Kelso Jacks was feeling pretty good about life at the end of January. She and her fiancé had just moved in together, sharing rent on a one-bedroom apartment on Allen Street in the Lower East Side. She had been working for the music industry trade magazine CMJ for more than three years, and the company had recently moved their offices from Long Island to manhattan. She was planning to get married in August.
And then came the layoffs. CMJ dumped more than 20 employees during the first week of February, and she was among them.
“I was really impressed with myself,” recalls Jacks, 29. “I didn’t have an emotional response during the firing. But when I got back to my desk and everyone was just looking at me, I totally broke down. I was like, ‘fuck seniority and fuck loyalty!’ I even blamed my parents for always having the same job for 40 years, like if they hadn’t, I might have moved on when there were opportunities.”
It’s no secret that nowadays, opportunities—particularly with news and content sites—can be tough to come by. CMJ‘s layoffs came in large part because the stock of its parent company, new media management firm Rare Medium, dropped from 44 in March of last year to 1.9 in December, part of a greater trend of investors shying from Internet ventures. Falling click-through rates on banner ads have further impugned the already sketchy business models of many content sites. Jacks, after making a few calls to friends, realized a job wasn’t immediately forthcoming and filed for unemployment.
The dotcom whippings of the last seven or eight months have been well documented. It’s estimated that 41,000 jobs nationwide were slashed from the sector last year, upwards of 3000 of them in New York City. And while it’s difficult to pinpoint professional backgrounds, the New York City Department of Labor reports that the number of people receiving unemployment insurance in the last quarter of 2000 had risen by 8 percent from the same quarter the year before. More significantly, only one demographic on the dole has shown significant growth: people, like Jacks, aged 34 and under.
Filing for unemployment today has become a relatively painless process, compared to the days of waiting in long lines of depressed, out-of-work people; now a would-be recipient files over the phone. “It was the first thing I did,” says Roderick Beltran, 26, who was a senior editor at Ugo.com, a Web site dedicated to video games and music, until his job was cut in December. “It’s not a lot of money—like $340 a week after taxes.”
Beltran says that amount can’t solve the fiscal equation of living in New York City. “I was making $48,000 a year, doing really fun stuff,” he says. “I had a month’s severance and vacation pay. So for December and January, I lived the way I was accustomed to. Now I’m taking cash advances on credit cards and dipping into savings accounts that should be off-limits. This month I asked my mom to pay my cell phone bill. If I don’t get a job by, like, the end of March, I might move back to Boston and start over. I just want to go somewhere where I have a stable base and can work without having to pay rent and deal with all the temptations of New York.”
Jacks is trying to freelance but has filed for unemployment insurance as well: “It sucks. The person who told me to file said it would be the best three months of my life—I’d get paid for not working. But it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve worked since I was 12! I’m supposed to be saving money to get married. The thing that sucks most is that you tell your friends and family, and they make excuses for you. They’re like ‘Well, you have been paying into it.’ I’m like ‘Are you gonna give me $400 a week?’ ”
Not everyone is able to get benefits easily. Will Leitch, 25, was the paid managing editor at Ironminds.com during the brief months last year when that site was being funded by Novix Media. Now he still does the work—for free. Leitch had quite a run for his relatively brief salaried tenure; he and fellow Novix writer Eric Gillin traveled cross-country during the political campaigns of 2000, filing daily work for IssuePaper.com, a now defunct political site. The trip, entirely financed by Novix, reached its apex when the two writers delivered $500 worth of explosives to Hunter S. Thompson, at which time the addled antihero bestowed a brief interview, Leitch says, as well as some “quality shit” hashish.
Up in smoke would be the best way to describe Leitch’s career last September, when he was laid off. Leitch, who, like many new media workers was originally drawn to Manhattan by the promise of plentiful writing jobs, had lived in two other states prior to moving into his West Village apartment. This made it logistically challenging to file for unemployment benefits. “I kept calling Illinois, where I’m from,” explains Leitch. “They kept saying they were checking into it. Finally I gave up.”
