Just Some Reflections on My Time at Mic

Last week, Mic — the woke-for-profit millennial news startup I worked for in a past life — met its inevitable demise, laying off most of the newsroom and selling its remains to Bustle Digital Group.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been quietly anticipating Mic’s failure for over two years now — ever since they laid me off (along with my editor and fellow staff writer) without warning. On the other hand, I have lots of empathy for all the bright, talented, hard-working journalists that got fucked as a result of Mic’s toxic atmosphere and gross mismanagement. It’s not cute.

In the weeks following my own layoff in September 2016, I contemplated posting a longwinded account of my grueling experience as a cog in the Mic machine… but then I’d remember that I signed a dumb NDA in exchange for a morsel of severance, so I figured I should avoid any potential drama and just STFU.

But now they’ve crumbled, so let’s discuss!

***

I spent my early twenties pursuing a career in the music business, eventually working as a music licensing coordinator at MTV after finishing grad school in 2012. It was around this time that I realized I wanted to be a professional writer. Lol. The timing was not great!

I started working on my first manuscript — a funny memoir about my fucked up relationship history — in my spare time. Oh my God. I labored and obsessed over that damn book for hours and hours and hours. When I finally finished, I thought it was so perfect. I queried probably every nonfiction literary agent in New York. Some requested and then rejected it; others rejected it based on the pitch alone. One agent read my book, turned it down, and then asked for nudes. (I know, right?) Other agents suggested revisions. I revised and resubmitted and still got nowhere. In the end, there was one piece of feedback all their responses had in common: “You need to grow your platform.”

I started writing op-eds and unpaid posts for sites that had open submission policies, but getting attention as a writer was hard. None of my shit ever went viral. Eventually I decided that the only solution would be to write for the internet full-time.

With no real connections in media, I started randomly applying to job listings with “writer” in the title as they popped up on Indeed. Crickets chirped in response.

I was in a dark, ready-to-give-up-on-the-dream-of-writing-y place by the time I came across a Staff Relationships Writer role at Mic in March 2015. I was elated to hear back a few days later. Over the next few weeks, I poured myself into their edit test, interviewed with various members of the company, and even published two “test” articles on the site. Eventually I was invited to quit my full-time job at MTV for another “test”: three months as a full-time freelancer to help grow their new relationships vertical (called “Connections”), with no guarantee I’d get an actual job out of it. There was a $12,000 pay cut involved.

It was a very shitty offer! But it was a career change. And they made an excellent case for their ability to help me grow a following and develop my chops as an online writer. Plus, this was during an era when Mic articles were going viral all the damn time. It was thrilling (and naive and stupid) to imagine myself writing one of those posts and finally proving to literary agents that I could be popular enough to sell a book.

I did notice that a lot of Mic content was clickbait-y and formulaic, but the vision I’d laid out in my edit test was adorably not clickbait-y and formulaic — and management seemed fully on board with that direction for the section I’d be helping to launch. Plus I saw that Ashley Judd (a famous person!) had written an op-ed for them earlier that year. So the place had to be legit.

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I started in June. My first editor was a lifestyle content wizard with an insanely sharp eye for clean, concise copy. Under her guidance I quickly became a pro at churning out trending stories in the sex/dating space. I wasn’t in love with everything I was posting — I never had the time or freedom to inject thought, nuance, or humor into my relentless coverage of relationship studies, sex toys, and viral celebrity tweets — but I needed to get an actual staff position out of this whole ordeal. I became adept at filing my work, hitting reset on my brain, and moving on to the next post. It actually wasn’t all that different from managing a pipeline of projects/emails in a thankless office job.

Mic’s lack of editorial standards became suffocating over time, though. The only stories approved by management were those that could be squeezed into “frameworks” that had already been proven to perform well on Facebook. This issue obviously wasn’t unique to Mic, but they took it to ridiculous heights with their various paint-by-numbers headlines.

I eventually started to cringe at the sight of my own byline.

Weekly pitch meetings with the v. pretentious Co-Founder/Editor In Chief were particularly painful. His favorite question was, “Who’s sharing this?” — at which point you’d have to make the case for how your headline would rile up at least one reliably share-happy chunk of the internet. It was especially encouraged to craft pitches with the “outrage share” (pandering to PC culture/liberal outrage) and the “identity share” (pandering to millennials’ obsession with self-identification) in mind.

I’d silently die inside as my pitches were dissected and reassembled by the Audience team to become more click-y and formulaic. For example, an idea I once had for a thoughtful personal essay on whether I had made a mistake by leaving my hometown somehow turned into “There’s Good News for People Who Go Back to Their Hometowns.” (The post contained no news, good or bad.)

The most successful article I wrote checked all the Mic boxes: “11 Brutally Honest Reasons Millennials Don’t Want Kids.”

The listicle format! The usage of “brutally honest” in the headline! The usage of millennial in the headline! The guaranteed identity shares from the proudly anti-baby crowd! It racked up millions of views. I’m sure the EIC came all over his Google Analytics dashboard.

***

I was officially hired full-time a few weeks after the kid-free article went live.

By then our vertical had become one of the most successful on the entire site. My editor got promoted to launch other sections, and Mic hired another editor and two more staff writers to ramp up output for Connections. They also hired a fancy new Executive Editor to take the overall newsroom in a more legit direction; she had a journalism background and a commitment to editorial integrity and everything! With all the changes afoot, I started thinking it might be possible to develop a lane at Mic where I could publish writing I was at least semi-proud of.

But alas, weeks passed and Mic’s clickbait-mad-libs strategy persisted.

