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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dan Baum, part 2

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Dan Baum, former New Orleans correspondent for The New Yorker, has finished Twittering the tale of his release from the magazine (and posted it in more coherent form on his Web site

). When Baum began his tale last week, I said: "It’s hard not to feel empathy for the man, even as he comes off as tone-deaf to the way other writers (and people) live, complaining about a gig that paid him $90,000 a year for 30,000 words; that’s nearly six figures for around 1,700 words a week." (I miscalculated; it's actually 576 words a week.)

Unfortunately, I don't think living in post-K New Orleans taught Baum anything about how the rest of the world lives, making far less than 90 large a year, not operating on year-to-year guaranteed contracts, subject to firing or downsizing or cutbacking faster than you can say "right-to-work state." In the conclusion of his tale, Baum writes:

My contract was renewed after one year, and then after the second. Both times were nail-biters. It isn’t pleasant, late in one’s career, to face a life-or-death career moment every year. Not the genteel, tweed-jacket kind of life I’d envisioned at the New Yorker. But that’s modern life. And as I say, all New Yorker writers put up with it, I’m told. Even the big names.

Each year, I got a three-percent raise. That’s small, but hell, ninety-something large is good pay. And it’s not like we went into journalism to get rich....

I, like all New Yorker writers, was never an employee. No 401K and no health insurance does more than deny nice benefits. It sends a message: You’re on your own. We only buy your services. And we’ll revisit that every year.

To me, listening to a man carp about making $90,000 a year by writing for The New Yorker is like listening to an NBA star carp about his measly $15 million contract. It's unseemly. It's infuriating. And it's particularly maddening when that journalist is making his 90K by living among and reporting on folks who have just gone through a major collective tragedy, many of whom have lost everything they ever worked for. (What would've been sufficient recompense for Baum's mandatory 576 words a week, I wonder? $150,000? $500,000? A 5-year contract? A 50-year contract?)

Susan Orlean, another New Yorker writer (she wrote The Orchid Thief, and a wonderful collection of essays called Saturday Night), has raised many of the same issues about Baum on her own Twitter account:

Point one: Anyone is entitled to beef about their life, their job, their relationships. I do not challenge the right to beef.

Point Two: No one likes to get fired (or not re-upped, as the case may be). & no one, me included, takes pleasure in someone getting axed.

Dissing your boss? Whining abt story credits? Writing stories that aren't good enough to run? Seeming to dislike the mag itself? Hmmm.

Q: Is horribly misreading an institution a good sign in a reporter? Aren't we supposed to be good at figuring out people & places?

Also: Don't think any mag, esp. New Yorker, kills pieces for spite or fun. It's expensive, depressing, wastes everyone's time. No one wins.

I agree with Orlean, but Baum deserves the last word:

I liked writing for an intelligent readership with broad interests. I liked the editing, and the factchecking.

I liked having New Yorker business cards, and the prestige that went with them. And I loved the regular check.

The biggest disappointment was learning that, after all, it’s not only about the work on the page.

That the writing life is not a pure meritocracy, or a refuge from office politics. All that crap still matters.

Even at the top of the heap. Perhaps especially at the top of the heap.

Who knew?

OK. Life is not a pure meritocracy; office politics exist at The New Yorker; and writing isn't just about what appears on the page. Who knew?

Not Dan Baum.

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