Leitch still contributes his Life as a Loser column to the financially bereft Ironminds site, but no longer sees the title as ironic. Last week he was staying in Pseudo.com founder Josh Harris’s WeLiveinPublic.com loft, not out of any exhibitionist tendencies, but because he was homeless, and a friend—Inside.com writer Greg Lindsay—was caretaking the webcam-loaded loft while Harris was away.
Leitch had gone home to Mattoon, Illinois, shortly after getting laid off. “I told all my friends I was leaving to work on a book,” he says. “And it was true. But I was out of money. So I went back to my dopey town that I left to make it big in New York.” He returned to the city at the end of December, book incomplete, expecting to get a job within a month. Reality hit like an anvil. Leitch says he makes checking online media resources such as MediaBistro.com and InscriptionsMagazine.com a daily routine and has sent out more than 100 résumés. “I’ve only gone on four or five interviews,” he says. “And then, only because I knew people at the company. At this point, all I want is a job where, at five o’clock, I hate it so much that all I want to do is come home. That sounds fantastic to me right now.”
Marilyn Matty, the new media recruiter for Judy Wald Partners, a midtown headhunting agency, has seen dramatic changes since she began a year and a half ago. “When I first started, people were taking jobs to play the horses,” she says. “They’d only want jobs with X number of stock options. A lot of people did that, and a lot of horses didn’t win.”
Now, Matty says, it’s those who are less demanding who are finding work. “A lot of people started with new media and were paid high salaries without a traditional media background. We’ve had people come in here who’ve had a year or two of experience and are making 45 or 50 thousand dollars. They are having to take a step back. If you are realistic and have done good work, there are jobs out there. But part of being realistic is realizing that it might not be your first job of choice.”
Leitch and Beltran say they apply to any position they feel they are remotely qualified for. Jacks laughs at the suggestion she’s being too picky. “I look at every job I see, long and hard,” she says. “The other day I saw an ad for an assistant at Childmagazine. I was like ‘Could I do that job? I mean, I don’t really like children. . . . ‘ ”
For those who can afford it, additional training might be a good idea, suggests Alice O’Rourke, executive director of the New York New Media Association. “There are a thousand jobs on NYNMA’s Web site at any given moment,” she says. “There is very little disconnect between the number of people looking for jobs and the number of jobs. The disconnect exists between the skills of the younger people looking for jobs and the jobs. No one is saying that you have to be a C++ programmer. But there are clearly technological skills that you might pick up.”
Jade Walker, the editor of Inscriptions.com, says she has noticed the trend toward required technical skills in jobs posted on her site. “Publishers aren’t looking for good writers or editors anymore,” she says. “They want to find someone who can write, edit, surf the Net, be an expert in every current computer program, and have journalistic ethics.”
Jacks accepts a need for broader training. “I’ve contemplated going back to school and learning HTML, or other things that might make me more eligible for a new media kind of world,” she says. “My fiancé is a Web producer and he’s bringing home books. I’m trying to learn some technological skills. It’s sort of disheartening to me, because at this point, I can word process.”
The biggest skill young techies need now may be the ability to survive a recession—something they’ve just never had to do. “I think there are a lot of young people who are dealing with a glitch in the economy for the first time,” says Matty. “There were jobs waiting for them out of school, and the economy has been good for as long as most of them can remember. Things really aren’t that bad out there.”
Lessons are certainly being learned. “We all knew that layoffs were coming at Ironminds,” recalls Leitch. “But I didn’t want to believe it. Right until the last minute, I wasn’t looking for work. Most of us weren’t. I had my dream job. I think when a lot of people talk about dotcommers, they say, ‘Oh, they failed,’ and they think it was all about the money. But it wasn’t, really. We just wanted to take over the world. We were all like ‘The New York Timesdidn’t appreciate us,’ and ‘Citysearch didn’t appreciate us.’ I look back now and think I was so stupid. But at the time, I thought I deserved a great job. I was a good writer. I deserved these things. When I was laid off, I was convinced I was employable to everyone. I thought they would find me.”
Now, six months later, Leitch needs to be out of Harris’s loft by the weekend. “I’m just falling apart,” he says. “I really don’t know where I’ll go. I might stay with some friends in the city. I have uncles in Philadelphia, so I might head there. I try to keep this idea up to people that I’m doing OK. But I’m flat broke. At this point, I can’t even afford a pack of cigarettes.”