I first tried to be a journalist when I was in high school. Using the Internet, I had endless information constantly being fed to me, and it felt like a lot of it I couldn’t ignore. I wrote an article about Black Lives Matter for the school newspaper that I remember sparked a lot of talk the day it was handed out. People — white boys, mostly, maybe some teachers too, I don’t remember — bombarded me with questions that were less questions than gotcha’s. Gotcha’s as in, I don’t know, probably the typical ‘Have you looked at the statistics of Black on Black violence?’ bullshit. Either way, I was proud of what I’d done, but I hated this idea that my article, which was full of statistics and facts and stories from the news that were emotional and intense, was just a point for people to try to prove me wrong. Did they — the people coming up to me about it — even read it? Or did they see the headline and get mad and pull up their prior beliefs to use against me?
I’d been writing for an online magazine also, the notorious Affinity Magazine. I have a lot to say about this. If you know it, you know. If you don’t, god bless you. It’s still active, but I’m going to explain it retrospectively. You really just had to be there; the timing was important. Founded by Evelyn Atieno in 2013, Affinity Magazine was an online publication run by teens. Atieno, I believe, had been a teenager herself when beginning the magazine. It took advantage of the rise in social and political issues in Internet culture; it covered whatever was going viral at the moment — which often had to do with gender, race, sexuality, and such.
However, because it was all teenagers behind it, obviously there were major problems. The powerful Twitter account— which had tens of thousands of followers, around 50k probably — frequently went viral for “hot takes” or for being overly belligerent. One time (or, more likely, more than one time), someone revealed old Tweets from the account that were very offensive and unprofessional.
And, of course, no one was getting paid. Still, Atieno recommended that teenagers join it as a way of getting into journalism young and making your way up the ladder. I was 15 publishing articles there, and was often met with the same reactions that my high school offered me. People got mad at me. I became an editor at some point, and then Atieno told me I wasn’t doing enough. When I reached out to her later for opportunities when I was 17 and desperate, she told me I didn’t do a great job and that it “reflected poorly on your work ethic and can deter you from future opportunities because it can show you aren’t reliable.” She proceeded to give me unsolicited advice. There’s no point in sharing this (maybe there is — um, don’t expect high schoolers to be good unpaid editors? Not to mention that I think teenagers are probably being exploited and mistreated by many online publications and don’t even know it); I just think it’s funny, LOL.
I decided, still 15 years old, that journalism wasn’t for me. If all it created was people getting mad at me and probably not even reading my work, what was the point? And, at the end of the day, I was still convinced that I was doing something wrong. When people attacked me with rhetorical questions, they were implying one thing: That there was a binary. The binary was that journalism is either right or wrong. Good or bad. They convinced me I was wrong, and that I certainly was not good at journalism.
I don’t know if you — the person reading this — have ever been a 15 year old girl, but, let me tell you, there is not much confidence that you have to begin with. I was the shy student, quiet emo girl, etc. Journalism was the one time I used my voice. Then I felt a pang of regret — like I should’ve just continued to stay silent and on the sidelines.
(This is NOT a pity party, by the way. There is no pity to have here; I just want to talk about my experience, which I think has a satisfying arc to it. This shouldn’t have had to happen, but it is a common reality.)
There were a lot of reasons why I was shy and never really wanted to speak up. Some are psychological and Freudian and whatever, and some are just outcomes of society, of course. This aforementioned binary of right and wrong / good and bad was deeply drilled into me. I never participated in discussions of any kind — political, social, intellectual, all kinds — because I thought I would be wrong.
I started writing about music. I wrote about Brand New’s Deja Entendu and Panic! At the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor. It wasn’t personal writing — it bordered on journalism, but was overall academic and stiff. I gave up on that, too, because I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t want to interpret art in the wrong way. I worried: What if I’m just making this up and this wasn’t what the artist intended? Also, there was the obvious, intimidating fact that I knew nothing about music. I didn’t play it; I didn’t listen to a wide scope of it. My knowledge was incredibly limited.
I picked it back up when I was 16, but it was much more personal. I wrote about my feelings at shows — that way I couldn’t be wrong. It was for my own Wordpress blog at first, which felt a lot more freeing than writing for a high-profile, problematic online publication. It was unpaid — but that was my choice.
From there, I slowly sank into it. I read Pitchfork reviews and admired every writer’s confidence. I recently told Miranda Reinert about reading Ian Cohen’s review of Charmer, which comforted me a lot. It reminded me of a literary analysis — something I wasn’t terrible at. It strayed from the norm of exploring the band’s influences, comparing them to other bands, describing specific instruments or techniques. It was… dare I say… accessible.
