The End of the Digital Gold Rush
In chronicling the dizzying rise and fall of the Bay Area's online journalism economy, a San Francisco writer realizes that she has lived the story.
By Suzan Revah
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.
W HEN I MOVED TO San Francisco from Washington, D.C., four years ago to start a new job as an Internet journalist, I had no idea that I had just boarded the roller coaster that would become the rise and fall of the digital revolution. My journalism career got derailed along the way, as my story became the story of journalism in San Francisco and that story became my own.
Unlike so many people who landed in the city around the same time I did, I didn't set out with the intention of forging a frontier in the Digital Gold Rush. My desire to move to the City by the Bay had everything to do with San Francisco's famed tolerance and eccentricity and nothing to do with getting paid more than I'd ever dreamed possible in journalism. The latter did come to pass, but along with it came a nagging sense of ennui about the noble profession to which I had once been so committed. Meanwhile, my love for everything that makes San Francisco so unique, and the need to somehow pay the astronomical rent and afford all the fine restaurants in this best of all possible cities, has twisted my chosen career into something of a gilded cage.
I could never have imagined that I'd be able to write the complete story of the dramatic boom and bust of San Francisco journalism at the turn of the millennium based solely on my own experience, but such is the way things go when one is moving "at Internet speed." The fact that my vocabulary is now littered with such terms--better suited to a game of Business Buzzword Bingo than to casual conversation--illustrates just how drastically the Internet has transformed my world and the world of journalism in San Francisco.
When I finally landed a job as an associate editor at CNET's News.com in September 1997, it was the culmination of an arduous search for a journalism job in San Francisco that had been ongoing since I graduated from the University of Maryland College of Journalism in 1993. For nearly a year I had been a contributing editor for The Web magazine, hoping to parlay it into a staff position that would pave the way for my move to San Francisco. Instead, I arrived just in time to attend The Web's wake, a party commemorating the end of a magazine that reviewed the best of the infinite sites in an intelligent and irreverent way but that apparently was not built to last through the information glut spawned by its namesake. The magazine lives on through the Webby Awards, San Francisco's answer to the Oscars, but the fate of its original incarnation, owned by tech publishing giant IDG, ironically foreshadowed where my new--media career would go from there, and set the stage for the many untimely endings still to come.
At the time I would have liked nothing better than to scrape by working for Mother Jones, but it just so happened that CNET, then a little--known tech information upstart, was the only company willing to take a long--distance chance on me.
At 26, I was hardly ready to take San Francisco journalism by storm, but I felt I had solid "real journalism" experience. Upon graduating from J--school I went straight to a copy editing job at The New Republic and worked with some of the biggest names in political journalism. After that I spent three years as an associate editor at AJR, interviewing and editing some of the most prominent people in the business.
A few things made it immediately obvious that journalism as I knew it would soon be a thing of the past. For starters, CNET offered me a significant raise over my AJR job, and, much to my shock, also offered to pay for my move to California in full. That was in addition to being granted a few hundred stock options, a prospect that excited me greatly even though several people had to explain the concept of vesting to me before I fully understood it. Back then I thought that such information was irrelevant to journalists, who, as I understood it, were required to take a vow of poverty before entering the profession.
My first day on the business desk at CNET had me feeling like a foreign--exchange student. I was so green when it came to all things finance that I had to ask someone what "IPO" stood for upon first encountering it in copy. Little did I know that every story I would edit for the next year--and--a--half would be about whether and when a company was going public, and how it fared once it did.
I gave myself away as old media right away, naïvely voicing my discomfort with stories that were basically rewrites of press releases. But I soon accepted the fact that there are different standards for thorough coverage when one works for a site promising "Tech News First." I quickly had to buy into the notion that on the Internet, the scoop--even if only by a few minutes--is everything, and it wasn't long before I came to fondly remember my time at monthly and even weekly print magazines as a walk in the park.
CNET's salary and stock options didn't come without tradeoffs, of course. On the Internet, and especially at a site providing blanket coverage of business and technology at the height of Internet fever, there is a deadline every minute and the pace is dizzying. Back when content supposedly was king, I coined the phrase "The Martyr Complex" to describe the prevailing work ethic of San Francisco journalists, all of whom were constantly trying to one--up their coworkers' boasts of how many hours they could work in a single day, or how many e--mails they could send to the entire staff from their home computer in the middle of the night in order to show their dedication. Even though I had surprised no one more than myself when, a year into my stint at News.com, I spoke on a Committee of Concerned Journalists panel in Atlanta and doggedly defended the immediacy of digital journalism and its renegade tendencies in the name of innovation, it was only a few months later that burnout took its toll.