Now that I had secured the staff role, I figured I could at least finally speak up about my concerns. I detailed all my complaints in a lengthy email to my new editor. She was supportive and understanding — I got the sense that she agreed with the majority of what I was saying — but it was largely business as usual for the time being.

I resigned myself to the belief that good writing and “Mic” were mutually exclusive concepts, so I focused on turning around quick trending stories with as much voice as possible. I packed my posts with sentence-to-sentence jokes and over-the-top phrasing in hopes of at least slightly differentiating them from the boilerplate Mic hot takes of the day.

But the Audience team was nevertheless encouraged to slap inflammatory headlines on all content when packaging it for social. I once did a silly 250-word write-up about how Khloé Kardashian said she’d never seen a white dick before — lol —  and the Facebook team opted for share text along the lines of “Khloé Kardashian is perpetuating a harmful stereotype about race and penises,” which… was an actual lie. I made a huge stink about this on Slack until they finally agreed to change it up a little. “Khloé Kardashian Has Some Thoughts About Race and Penises” was their final offer.

***

Meanwhile, weekly pitch sessions had become a special circle of hell. I was reluctant to share good ideas with the team because I knew there was no way I’d ever be given the space to execute them properly. So instead I just spat out half-baked and outlandish pitches that were basically second-rate ClickHole posts. I considered it a small, sad victory when one of them actually got published.

The directive to spark outrage and/or foster empowerment at every turn intensified. I was required to write about slut-shaming, body-shaming, post-baby-body-shaming, food-shaming, working-mom-shamingselfie-shaming, period-shaming, boob-shamingbreastfeeding-shaming, age-shaming, phone-shaming… all in a way that suggested I personally gave a shit! Not to discount the validity of (some of) those issues, but the standard for something to be labeled an act of “shaming” was remarkably fucking low in the Mic universe.

I often fantasized about writing for another, less horrible website — but was positive that none of them would ever take me seriously at that point.

And so I took all my frustration out on my editor and generally became a nightmare to work with. Months of pent up anger and embarrassment over the state of my byline would unleash itself on her at the slightest piece of editorial feedback. I became unprofessional and unfair. Our daily Slack exchanges were stressful and exhausting as she tried her best to quell my outbursts while still graciously insulating me from the bullshit she had to deal with from her bosses.

Our relationship eventually became so tense that management had to get involved. We scheduled time in a windowless little meeting room with an internally beloved Editorial Director who admonished me for not being a team player and threatened to fire me if I didn’t start being more cooperative.

“You’re a good writer, but you’re not that good,” he said with a chuckle. “No one is irreplaceable.”

The irony was that even if I wanted to be a team player, the directives from the top were shifting so rapidly that I couldn’t even figure out how to do so. I had thought that churning out multiple trending pieces a day to fill their Facebook quota was being a team player — but then they randomly started asking for generic evergreen SEO content out of the fucking blue.

I seized every chance I could to quietly revolt. I accepted an assignment to write “something about Earth Day” and turned it into a vulgar and ridiculous roundup of Earth Day sex tips that reads like a rejected Howard Stern Show bit. I randomly argued that Ariana Grande was a closet pegging enthusiast. I agreed to give the SEO director “A Complete Guide to Taylor Swift’s Ex-Boyfriends,” but instead gave him a complete exploration of what would happen if all her ex-boyfriends were cereal.

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Mic moved into new offices at One World Trade Center on August 1, 2016 and my section was cut without warning exactly a month later. My layoff took place in a sterile conference room with a member of HR and — randomly — the fucking SEO guy. I think he was maybe promoted by then? Lol. Idk. He wasn’t a fan!

Traffic and politics and other high-level shit I was oblivious to surely played a role in the decision to kill the section, but it felt at least semi-personal. An ex-coworker texted after my editor and I were escorted out of the building to inform me that my Earth Day sex tips article was specifically called out by management at an all-hands meeting about the layoffs later that day. Seriously!

I was relieved for my time at Mic to be over, but I was also sad and furious that the split had happened so abruptly and entirely on their terms. My ballsy career change had blown up in my face. And I still didn’t have an agent.

In time, of course, it turned out to be a huge blessing. The only reason I’d joined Mic in the first place was to invest in my future as a writer — but somehow I’d ended up accomplishing the exact opposite of that. Churning out half-hearted bullshit for the internet day after day left me with no time or energy to actually work on writing projects I was passionate about.

I spent the year after the layoff working on a brand new manuscript, which ultimately turned into a YA novel that (finally!) landed me a literary agent and is currently on submission to publishers. I have a non-writing day job again — coincidentally at a legacy media company in One World Trade Center — but I’m working on my third book in my spare time. I desperately wish I had more time to focus on writing, but I try to be grateful that I have any time or energy to focus on it at all.

I don’t regret my experiences at Mic. Like many of their alumni will say, the people in the newsroom were mostly excellent — management was the problem. I loved my Connections team, and they were extremely patient with what was probably the worst professional version of me that has ever existed. I learned a lot. And if I hadn’t taken that leap, I’d have always wondered what would have happened if I did.

I was sitting at my desk in One World Trade Center last Thursday when I read the news of Mic’s final act. It was a quiet day in my office as, forty or so floors directly above me, the company that made my life generally miserable for fifteen months entered the throes of collapse. There was something kinda melancholy and poetic about it all. I started pulling up my old articles, some for the first time in years. Many of them still made me cringe, but others weren’t so bad. I still laugh when I think about the Taylor Swift cereal post. It even makes me a little proud.

 

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