← Aaron Shapiro

Why I Care About Digital Media

Last week’s layoffs were another punch to a community more fragile than it should be.

Before the tech industry formed its second, sturdier bubble, studying design was a gamble. Jobs were scarce and as my classmates and I entered our last semester, we aspired to little more than poorly-paid, entry-level roles at local advertising agencies. After a few years, the luckiest among us would go on to work for the more colorful brands like Target, or a packaging design agency to brand beer labels and yogurt.

I was lucky – eventually having the opportunity to leave the agency world for in-house tech jobs that hadn’t existed until recently. Design as a process was always gratifying, but after five jobs I still hadn’t found a company I believed in. In the decade since leaving school, I’d pitched unrealized app concepts to financial companies and network carriers, chased negligible improvements to e-commerce sales, failed to crack the questionably useful digital payments industry, and sat through rounds of profit-chasing layoffs and restructures.

After slogging through so many unsatisfying projects and watching the promising ones fail, I was beginning to question whether graphic design was still my passion. If 2016 had gone differently, I may have opened a bar in a decade-early, mid-life crisis.

Digital media has always been one of the less comfortable industries to work in, but 2016 was rough. Gawker’s murder at the hands of a literal vampire couldn’t have come at a worse time as the country’s worst grifter – soon to be our oldest, dumbest president – lied with little consequence. Along with Trump’s popularity came a bizarre alliance of 4chan trolls and assimilated boomers – both declaring war on the writers keeping me sane. It felt like the country was crumbling, so putting my design support behind good writing gave me a reason to put the new bar on hold and take one more shot at finding my spark.

Few people place VICE alongside, say, The New York Times. In the same way BuzzFeed struggles to reconcile its quizzes with its reporting, VICE is mostly known for its coverage of sex, drugs, and sex on drugs. And hey – that’s okay! The article stuck in my head from last year wasn’t about the Mueller investigation. It was about a guy serving tacos made from his leg meat. Joining VICE’s design team in 2016 gave me the chance to design for meaningful reporting in a vibrant environment that didn’t always take itself too seriously – even if meaningful reporting was the part I was most proud to be part of.

I’m not being charitable by working for a massive, for-profit company, but finding a cause in my work has made me think differently about my role. For startups or tech companies, good design can make or break the product. For advertising agencies, good design is the product. But in this role, design is a stage for great writing. If I can invisibly help people find something to read and stay out of their way while they enjoy it, I’ve succeeded.

As I’ve spent more time working in digital media, my Twitter timeline has become an incompatible mix of designers and writers. Seeing them collide has reinforced how hollow it is to only focus on the craft of design. It’s tough to post about how to organize your design team’s component library knowing your thoughts will appear alongside threads on voter suppression or teachers strikes.

As the design world spent mid-January debating whether Slack’s new logo looked like a dick kaleidoscope, Tania put it best:

Two-and-a-half years later, I’ve worked on nearly every digital product VICE owns, from templating our dozen websites to redesigning our apps and video player. I’ve worked alongside writers I admire, contributed to projects I’m proud of, and became friends with some of the smartest, most thoughtful people in New York who inspire me in ways designers never have. After my experience at VICE, returning to a startup or tech company terrifies me.

And then...

Over 2,000 people lost their jobs last week. Aside the debacle that was BuzzFeed’s weekend-spanning process, the layoffs otherwise followed a routine recognizable to anyone who’s followed digital media this decade. Executives email employees – first writing about recent success, then revealing the difficult decision to restructure and say goodbye to the people whose work led to that success. With BuzzFeed, that note leaked. With VICE, that note was coordinated with a PR piece. In either case, employees mostly found out about their company’s layoffs when everyone else did.

Because internal communication is limited during mass layoffs, many of us spent last week refreshing Twitter to see who would post the next announcement that they’d been let go.

We hugged our crying friends as they packed their desk plants, tweeted our condolences to those we couldn’t be with in person, and slogged through surprise and heartbreak until receiving permission to call it day.

We heard the same justifications this time as we did after layoffs at Mic, Vox, The Outline, and Refinery29. Google and Facebook consume 80% of ad revenue. Facebook’s video views were inflated, leading to hiring that needed to be undone. We’re fighting for readers’ attention with more social media sites and streaming services than ever. And besides, why pay anyone when people will do the work for free?

Those all matter, but questionable spending doesn’t get its share of the blame. Last fall, BuzzFeed likely spent the equivalent of dozens of reporters’ salaries to open a toy store in Flatiron. Despite touting ourselves as a global media company, VICE spent an undisclosed amount of money to shift focus to local events this year – mostly in Williamsburg. On a much larger scale, The Washington Post spent over $5 million on a forgettable Super Bowl ad on the importance of good reporting while their union leaders criticize them for skimping on their reporters’ health insurance and measly parental leave.

The industry is fragile, but I’m skeptical that it has to be. By relying less on venture capital, spending less on executives’ pet projects, and investing in the systemically underpaid writers who are the backbone of these companies, we can at least stabilize enough to continue publishing meaningful reporting without the fear of frequent, impending layoffs. We should ask ourselves if we really need to spend a reporter’s salary installing a new analytics package or hosting a local event.

Until we spend more responsibly and invest in our writing, I fear the fragility of an industry that finally, after a decade of failures, made me feel like my design work meant something. People reassure me by saying I could always go back to a tech company if this doesn’t work out, but at this point I’d rather open my bar.