I’ve been reading a lot of good things about Jack Shafer. Most, it seems, can be written in fewer than 140 characters. Nothing wrong with that! Among the people I follow on Twitter, a perhaps unsurprising number of accomplished journalists have worked with—and owe significant aspects of their career to—Jack.
I haven’t worked with Jack. I barely know him. We’ve met twice, both times at an investigative journalism conference, where people hover around him in ever-tightening orbits until they get to talk with him, and I skulk around with the other young journalists waiting for our openings. I enjoyed meeting him; he’s a nice guy. It’s an odd feeling referring to him as “Jack” in a public setting like this, because that makes it sound like we’re buddies. We do follow each other on Twitter, which might have sounded like weird nonsense a few years ago, but which now means something. (I consider it a badge of honor, no matter how easy it is to hit the “follow” button; as far as I know, Jack is careful about whom he follows.)
Four people were laid off at Slate yesterday, and Jack Shafer was one of them. Shafer is good at Twitter, and the news is still bouncing around over there. It’s gotten a lot of attention among the chattering classes.
While we’re talking about layoffs, also yesterday, 20 people lost their jobs at newspapers around St Louis, and the Bay Area News Group announced 120 would be cut during an upcoming consolidation. Media is a tricky business these days.
What might might explain the widespread public reaction to the Slate layoffs are that these are journalists with a national audience whose personalities came through in their work. Mass layoffs at newspapers can still feel anonymous (unless, of course, you’re the laid-off or in their circle of friends and family). But guys like Noah and Shafer, who I’ve been reading since college more than a decade ago, bring the concept of professional instability back into sharp relief.
They’ve had an opportunity many other journalists would love to have, and I’d say they earned it. Juliette Lapidos is a sharp, efficient observer; check out her recent piece on the politics of Parks and Recreation, one of those I-wish-I’d-written-that articles. I happen to follow June Thomas on Twitter, where she has an offbeat kind of charm and seems to watch a lot of television. It was Tim Noah who got me hooked on Slate. His forthcoming book on inequality in America will surely be required reading. Though he ranges widely and seems to have had a much different background than me, reading him on topics like class and status was to be reminded of where I came from (or don’t come from). And if any one writer kept me coming back to Slate as an avid reader, it was Shafer.
Shafer has written about this sort of thing in the past. Earlier this summer, he even collected two columns‘ worth of notes from journalists who’d been fired! A couple years ago, he wrote about the wave of buyouts across media, which is now uncomfortably resonant:
The “retirement” of the buyout brigade has the added benefit of loosening the ugly stranglehold the boomers have over the press. I may be risking self-extermination by advocating wholesale boomer expulsion, but there are just too many of us—especially the older variety—in top slots for journalism’s good. The sheer weight of our presence blocks the promotion of the next generation of talented journalists to the most desirable beats.
We like our nice salaries, we enjoy our benefits and vacation time, we dig our place in the pecking order, and we expect to live forever. So why should we leave? Our intransigence not only gives our product a rancid boomer tang—who can blame nonboomers for being repulsed?—it tends to stifle innovation.
Ouch! But Classic Jack. Shafer didn’t fall into that professional groove (nor his colleagues), and his point is as easily applied to tenured professors or others who ease into a late-mid-career doldrum. I don’t think anyone, young or old, begrudged his role at Slate, except maybe Rupert Murdoch, if Murdoch deigned to notice. And as the American Journalism Review profile published yesterday points out, he writes like a much younger writer. (Aside: a favorite part of that piece is the sullen-sounding contribution from Tom Goldstein, dean of the journalism school I attended despite carefully reading Shafer’s thoughtful evaluation of j-schools.)
So I figure Jack Shafer will land on his feet. It might take some time, as these things do. He’s gotten more positive recommendations and fantasy job offers in the last day than I’ve gotten my whole life. If I had the right publication and a budget, I’d hire him. (Fantasy job offer.) Wouldn’t you? Look at the tweets where people imagine Jack’s reaction to the outpouring of online adoration, or how he should be the one to cover it, or where he should go next. It’s like people have a Jack Shafer Platonic Ideal and finally have a reason to spill it all over Twitter. I smell a fan-fiction opportunity here. Jack, capitalize on this.
And so, for whatever it’s worth, even though last night Jim Cramer tweeted the following,
Hitting the night spots in Bismarck. Shocked about Shafer, loved that guy.
— Jim Cramer (@jimcramer) August 25, 2011
I muddle on somehow and continue to refer to Shafer in the present tense.
Wait! I do have something specific to thank Jack Shafer for:
Last Sunday, as Tripoli was overrun with rebel fighters, I ruminated:
Curious what will they do with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber returned to Gaddafi's benevolent embrace.
— Tim Lesle (@telesle) August 21, 2011
Which Jack then re-tweeted (technically modify-tweeted, if you wondered what the MT meant):
MT @telesle: What will they do with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber returned to Gaddafi's benevolent embrace.
— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) August 21, 2011
Who turns out to be Morgan Fairchild. And then she followed me. Welcome aboard, Morgan! I’m not sure how to describe what I’m feeling,* but I appreciate the follow.
And we still don’t know what will happen with al-Megrahi.
Good luck, Jack!
*Update: It’s cool! In retrospect, I think I’m just humble-bragging.