digress.)
Lovely Heather told me she was transferring me to a conference call with Eric, who apparently was a bigwig editor there (it is never a good sign when you’re called on the carpet by a superior you’ve never met). She encouraged me to be “contrite,” which I had no problem with. I really wasn’t trying to cause any trouble. I just found Hopkins’ e-mails to be vital contributions to the literary landscape and felt the world deserved to see them. But I didn’t want to make Brill’s look bad. I liked my job. I apologized to Disembodied Eric and promised not to write about Brill’s again (I should have added, “until you lay me off.”). He seemed satisfied by my meek nature, and I went to work the next day without incident.
But with my co-workers, the die was cast. I went from “Guy With Bad Hair Who Does the All-Star Newspaper” to “Troublemaker and Internal Spy Who Is Here to Sabotage Our Entire Operation (Who Also Happens to Have Bad Hair).” No one had even heard of me until this, and now they were all stunned. While they were shackled by a no-freelance policy themselves, I was still around. That Friday, an unfamiliar colleague hopped in the elevator with me. Just trying to make conversation, I sputtered, “Boy, sure am glad that whole deal from yesterday is over.”
She, insanely, smiled broadly. “Yeah, did you get fired?”
“Uh, um, er ... no. Was I expected to be fired? Did people think I’d be fired?”
An even bigger smile. What in the world was this woman doing? “Yes! Of course!”
After that, it was one discomfort after another. Every time I showed up at a Brill’s function - there were few - I was eyed suspiciously. E-mail lists around the office conspicuously omitted me. And then the news of a merger. Most people assumed that if the parent companies of Brill’s and Inside.com merged, Inside.com would feel the brunt of the layoffs because Steven Brill would be in control of the new operation, but I wasn’t so sure. No offense to Brill’s, but Inside.com has made more impact in the last year than Brill’s has made in its, what, two, three? I worried for my colleagues; I know what staff decisions I would have made were I in Brill’s position ... and I didn’t think the people at Brill’s would like them.
Then Black Monday. The word came down about noon. Layoffs of 14 people. (This 14 didn’t include me. Apparently, Brill had simply forgotten the All-Star Newspaper existed; Alex and I weren’t told until two days later that we were out on Friday as well). Soon afterwards, that darned Romenesko posted an “insider’s” report of the actual meeting where the firings went down. It had intricate details of how each person reacted, who cried, who was stoic, who asked questions, so on, so forth. Obviously, this meeting was held behind closed doors, with only those truly involved present and privy.
Yet, when I arrived at the inevitable postmortem drinks/depression bash afterwards, a staff writer who had been fired greeted me. We had never spoken before.
“So, Will,” he said in his British accent, “the word on the street is that you’re the one who provided all that information to Romenesko about the meeting today.”
“I’m sorry ... what?”
“Everyone’s saying it’s you. You got all the details right, you know.”
“Dude, I don’t even know you people’s names. And I wasn’t in the meeting. How in the world would I know anything that went on in that meeting?”
“So that’s a denial?”
“Uh, yes, it’s obviously a denial.”
Later on that night, one of my few friends at Brill’s - who therefore should have known better - took me aside and chided me for not admitting to him that I slipped Romenesko the scoop.
“Listen, you’re the only person here who talks to me,” I said. “If you didn’t tell me, who in the world do you think did?”
“Well, someone told me you admitted it to them.”
“Are we in the fifth fucking grade here?”
The rest of the week was spent in relative silence, me leaving as early as possible while searching for any job I could find. Finally, on Friday, our last day, we were told that Steven Brill himself, apparently feeling guilty for canning half his staff then zipping to a Yankees game, set up a huge tab at a local bar, and we could all drink for free for part of the evening (though we were discouraged from bringing guests, a discouragement I ignored). I figured if I got anything out of the Brill’s experience, it would be free drinks and free publicity. So I sat down to publish the All-Star Newspaper newsletter one last time. I began it with an editor’s note.
This is the final day for The All-Star Newspaper. It has been a joy providing you with this service.
Look forward to Inside Content, featuring the very best of Brill’s Content and Inside.com. Coming soon. Until then, you can hold yourself off with some of the best literary journalism on the Web at www.ironminds.com.
I’m sorry. I just couldn’t resist. It was my last day. Forgive me.
When I arrived at the bar for free drinks, I was greeted by my lone Brill’s friend still on the inside. “Watch out for [Lovely] Heather. Your little Ironminds joke didn’t go over so well.” It’s a shame. I didn’t get to talk to Lovely Heather the rest of the evening, probably because I’m a scared little worm and avoided any potential wrath. I wish her well.
I spent most of that evening in a corner, in a fierce debate with a few Brill’s staffers. Well, it wasn’t a debate, exactly. It was more of an interrogation.
You see, I learned that evening that not only did the majority of the Brill’s folks think I leaked the Romenesko thing, but also that, in fact, the mysterious Daniel Hopkins was, in fact, me. They figured - no, they were sure - that it was all some postmodern, self-promoting in-joke I concocted to gain publicity for the All-Star Newspaper and Ironminds. Seriously. They thought that. I think they still do.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish that were true. I wish I were that smart. But I’m not, and the effort it would have taken me to pull off such a scheme would have made it impossible to do anything more taxing than, say, fart. But they weren’t having it. Everything I said made them believe it more. Every protest or perfectly reasonable explanation brought on even more suspicion. Eventually, I just threw my hands in the air and told them they could believe whatever they wanted to believe. And then I stumbled home, leaving Brill’s behind me forever.
I really did like it there. The employees might have had their clique, but they were nice enough people, and I feel awful so many of them lost their jobs. I’m sure they’ll all go on and do outstanding things, and I’m sure the new Inside Content will be a magazine I’ll subscribe to. I’ll miss Lovely Heather, and Alex, and a few other folks who didn’t accuse me of lying to the entire world in the only forum I have to be honest.
But I’m a little tired now. After all, I was just laid off, and I need another job, and fast. To be entirely honest, I’m not limiting myself to the New York media world. Far from it, actually. As you can probably tell from this column, being entrenched, even insignificantly, in this crazy place, where people feel compelled to act against their most true human natures, all in the name of success and career and being downsized by media barons who could give a shit, is enough to drive folks downright mad. All of us. I think I’m gonna take a break for a while. Work for a non-profit or something. Shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I don’t remember the last place I worked that actually made a profit. I just hope all those still a part of the New York media world, still striving to be heard, and known, and understood ... I hope they don’t kill themselves trying to make it. I could use a breather. We could all use a breather. Need a Tylenol. Time to go.