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.