why we write

on voice, resistance, and community

Against seemingly all odds, media workers—writers, editors, and artists alike—have persisted. In light of COVID-19 making an already fragile media economy vulnerable to company-wide lay-offs, pay cuts, and closures, media workers have creatively devised a number of ways to secure a source of income. Some creators have turned to creating merchandise such as zines, posters, and ceramics to sell online. Others have turned to self-publishing platforms such as Substack, Medium, Patreon, and Only Fans to find some financial security through a quasi-democratic digital subscription-based ecosystem where consumers can pay creators and authors directly. Still, these platforms, which have proven useful to emerging self-employed creatives, do not resolve the vulnerabilities that come with losing work in a pandemic, such as healthcare, access to editors and legal support.

At the same time, major media companies have restructured and yielded growth in the midst of national crisis. Facing a drop in ad revenues and unique challenges brought on by COVID-19, a number of liberal news publications, including but not limited to the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, have increasingly relied on digital subscriptions to keep afloat. Having initially made pandemic related news coverage freely accessible outside of their paywalls, these news outlets have been able to convert a surprising amount of readers into subscribers while continuing to paywall their premium content during the pandemic. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, a number of media outlets had already begun to employ a paywall strategy that enabled non-subscribing readers a limited number of articles per month before encountering a paywall, a metered model. Alternatively, other outlets, such as Business Insider, have opted for a premium model that limits designated premium content behind paywalls with little to no freely accessible digital content. By March 2020, all of the aforementioned outlets had answered with some form of a paywall, if not a registration wall; the pandemic only exacerbated these news outlets’ reliance on them. As a consequence of these paywall strategies, publications like the New York Times have seen a record breaking number of 587,000 net digital subscriptions in its first quarter, totaling 5,841,000 subscriptions during the beginning of the pandemic despite laying off 68 staffers outside of newsrooms in its advertising departments this past summer. 

This is alarming for a number of reasons.

In the wake of rampant right-wing campaigns of misinformation online like the Qanon conspiracy theories, paywalling content that is written and fact checked by professional journalists has gatekept crucial information about the pandemic, the election, and national uprisings that now can’t reach the public. The premium model has further oriented journalism towards profitability, effectively shaping what kind of writing gets read, and more importantly, what’s paid for. The model and its marketing strategy has pushed for the promotion of stories that are inherently polarizing and marketed by clickbait titles aimed at potential paywall subscribers; take this headline for example. The news cycle and its penchant for spectacle has continued to front the stories that exploit the public’s capacity for shock, horror, and disgust, leaving more timeless and less reactive writing un-prioritized and undervalued. We’ve seen a parade of glossy celebrity-penned essays & interviews, and shocking takedowns of public figureheads in recent headlines, while substantive coverage of social justice movements or more timely personal essays remains underwhelming. Despite this, writers and non-writers alike want to write about their worlds in ways that do not subscribe to this model.

A few weeks ago, while talking to my friend Mary Retta over video chat, we (once again) reached the topic of writing. Mary, who is a freelance writer by trade, has been so instrumental in motivating me to write. In addition to being a fabulous writer herself, she has given me invaluable advice on how to go about pitching to publications and journalistic practices. While she has been successful in securing her own education column at Teen Vogue, she has also begun writing for herself on her free Substack newsletter, close but not quite, mostly for pleasure but also for sport. In her newsletter she writes about cottagecore fantasies, why Black girls listen to white girl music, and feminist politics. We discussed how exciting reading—and for her, writing—such a wide range of sometimes obscure topics on self-published platforms has been. At the end of our conversation, she mentioned how “everyone wants to write now,” observing how I was one of a few friends that has recently come to her for advice on how to embark on our own writing careers. She was right.

Admittedly, prior to the global pandemic, the thought of writing as a viable career path or even a part-time side hustle had never personally appealed to me. In spite of this, being unemployed upon graduating into the simultaneous public health crisis, economic crisis, and social justice movement that we’re currently facing has made me see the radical potential of writing. I’m not alone in this thinking. I’ve noticed how others have felt an innate desire to read and write about markedly independent, niche, and marginalized stories while social distancing. For example, consider how a newsletter subscription platform like Substack, which allows readers to pay and subscribe to writers directly, has seen immense growth, increasing its revenue by 60 percent in the first three months of the pandemic. Writers, such as Hunter Harris who was previously a culture writer for Vulture, have made the decision to leave their in-house posts at publications in favor of more personally curated newsletters on the platform. For many, this kind of writing has become a highly accessible and preferred form of expression to both consume and produce in isolation. For me, this writing is life sustaining.

As a video artist without any professional equipment to create video work, I can attest to how beautiful it is that all writing essentially requires is a mind, pencil, and paper (and today, a computer). In comparison to pursuing photography, making a film, or working on 3D art, the process of writing is within reach of most Americans' material means. Even more attractive is the convenience of sharing writing on the internet; words are sent through the internet in mere fractions of a second, made translatable, and rendered readily available to a large number of people with ease. Digitally even, words tend to be less censored than images online. Unlike other forms of expression, the written word is one that has been relied upon and rewarded for its endurance and accessibility.

I think it’s also safe to say that American democracy and schooling has depended upon this efficacy in writing, to a fault—teaching children to write persuasively in school, using objective writing to define laws, and evaluating writing by a matter of how concise it manages to be. It is this specific capitalist culture of writing—the kind that demands for faster and more easily consumable media—that has caused mainstream journalism to push writing to continuously narrow itself, and by extension, the scope of its writer. But when you have a president like Donald Trump who relies on oratory expressions of rage over any form of intentional written expression, and your socialization and ability to engage in dialogue(s) is limited by a global pandemic, those expectations of writing become a bit more obscure, and we all cave to a slower, and more intimate style of writing that satisfies our most wanton desires.

