Self,  Work

Making The Blogfather: Dark Days

In one of the last coffee sessions I had thanks to the cover letter I wrote, I took an editor job with a company that had a good focus on family (judging from the category of content they dished out at least), and the person who interviewed me was kind (or crazy) enough to overlook the fact that I had no prior full-time editorial experience (I only had my blogs and freelance writing to show in my portfolio at the time). I felt was being granted a first step in chasing a dream, but in my eagerness, I committed my first fatal flaw: an editor is a very different level from a writer, and I was inadvertently skipping a couple of levels. I’d learn this the hard way in a bit.

There were other warning signs: as I started familiarising myself with their editorial style, I found a number of “sensational” articles being published alongside their regular fodder – strange, tabloid-ish incidents, kinky sex stories, domestic abuse gone wrong, even gruesome deaths due to neglect or crimes of passion. I was uneasy about the content arrangement. This really isn’t the kind of thing our target  want to read, I thought. But then I was told that this was necessary to attract readership (advertisers were the business’s core source of revenue, and readership numbers were crucial to maintaining our price point), and it also worked (somewhat) to lead people into our more serious writing. So I tried to swallow it and move on.

Then there were the KPIs. I was tasked to come up with at least 2 articles a day, 5 days a week (my editor at the time would tell me each writer would typically do 4 articles a day, but since I was new, she’d start me slow), while maintaining 2-3 hourly Facebook posts to drive online traffic to everything we published.

But the biggest sign I should really have taken heed to: I was the only writer in the company, and the only one of two in the entire organisation, that had kids. When I raised this concern with my editor and the CEO, both understandably didn’t subscribe to the notion, saying that in the many years since the publications were established, they got by fine without writer-parents. Besides, they both didn’t have any children, either, and they were both contributing to the content pool anyway. The revelation – and its subsequent brushing off – made me feel, somehow, alone.

A week into the job, the company went through a surprise restructure. Though editorial was assured that our jobs were intact (which later turned out to be untrue), a staffer in charge of one of their newer websites decided to resign, giving his two week’s notice. The website was handed over to me, with a view for me to drive unique visitor numbers up from its current 10,000 to 30,000 by the end of the following month.

My own inexperience showed, both in the way I worked and in the way I accepted my work. In the 2 months I was there, my dream turned into a nightmare. I was being chided for not being able to keep up, criticised for coming to work late and leaving on time (I was dropping my son off at school and had to pick him up on time after work). The stress of the job was taking a toll on me; I found myself unable to meeting my daily writing quotas, neglecting my blogs, and at one point, fighting with my then 3-year-old son. The stress manifested physically as well; I started losing sleep and my mojo, and I had bouts of uncontrollable trembling. I lost confidence; I felt I was failing, as an employee, as a writer, as a father. I felt impotent, hopeless, and utterly useless as a human being. I was slipping into depression.

Things came to a head when the editor brought me to the conference room in private to tell me that I was not performing up to expectations; I was still only able to churn out about 2 articles a day for the websites -some days only 1 – and I was only able to bring the website under my care up to 29,000 visitors, 1,000 short of the 30,000 I was supposed to hit by the end of that month. In view of my performance, and in line with the recent decision by the board to restructure, the management was converting the entire editorial department from full-time to freelance.

The entire editorial department consisted of 4 personnel: the editor, that was to remain full-time because she had to manage the editorial department (hmm), a writer in Malaysia that was to remain full-time because he was to be reassigned other tasks, another writer in the same office as me (because, as I was told, the other writer was allegedly also not performing), and me.

Then I was told not to worry, as they hoped to assign me enough work to match my full-time salary, at between $30 ( for non-advertorial, non-sponsored articles, or what they termed “summary articles”) to $100 (for advertorials). (Again, I may have been terribly naive to think it should have been higher, but can someone enlighten me about this as well?) So  under this new arrangement, I now had to churn out more work than I already was the last two months – between 61 to 92 articles a month (including event attendances) in order to keep my salary level, with no benefits and no freelancing with any other parenting publication.

