I was cruising around online last Friday when I came across Dan Baum's narrative of his firing as a staff writer for The New Yorker. He was telling the story on Twitter, an event that, for a certain strata of the journalistic world, made for provocative if not scintillating reading, to wit:
"My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-
I was riveted. This was The New Yorker, a publication with no masthead, that does not reveal its deep pool of staff writers, and here was Baum, naming names.
I sent Baum's Twitter link to my sister-in-law and fellow journalist. The moment I hit "send" (and before she could respond that she was reading "on the edge of my seat!"), an email popped through from my pal Kevin Allman, editor of the New Orleans alt-weekly the Gambit, who'd just put up a blog post about Baum's tweets.
"Telling the story of losing your job in 140-character posts on Twitter is a whole lot of things, none of which seems like a remotely good idea for a teenager fired from a fast-food gig, much less a national magazine correspondent," Allman wrote, concluding that Baum's "meticulous, microscopic story of losing a job he loved seems the work of a man under a tremendous amount of pressure, using the Internet as a therapist."
I wrote Allman back saying, I bet there's a method to Baum's madness; that his post-Katrina book, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, had been released in February, and maybe he was using what weapons he had in his arsenal to promote it, a position Baum verified when he commented on Allman's post:
It's a gimmick, yes, and I hope it sells books, sure. But it's also galled me a bit, as a reporter, that the New Yorker pulls a veil of secrecy over itself to rival the NSA. I mean, it's a very good magazine, but it's just a magazine.
I later emailed Baum (whom I do not know) with the idea I might write an editorial about what it takes these days to sell a book. He wrote back that traffic on his website was "pretty low" and he thought Twitter might spread the word a little faster. As for pulling back the curtain on The New Yorker:
When [New Yorker editor David] Remnick fired me, somebody from Gawker called and I was very careful not to burn bridges. I put all the blame on myself and said I hoped I could win my job back. What I got instead was a scolding from the magazine for revealing the top-secret information that New Yorker writers operate on a year-to-year contract. It's clear that Remnick will never have me back at the magazine, so really, what further harm can he cause me? Especially now, when any such attempt would be newsworthy?
I felt for Baum, though what he was doing was for me queasy-making. Maybe it's because I've been a freelancer my whole career, and when junior writers ask for advice, I invariably say: be courteous, make your editors' lives easier, get your work in on time, and remember, it's not your magazine.
Baum stopped tweeting the New Yorker narrative midway on Friday, with the promise to resume Monday. In the meantime, I kept an eye on his stats: when I checked his Twitter followers on Friday, there were 250. By Tuesday, there were 2201. More important, Nine Lives's sales rank on Amazon.com was 5171 on Saturday, and 2704 on Tuesday. If his objective had been to sell books, he'd been successful.
But I thought, as I resumed reading Monday, at what cost? Baum's tweets were by turns hopeful and remorseful; accusatory and resigned - you can read the entire narrative in order, though it's not as much of a nail-biter as reading it backwards, in spurts - and while I thought I'd be interested to learn more about what goes on inside the editorial sanctum sanctorum, I found myself wanting to look away. I did not want to see The New Yorker in any state of undress, or rather, one writer's version of that undress, and started to feel sympathy not toward Baum (who, as he tells it, really did muck up things with Remnick) but the magazine.
This no longer seemed as much a case of the lengths an author will go to promote his book, as a good way to wreck a career. What editor would want to work with a writer who, once fired, decides to tell all? Did Baum not anticipate the blowback, including a rejoinder from someone who should know?
But then I thought, perhaps sales were never the point. If, as Kevin Allman wrote, Baum felt under tremendous pressure, maybe he chose to cloak confession as marketing gimmick. And if it enough people read it, maybe he would no longer feel the chill of being locked out of a place that for him was "the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I loved it." Maybe he wanted the world to know that, in its way, the magazine had once loved him, too.