For a lack of better words, I want to call this form of writing slow journalism.[1]

Slow journalism can be about many things. In fact, it can be about anything. It can be about how heteronormativity fetishizes monogamy, memes and internet culture, or tenderqueers and privilege. Content and subject matter don’t inherently make this act of writing defy mainstream journalistic practice. You don’t need to be a writer to be a writer of slow journalism. Literally writing a piece slowly isn’t a necessary criterion either (although it could help). In fact, I use the word slow as a way of acknowledging the notion that growth and learning can be gentle and steady, tender if you will. To better grasp my understanding of slow journalism, I want to point to three key traits that make these written works slow:

  1. Slow journalism acts as a way of truth-telling for the author.

Instead of spinning conspiracies or aiming for the hottest take, the writer looks inward in order to tell truths that have been masked or gaslit. The competitive nature of writing within a capitalist media industry and framework is destroyed by the writer’s willingness and dedication to be honest and self-reflect; this writing is more intuitive than it is reactive. Consequently, slow journalism’s reader will have the potential to feel seen by this act of writing’s inherent vulnerability. It's why these essays that are just so #relatable. Slow journalism reads like a breath of fresh air because its author is finally seen.

  1. Slow journalism is curiously expansive. It can produce dialogue and community.

Mainstream journalism is often reactive, which prioritizes thinking in harmful binaries with regard to race, queerness, politics, etc. Slow journalism takes the time it needs to know its subject, poking and prodding holes at any potential line of inquiry. Sometimes this means questioning the status quo (the validity of capitalism, of democracy, of heteronormativity, etc.). Sometimes it means entirely critiquing aspects of mainstream culture. In some instances, it means sharing discoveries of untruths, and actively re-historicizing what we know of the world. What slow journalism consistently achieves is an engagement with nuance that expands and deepens perspective. The effect of this is tremendous. Through interdisciplinary, thorough digestion of a subject or topic, the writer is able to open up questions that have never been asked, drawing lines between cultural trends and ideologies that have once seemed disparate. All of my favorite pieces of slow journalism do this; explaining how a meme format carries neoliberal ideology, how sad girl culture allows white women to marry feminism and capitalism. In effect, the scope of the slow journalist’s chosen topic is broadened, and so is its relevance to its respective audience. Through this, readers and writers alike learn information, gain perspective, and find solidarity through shared sentiment. With slow journalism, writers are able to illustrate how intimate our world is through an unbounded curiosity, effectively world-building.

  1. Slow journalism is a form of resistance.

For writers, slow journalism empowers writers with increased autonomy. Slow journalism inherently resists capitalist modes of production through its disregard for clicks, likes, SEO optimization, a 24 hour news cycle, and the list goes on. By producing outside of conventional media institutions, writers are free to make more radical assertions that would be censored for being a threat to the white supremacist and late capitalist ideologies that keep these institutions afloat.

Paying writers directly through a non-hierarchical framework, where the writer is not valued above the reader as is typical in mainstream media outlets, enables writers to have control over the value of their work without the threat of a middle-man. For writers who choose to share their work for free, often with faith in the respective communities and mutual aid networks that support them, their work is made more accessible to folks without the financial means to pay for writing, while also allowing these writers to not have to monetize their creative expression.

Realistically, platforms like Substack have capitalized on the popularity of freelance writing; like any business, Substack does ultimately pose a threat to its users and discourse by virtue of its business model. That is undeniable. But the truth is, Substack, and subscription platforms like it, have further enabled slow journalism, simultaneously giving writers money to ‘put a roof over their head’ and physical and mental space to breathe. Feeling seen, engaging in meaningful dialogues, and resisting racism and late-stage capitalism seem rather impossible when it’s unsafe to leave your house in the peak of a global pandemic that the government is not productively responding to, but slow journalism does that all, if not coming quite close to it. Through slow journalism, social movements have flourished, and denizens of the internet have been gifted with non-hegemonic political education, lessons on better loving oneself, and ways to resist oppression. Slow journalism is in fact life sustaining.

So, we keep writing. And we write in pursuit of our own truths so that we feel less alone, despite the unofficial nationwide pandemic sanctioned isolation. Through the internet, anyone with time and some proclivity for sharing their thoughts, musings, or rants publicly is free to express themselves without any limits typically imposed by journalistic or academic writing, such as deadlines, formatting styles, or censorship. On apps like Twitter, users are taking advantage of not only the virtual platform, but the hyper-presence of its users (due to widespread unemployment and WFH) to generate not just never-ending hot takes and discourses, but community through shared interests and sentiments that often lead to really insightful queries. This desire to both feel seen and heard when you cannot come anywhere closer than six feet with someone has produced independent writing that balances niche content and accessible prose so well that it delights any reader who has become weary of the more formulaic writing that does not really see them. The idea of writing being good has never seemed more elusive. To be honest, the idea of writing being good has never seemed more flawed, an insufficient way of evaluating the written word. I think slow journalism is producing even better writing. When we write to express ourselves with such honesty, we reveal our own humanity, and I think that’s beautiful.

[1] I do realize there is a slow journalism movement that predates this essay, but I wish to use the term separately from the movement to discuss the ways in which people are independently motivated to write about their worlds during the recent global pandemic.  

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