It wasn’t like everything was easy after that. This has never been easy — it has never been easy to break down the mindset of right and wrong and good and bad. I am still doing it — still convincing myself, in my head while writing or talking, to say something that I’m thinking.
I guess the reason interviews have been my go-to feature is because it doesn’t ask too much of me. It doesn’t provoke people on the Internet to get mad at me. It doesn’t want me to have too many bold opinions. Which is sad when you think about it. Eventually, I began contributing interviews to sites for free again, though it wasn’t the same as it was at Affinity. The sites were close-knit and respectable with a modest following — not trying to get some sort of buzz from the Internet. I appreciate these sites, and I definitely was grateful when they got me guestlisted for shows. I was also given access to bands that I think otherwise wouldn’t have been possible for me to get on my own. My freshman year of college, I took the Metro North to New York City, a subway train to Union Square, and I ran a few blocks to meet up with Joyce Manor for this interview. It made me feel like things were actually happening.
Still, I do have a conflicted opinion about these sites. A lot of people think it’s necessary to write for free before you get paid — and maybe that’s true. However, I notice that a lot of writers can get stuck in that limbo. I was afraid I’d be writing for free forever. No one really offered to help me. I searched for answers everywhere on how to freelance. My first pitch got accepted after my first internship. My first internship was at Kerrang!, so I pitched Bandcamp Daily and said I had bylines at Kerrang! and then named some of the small, unpaid bylines I had. That was enough. After I got that pitch accepted, I never wrote for free again.
And when you think about it, the effort that goes into interviews — researching, writing up questions, communicating with publicists, scheduling the interview, having a 30-60 minute conversation with an artist, transcribing, organizing, editing — it’s a task that really, really deserves compensation. I still think that the typical rate that publications give (~$250) isn’t enough. It’s enough for me, someone who’s privileged and comfortable, but I can’t imagine trying to make a living off of it. And I can go on a whole spiel about the problem of a journalism industry where only privileged people can participate… but it’s pretty self-explanatory.
When I started getting paid for my work, I still remained somewhat pigeonholed in my narrow taste. It wasn’t until I was looking at press releases and pitching random artists that my scope widened. And then, within the past couple of years alone, I’ve made a lot of friends, smart friends, friends with a crazy knowledge of music. Friends showing me influential bands, friends telling me about the technicalities of instruments, friends who are in love with this stuff and get me to fall in love with it, too. Because even though it’s intimidating, the research is worth it. The exploring.
I think this is important to talk about because it’s hard to BE that friend. It’s hard to become that person on your own. Not everyone grows up with the instinct to dive into the music world. I was pigeonholed into one genre for pretty much all of my adolescent years. And reading journalism can be hard and inaccessible, while also somehow appearing effortless. That’s confidence. And it’s hard to achieve.
I’m partly writing this because I published my Sounding Board feature on Stereogum. It’s a Citizen review, sure, but it makes a lot of bold statements. My opinions take over the whole thing. The entire first paragraph is me saying some pretty brave things about a whole genre. And I knew people would disagree with it, and some did (definitely in a way that I think is valid), but I was sharing my truth. I was confident about what I felt. And in that I was finally going against my previous binary mindset. I realized that sometimes, or maybe most times, that’s the point of an article — the discussion. Not a discussion full of rhetorical questions, but a discussion that shows that things aren’t binary, art is interpreted in a myriad of ways, that people have different opinions.
There’s also the fact that Gary Suarez made this Tweet about women in journalism. It’s mostly about stan culture, but I think it makes sense in this context. Like I hinted at before, I think there were psychological and societal factors that led to me not speaking up, and it’s probably like that for a lot of women. Men have historically dominated discussions, like I said, political, social, intellectual, all kinds. The white dudes coming up to me about my BLM article were aggressive, using their masculinity as a way of winning an argument that did not even start. I want people to know this — that the difficulty for women in journalism doesn’t begin with an angry online dude sending death threats in the replies of an article. It starts much before that.
Like I said, it shouldn’t have to be like this — there shouldn’t be this arc over women’s lives and careers of having to overcome this struggle to literally share an opinion. I’m grateful for where I’m at now and I hope journalism becomes a more accessible place for all people to confidently explore different topics and ideas. There’s a lot of work to be done, especially with the constantly-expanding Internet world where more online publications are appearing and no one knows how they’re treating their writers.
And — I just remembered — at some point, I’m going to join the lovely Thomas Hobbs over Zoom to talk about freelancing. I encourage everyone to come! Details forthcoming, but I wish I’d attended an event like this when I was younger. So I hope some people watch and leave feeling like they know more than they did before.