W HEN I LEFT CNET in March 1999, I took more away than just Repetitive Strain Injury. I could no longer stand the long hours and constant pressure that had turned me into a sleep--deprived shell of myself, and I had no choice but to cash out my stock options at a time when they were so ridiculously overvalued that in hindsight I look like some kind of financial wizard. I had landed what I thought was my dream job as an online editor at eXaminer.com, the Web site of Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Ironically, I had gotten my degree in magazine journalism specifically because I thought the daily deadlines of newspapers would be too much of a grind. But compared to the 24--7 coverage of News.com, four editions a day seemed like an oasis.
It was fun, too. Sitting in the middle of the storied and diverse newsroom where Hunter S. Thompson had once terrorized his editors and where our fearless leader Phil Bronstein--Mr. Sharon Stone to the media vultures but to us a regular guy who made time to chat and share jokes--I felt I had returned to my "real journalism" roots. I worked side by side with gray--haired veterans who had been at the paper for 20--plus years, a pleasant contrast to CNET, where I was among the oldest of those dwelling in cubicles painted a shade of yellow that seemed intentionally selected to keep us both alert and anxious. The union hours also were a welcome change, and once again I was proud to be a journalist. As part of a five--person team charged with giving the underdog newspaper a dynamic and irreverent presence on the Web, I had the best of both worlds. I was exploring all that new media had to offer, but in the context of one of the oldest of old--media corporations and one of the few surviving afternoon dailies in a major city. I thought I had it made.
But as I have learned the hard way, there's no such thing as a stable journalism job in San Francisco anymore, not even at a 113--year--old newspaper. When we first got word that Hearst had bought the San Francisco Chronicle and that the papers would merge after years of rumors that had the acquisition going the other way around, we were elated, thinking we were on the winning side of San Francisco's long and bitter newspaper war. That sense of victory soon faded, however, as we learned that the new paper in town would be the Hearst Chronicle and that the scrappy Examiner--Web site included‹would be sold to the Fang empire through a backroom deal that left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
Despite enjoying my job and my coworkers so thoroughly, and despite (thanks to my union membership) being guaranteed a post--merger position at the Chronicle's Web site, SFGate, I felt the writing was on the wall. The merger had been hanging ominously over our heads for so many months, during which time many of my Examiner colleagues had successfully sought greener dotcom pastures. I didn't want to stick around for the inevitable shakeout of redundant staffs, and no longer wanted to be among those remaining who wondered if they were missing out on all the high--flying opportunities that at that time seemed virtually unlimited. I cried all the way through my send--off party, mostly because I hated to leave behind such a wonderful group that I respected so much and that had made me feel so at home in just over a year, but also because I knew I was leaving behind a quirky and important San Francisco journalism institution that would cease to exist. In hindsight, maybe I was shedding those tears over the end of my journalistic innocence and idealism, too.
With dotcom mania in full swing, my Examiner colleagues constantly ribbed me about why someone with so much Internet experience (I've come to learn that doing time at CNET is like earning one's wings in new media) would take a job at a decidedly behind--the--technology--curve place like a newspaper in the first place, much less stick around in the face of the merger when I could find a new job‹probably with much better pay--in no time at all. It turned out they were right. In April 2000, just as the stock market was on the verge of its first correction, I landed a new gig as news editor for the Web site of The Industry Standard, a company that seemed to embody all the potential the New Economy held for journalists.
By that point I had nearly tripled the salary I had been garnering as a print editor on the East Coast, but more than that, I was blown away by the perks: fully subsidized public transportation passes, free gym membership, free weekly massages, free breakfast every Monday, rooftop parties with free--flowing booze and catered food (and a line of PR and VC hangers--on out the door) after work every Friday. I knew the job would require me to jump back on the treadmill that is daily online business news, and to tirelessly shovel uninspiring stories that in my worldview were intended only to help the rich get richer. But with amenities that surprised even my friends who are lawyers, The Industry Standard's was a siren song I couldn't resist.