And as if I wasn’t dazed enough from the obvious double-talking, I was told I had till Friday to decide – I was notified at the end of our Tuesday workday.

The next two days nearly broke me. I tried to cope with the sudden and rather brutal changes that I thought was all in a day’s work in an industry I was slowly realising I knew nothing about. To this day, I still couldn’t figure out if the company was screwing with me, or I was simply not fit to be in a full-time editorial position. My wife initially advised me to “grit my teeth and bear it”; I was a father, and we needed to sustain ourselves whilst I tried to find something new.

But even she could only bear so much; the final straw came when I received an email from the CEO of the company while I was attending a gala movie screening as the Blogfather with the Mother of Xander two days later. In the email, amongst the reiteration of my alleged incompetence, I was also accused of being “highly unproductive and disruptive”, with “a work style that is not compatible with your immediate supervisor”.

Something in me snapped when I got to that line in the message. Gone were the feelings of loss, hopelessness and depression – pushed aside with a fresh, slow burn of quiet fury.

Just before the lights dimmed at the theatre, I showed my wife the email on my phone. She took about 30 seconds to go through it, then returned me my phone, turned her eyes back at the cinema screen and said, “Quit.”

And that was all I needed to hear.


  • The Wife

    Well, my actual response to that email included a few very nice NSFW swear words in Hokkien and Ingrish about her and the whole drama. I guess “Quit” alone is politically correct enough.

    • The Blogfather

      I remember the moment: we were at the theatre’s opening adverts segment, and you delivered your beautiful serenade of profanities swiftly enough to end off just as Resident Evil: Retribution began rolling.

      It was a really good movie date.

  • Sandra Tan

    Ugh… Talk about exploitation! (And now I know why there are so many substandard articles in that site… paying peanuts can only attract the monkeys) 😛 Good on you for getting out of there, and moving on. Sure took a lot of courage, but your wifey is awesome la!

  • Hillary Chan

    I think I know which asian site you’re referring to. This is not the first time they’d done this to a friend of mine. I will not click on any of their articles from now on.

      • Daniel Yap

        Often in life you come across these people who are willing to sacrifice the essence of their business or ethics for a little money. It is a tough balance – but I recall Jean Valjean made the right decision once. Running your own outfit is a whole other world of choices.

        But for you, the question is where are you going to learn all these skills and processes from? That’s why it is hard to switch lines mid career – the pay cut (that will naturally follow a drop in competence in the new role) isn’t easy to absorb.

        It’s not unheard of to file 4 stories in a day and also do editing for freelancers and post on social media, but these guys have been doing it for years. They turn stories around in 45 minutes or less (my own blog posts take an hour or so). But you need a good editor to train you. The standing of the publication also helps because news sometimes comes to you, rather than you having to go hunt a story.

        I have no idea how you were remunerated at the start, but for sure expectations were too high, and with margins in publishing as tight as they are, you need deep pockets (for staying power) to skill people up to a productive level.

        Then again, I don’t necessarily think every publication NEEDS to file that many stories in a day.

        • The Blogfather

          I learnt a whole different set of skills and processes from this event alone. That aside, I would consider this a successful switching of horses mid-stream (complete with expectations managed)–I’m still a writer, though with a commercialised prefix to my title.

          I had a paragraph (since removed) in there asking just that which you and another friend have answered (offline as well as here): whether writers really are expected to turn around up to 4 articles a day. I believe considering my age and working experience the organisation in question really did think I was capable of doing so (doesn’t help that I had this blog that could have misrepresented my prolificacy).

          As scarred as I am from the experience, I will be the first to admit I didn’t go into this correctly myself, so I take this account to be a study of how I would have done things differently so I don’t shortchange myself (or others) again.

          But I will not go so far as to wish these people well; I’m not that magnanimous.

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