CJR sits down with four people who found themselves by leaving behind who they were
By Alanna Weissman
Freelance book critic
Laura Miller didn’t get her first full-time journalism job until she was 35, but it turned out to be a major one: In 1995, she was the fifth employee hired at Salon.
Miller worked at various alt-weeklies and before that, for a small local press and a mail-order company, while doing freelance criticism. Now a book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Guardian, among others, Miller, 55, describes the beginning of digital journalism—and Salon’s work especially—as a particularly exciting time.
“When Salon started in 1995, a Web publication, it just didn’t really exist,” she said. “We had to kind of make the whole thing up—what it would look like, how people would navigate it.”
Miller, who had a hand in both the content and early Web design aspects of Salon, says the quality of digital journalism has declined in recent years not inherently because of its medium, but because of consumer demand for quickly produced, bite-sized, aggregated content, a demand that didn’t exist at the time Salon was founded. “When we had the advantage of the new technology without the disadvantage of the more mature marketplace that’s happening now, we were able to do just amazing things that you couldn’t do in print, just creative stuff that nobody had done before, and find readers for it,” she said, citing early criticism-personal essay hybrids and thematic packaging of work. “The approach has just changed so much over the past 20 years. Web journalism is like a moving, protean kind of thing ,so it’s really hard to compare that to print.”
For the most part, Miller has embraced technology; she says she uses and enjoys print books, e-books, and audiobooks equally. Further, information about books is now readily available, whereas Miller says it wasn’t before Amazon. Such accessibility makes learning about and obtaining books easier for both reviewers and readers. Technology has had one detrimental effect on Miller’s relationship with books, though.
“I think people’s concentration hygiene has changed a lot,” she said. “I find it hard to sit down and read for the same extended periods of time that I used to.”
Features editor, Nautilus
Kevin Berger was a successful print magazine editor before he took on the role of features editor at Salon in 2004. It was a transition that he thought would be easy. He was wrong.
“That was a real culture shock and a real eye-opener into the changing nature of journalism,” Berger said. “When you move to the online world, there’s no time, because the demand to ‘feed the beast,’ as we say, is so filled with pressure that it’s like everything I do with my life has been changed to write these quick turnaround pieces. So it was difficult to adapt to that.”
Now the features editor for science magazine Nautilus, Berger, 58, experiences the best of both worlds. A glance at Nautilus’ print publication—a thick, beautifully illustrated, deeply reported journal published six times a year—would likely leave a reader thinking that the magazine is the most important part of the nonprofit company’s output. Though the print product certainly holds appeal for the journal’s 6,000 subscribers, it is actually not the magazine’s main product.
The goal was always “to do an amazing website,” said Berger. And indeed, though the website—which debuted in 2013, a year before the print magazine—is, as Berger put it, “visually splendid,” the content is equally thought-out. Nautilus aims to interweave science with various aspects of modern culture in a narrative, often through longform stories.
Berger got his start at various Bay Area alt-weeklies, where he was a self-described “rock snob” and wrote a music column called “He Hates Everything.” Though he couldn’t have predicted the path his career would take, he doesn’t find it surprising that he ended up where he did. He says editing suits his personality.
“The reason you get into writing is that you don’t quite find the voice you’re after in reading and you think you can say it . . . in a better way,” he said. “I know a little about writing, and writing is writing, whether it’s in print or online.”
There are many roads into journalism. In the case of Andrew Golis, it was a tumble—he says he “kind of fell into journalism backwards through politics.”
“I was back at campus in college, and started to play around with my own blog and started to, as an extension of my activism and troublemaking, write on the internet and became a columnist for the student newspaper and did other things like that,” Golis says. At the time, Golis, 31, remembers that blogging was a “new thing” of “power”; he continued at Talking Points Memo, his first job after college.
From there came more forays into digital media, as Golis moved to Yahoo and then became director of digital at Frontline. Golis eventually landed as Entrepreneur in Residence at The Atlantic, where he was involved with video and the magazine’s mobile app. It was there that Golis founded This.cm, a recommendation site that allows users to share a single link per day. It’s a project incubated and partly owned by The Atlantic, although Golis is looking for outside investors as well.
Some constants have remained as Golis has shifted from political blogger to media start-up founder. “My personal interest has always been in trying to figure out the ways in which we can connect audiences to really good journalism and really good media,” says Golis. “We have access to this incredible global world and in that sense, technology has created the opportunity for us to be more humble, curious, cosmopolitan people. On the other hand, we as people often . . . choose not to be those people.” His company is an attempt to bridge this divide. “We’re trying to . . . create a mechanism where people can be their most open, curious, interesting, aspirational selves.”
Science Editor, BuzzFeed
Thirty-one-year-old Virginia “Ginny” Hughes’ career hasn’t followed the path of many of her colleagues’. The science editor of BuzzFeed News—a title she’s held since January, when she helped launch the science desk—initially thought she wanted to be a neuroscientist, and majored in the topic as an undergraduate at Brown.
“I luckily figured out before I graduated that I didn’t want to be a scientist,” she says, the result of a semester abroad in which she took no science classes and started travel writing. She then continued on to the now-defunct science writing program at Johns Hopkins University, before taking on a series of Web internships at magazines including Discover and Seed. From her very first internship, as Discover Magazine’s first-ever Web intern, her work has had a digital component. It’s her approach to it that has changed.
“I always felt jealous of what I felt were the ‘real’ interns that got to work for the magazine, and they got to have their pieces published in the magazine, and I was kind of pushed off to the Web,” Hughes said. “In retrospect it all seems so silly, because now, who cares about print?”
Hughes went on to freelance for a variety of science outlets, including magazines like Popular Science and digital publications like Matter, the autism research site
“As a journalist, that’s something that you really want for yourself, to be part of this venerable, amazing institution, to be included in that [legacy media] club. But I think what’s happening is print isn’t dead, but digital is on equal footing with print,” Hughes said. “I don’t really see much of a distinction between the two anymore.”
Alanna Weissman is from New York, NY. Her interests include arts writing and copy editing.