Working for the ad--bloated magazine that we derisively and jealously referred to as "The Country Club" back at CNET seemed too good to be true, and of course it was, just like much of the hype surrounding the dawn of the Internet Age. Dozens of people were hired within months of my arrival, as the mushrooming company competed with other dotcoms to buy enough office space to seat everyone in San Francisco's then white--hot commercial real estate market. European, Asian and Latin American editions were launched; the annual retreat was booked for an opulent Squaw Valley resort in Lake Tahoe; and no expense was spared as the company tried to conquer the world by providing "intelligence for the Information Economy."
T HE HUBRIS OF THAT scenario seems obvious now, four or five or six rounds of layoffs later. I lost track somewhere between the various bureaus around the world being shuttered, the perks disappearing as if they were but a mirage, and The Industry Standard's futile struggles to secure enough funding to stay afloat. In August, the magazine that was once the definitive bible of the dotcom world ceased publication, succumbing to the very fate of so many of the companies it was supported by and had covered so skeptically.
I had edited countless stories about ill--conceived new--media companies that had burned through obscene amounts of cash in the quest to build brand identity, overextending themselves beyond recognition on faith that advertising revenue would forever be flush. So when The Industry Standard's story played out exactly the same way, it seemed fitting. In the 16 months I worked there--a blip in my career but an eternity in the online world--I saw the Web news operation grow from an afterthought into a robust site with an independent staff and respectable traffic figures, only to collapse to the point where the skeleton crew that remained feared it was no more than a dispensable line item in a shrinking magazine budget.
Having once been so famously spoiled, what came to be called the "Age of Austerity" in the newsroom brought new lows in morale with each cost--cutting measure. The mood was morbid, gallows humor our only coping mechanism. Months of coming to work every day unsure of whether my job or the very company itself would exist the next day had me in a state of terminal crankiness.
Given the diminishing returns, we couldn't help but conclude that those who had gotten pink slips back in the first and second rounds had gotten the better deal. Given the steadily souring economy, we all felt lucky to have jobs at all. Still, we noted that the first few rounds of severance packages were hugely generous compared with the later rounds, and especially so compared to the survivors who had stuck it out only to get nothing in the end. Those who were cut loose early on had the advantage of hitting the job market as the Bay Area economy had just begun to falter, rather than now, with old and new economy alike teetering on the R--word and so many laid off business, tech and online journalists pounding the pavement in search of the same shrinking pool of jobs.
I know there will come a time when I'll look back on the past few years and fully appreciate that I was at ground zero during a pivotal moment in history. And in retrospect, I may have avoided more disaster than I encountered, having narrowly missed taking jobs at Microsoft's Sidewalk.com, an online city guide funded and promoted by the deepest pockets in the tech world that still didn't make it, and at Grassroots.com, a political organizing portal whose time seemed to have come when it secured $30 million in funding and lured former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry as its CEO, but that has been paring back ever since. Already I acknowledge all the valuable lessons I learned about the cold realities of business, lessons of which I might still be blissfully ignorant had I not inadvertently been thrust onto the career path of business and technology journalism. Being on that path was a great personal boon for a while, and I have no regrets. But as I looked past The Industry Standard, I saw nothing but professional despair.
The kind of journalism I once did and had always hoped to do--political or nonprofit--is elusive in San Francisco. The post--merger staff of the Chronicle is massive; little room there. Business and technology publications are certainly not as abundant nor as starved for talent as they once were, but they still dominate in a city so close to Silicon Valley, leading many writers and editors into a niche where they never expected to find themselves. Even if some are lucky enough to land a do--gooder gig somewhere like Mother Jones, the prohibitive cost of living in San Francisco pushes many journalists to toil away for trades that hold no interest for them save for the paycheck. Now, with hundreds of journalists fighting for ever fewer jobs at ever fewer San Francisco--based media organizations, the odds against landing journalism work that I would find meaningful or exciting seem greater than they did when I first began scouring the local classifieds to try to move from the East Coast.
Indeed, the number of job listings for writers and editors on Craig's List, the online hub for classified ads in the Bay Area, had plunged from a high of 460 in March 2000 to 140 in July 2001. Given that the journalism shakeout is ongoing, neither the Media Alliance, a nonprofit membership organization for Bay Area journalists, nor the career center at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism could provide hard data, but both also report a major decline in job opportunities and can tell scores of stories of jobs lost as quickly as they were found.
B Y NOW, SO CAN everyone in San Francisco. I need look no further than my immediate circle of friends and colleagues for proof of the fallout: There's the friend who wrote for fine arts e--commerce site NextMonet.com and got laid off early in the downturn. She made a go of freelance writing for a while--until the companies for which she was working started going belly--up before cutting her paychecks--and since has returned to a career in elementary education. There's the friend and coworker who landed a highly coveted reporting position at the Wall Street Journal, only to get laid off three months in, falling victim to last--one--hired--first--one--fired cost--cutting. There's my former boss, a veteran of newspapers and online journalism, a hard--nosed reporter who found herself in management and took a buyout after trying mightily to shelter the staff she had hired during the boom from the brunt of the bust. She's taking a summer vacation for the first time since her teenage years. And there is the shell--shocked coworker who was laid off from two dotcoms prior to ending up at the doomed Standard, one of which she and her fiancé invested in heavily only to see the stock tank and the money they thought would pay for their wedding and honeymoon disappear. ###
The signs of tough times are everywhere in San Francisco. Eavesdropping on the bus or at a cafe, one is almost guaranteed to overhear a conversation about someone living off his severance package, another person's decision to travel the world rather than hustle for gainful employment in the face of continuing downsizing, or yet another person's arrival at work one morning only to find a padlock on the door. "Help Wanted" signs have been replaced by an increasing number of "For Sale" signs and moving trucks on the streets, as the masses who came in search of fortune pack up their gold pans and head back to from whence they came.
All along, people in this city knew the good times wouldn't last forever, but most still acted like they would. Personally, I'm relieved that things have come back down to earth. Now that they have, I hear so many people say that, in retrospect, it was better to be on the wild ride that crashed. Those people may equate security with boredom, but I've never felt that way. Risk--averse by nature, I was never particularly comfortable on the endless loop--de--loops of the digital frontier, and talked myself into taking the calculated risks I did only out of fear of passing up once--in--a--lifetime opportunities.
One could argue that covering the implosion of the dotcom bubble that resulted in The Industry Standard's ad rate plummeting 75 percent was equally as important and exhilarating as covering its irrationally exuberant overinflation. But by that point I was spent. The press had had a field day tracking the giddy ascent and stunning decline of what once had been the fastest--growing magazine in America (I myself wrote something of a valentine about The Industry Standard for this magazine six months or so before I signed on), and when rumors in the media changed from yet more buzzing about more layoffs to specific whispers of an across--the--board pay cut, I vowed to myself that I would be gone before taking such a hit.
It wasn't long before the ax was looming yet again, and this time I didn't want to be the one left behind for yet another restructuring that would leave fewer people remaining with more work and even lower morale. So I raised my hand and was given my walking papers. Exactly one week later, The Industry Standard folded, rewarding the 180 people who had endured so much with nothing more than their laptops and mobile phones. Once again, thanks to dumb luck, I escaped looking like someone who timed the market perfectly, but I ended up taking that pay cut after all. My severance check was "in the mail" when The Industry Standard filed for bankruptcy.
Fortunately, I've already found a new job, though it's one that is a step or two removed from the profession I once was so sure was my calling. Surprisingly, that's what appeals to me most--along with regular hours and the peace of mind that comes from working for a stable corporation only peripherally impacted by the volatility of the tech sector.
And so I've come full circle, to a journalism job market in San Francisco that once again is overcrowded, with a dearth of desirable positions. And there's no reason to think it's yet hit bottom. While it's still too early to know what the ultimate consequences of the dotcom tulip mania will be for San Francisco journalism, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the Internet opened up a world of opportunity that amounts to more journalism jobs here than ever before, but still won't amount to transforming the Bay Area into a publishing mecca, as had once seemed possible.
As for dreams lost and ambitions diverted, that's another story. For all I know, I was destined to hop off the journalism fast track at some point anyway, being a person who values life outside of work more than making it to the top of the professional ladder. Perhaps my inadvertent foray into new media and business journalism just accelerated the inevitable, or maybe it merely forced me to come to grips with the realities of a profession that has always been at the mercy of market forces. Either way, I can now walk away knowing that I got out of it what every journalist dreams of, a place on the front lines of The Big Story that, for better or for worse, changed everything.