On 2020

on 2020 year in review end of year writing blog pandemic twenty twenty mmxx

I’m starting to wonder, right, if I might be allergic to New Year’s Day. This year and the last I’ve spent throwing up, without any particularly obvious cause the day before to point to as a prompt. So, clearly an allergy then, I suppose.

Anyway, 2020. Easy to strike the wrong note with this one – too glib, too superficial, whatever. I’m conscious also that my experience of the year was a fairly insulated one, on the whole; I never caught the virus, the people I know that did catch it didn’t catch it especially seriously, so on, so forth. On the whole: not the best year of my life, certainly not the worst. (That’d be a toss-up between 2018 and 2019, I guess.) Basically, it was a middling one, which is something I am quite lucky to be able to say. Still, let’s set that aside for the moment – I have no particular insights to offer on those aspects of 2020, and anyway, it’s not like those aspects of 2020 are limited to that calendar year. So, you know, maybe next year I’ll have some thoughts on the pandemic. Maybe even with the benefit of hindsight!

Instead! The usual year in review. Looking back on what I wrote this time last year, about 2019, it’s striking to see how much I was on the cusp of winding everything down. Not unsurprising, exactly; like I said, 2019 was a mess, and if at any given point I don’t want to give this all up and retire then it’s likely been a pretty good fortnight. Still, it’s interesting to see it written out like that, because it’s usually a much more ephemeral, indeterminate thing.

The question at the end of that piece: how can I make this all work, what does it mean for this to work? By any reasonable metric, I think 2020 worked. Several of my highest profile interviews ever; I covered two film festivals (for this website, too, rather than another outlet, which confers a degree of legitimacy onto the whole thing); I wrote more, in terms of pure volume, and I was much happier with most of it as a general rule; I started doing some work with a new website, the Radio Times; I was a guest on my first podcast; this wordpress hosted version of my blog is finally starting to take off in terms of traffic. (Also think I had about a thousand more twitter followers by the end of the year compared to the start, which, you know.)

Obviously, there’s caveats and concerns and plenty of individual frustrations on a day-to-day basis – it still doesn’t pay as much as it used to, let alone as much as it should, for one thing – but, on the whole… 2020 worked, for me, in this one particular way that I’d hoped it would. Which is good!

Going into 2021, I think what I want to work out now is how to do this job – writer, critic, grudgingly maybe at a push “journalist” I suppose – in a way that feels consistent with and reflective of my own kind of personal-moral-ethical-political-whatever framework-and-or-outlook, as it were. I don’t mean, like, “Riverdale’s subtle polemic against the prison industrial complex, my latest for Tribune” – though, you know, if they’re interested – but more… More in terms of everything else, I guess: not just the content I’m writing, but the editorial lines it’d sit alongside, the chain of ownership it’s situated in, the voices it jostles up against. (You’ll be able to guess I suspect that I have quite specific ideas in mind, but I don’t quite want to commit them to writing yet.) I also want to try and be more helpful, I think; I’ve been doing this all for ages now, and I figure I know enough that I might be of some use to people who haven’t been doing it for ages. So, I’ll work that out too, somehow.

Anyway, preamble aside, here’s the bit I’m sure you’re all really interested in: a selection of my best/favourite/other pieces of work from across the past year, arranged broadly chronologically rather than due to any particular preference.

And, hey, let’s also include a couple I would’ve done differently, because that’s always pretty interesting too.

  • Segun Akinola was a very nice guy – I’ve nothing but good things to say about him, both on an individual level as someone to talk to, and on a critical level as the composer for a television show. My interview with him, though, was perhaps not my best. I’d planned lots of specific questions about the more granular details of his creative process, but across our conversation it became clear that he approaches his work more instinctively – I don’t think I did a great job of responding to that in the moment, to come up with new questions more well-tailored to what was saying. Still a reasonably solid interview, I think, but I wouldn’t say I was really able to draw out any particular insights from him.
  • The Spitting Image piece is an odd one. Any 2020 roundup I might do would be incomplete without it – that article is the most viewed piece on my website, after all. I’m a little hmm on it though still; in part because I didn’t ever think it was brilliant (I nearly didn’t publish it at all), but also because I was a bit overzealous in sharing it. Hard to resist – I can spend a couple of hours sharing links on different forums across the internet to a couple of hundred views max, but link that piece in the replies to a Spitting Image tweet and suddenly I’ve hit nearly a thousand clicks in an hour – but I suspect a bit undignified at times. (As some people felt the need to say!)
  • Something to learn from it, mind, in that I think a big part of the reason it did so well was that it was the first substantive left-wing critique of the show to publish. Worth thinking about while I try and work out how to do all this going forward, I suspect.

Anyway! That’s that for this year. No idea what 2021 holds, exactly; more interviews, more reviews, ideally more publications. I’m still trying to be as productive as I used to be, hitting multiple articles a week, which might just be too ambitious these days (in my old age!) – worth a try, though. Be good to try and rack up a few more bylines, maybe do some more podcasts. Hmm.

Tell you what I did work out, though. December 2020 was five years since my first piece was published at Yahoo (and January 2021 is four years since my first piece was published at Metro). In that time, I’ve written – give or take – four hundred professional articles (so, anything not on this website), which is roughly equivalent to an article and a half for a week. That’s pretty neat, I reckon. Pleased with that.

(Oh! There was another question at the end of the 2019 piece, I realise. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to figure out how to make it fun again.” I did, I think. Not consistently so, not quite yet, but there’s been an improvement. Pleased with that, too.)

You can find more of my writing here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. (Though I imagine if you’ve read this post you probably know both of those things already anyway.)

On 2019

on 2019 year in review alex moreland freelance journalist tv

Somewhere along the way, I think, I lost confidence in it all a little.

I did not write a lot in 2019. I checked the numbers – you can do this on WordPress, it’s really cool – and across 2019, I published 42 blog posts, totalling 34, 554 words, which is about half of 2018’s 60, 93 words across 99 blog posts, itself a considerable amount less than those halcyon days of 2017, when I published 240 articles. The numbers aren’t actually all that informative – I mostly post short excerpts of full articles published elsewhere, so I imagine the actual number of words written is much higher – but the trend, I think, says something.

There’s a couple of reasons why, none of which are especially interesting. I don’t have the regular Yahoo column anymore, that’s one. I moved to a different country (well, Wales, and only part time, but shut up, it sort counts), which was, in hindsight, probably a tad more disorienting than I ever really acknowledged at the time. But, in a slightly wider sense, I think I just lost track of why I was actually doing any of this at all.

I mean, it started out as a hobby, more or less. I stumbled into a job – it really only was a lucky coincidence that it started to pay, much as I insist that I’ve worked hard at it since – and efforts to turn it into a career have been elliptical at best. I think, sometimes, that I am quite good at writing; I am less convinced I am especially good at the things that would elevate it from a hobby to a career. Either way, it stopped being a hobby exactly – I am growing incapable of watching film or television without it feeling, at least a little bit, like work – and anyway, the money was never very good at all. Every so often, people on twitter will discuss their rates, the most and least they’ve ever been paid for an article – quite a lot of people’s least was much higher than the most I’d ever been paid.

And, I mean, that’s just the nature of it all, obviously. Journalism as an industry is shrinking: everyone knows print is dying, but look at digital too. BuzzFeed is one of very few actually profitable media outlets, and it laid off how many people this year? How many websites were bought and sold and mismanaged until they didn’t exist anymore? Staff writers are increasingly precarious, let alone freelancers. Everything pivots on how many clicks you can get, how quickly. I’ve freelanced for lots of different websites and publications over the years, but of the three outlets I worked with most, two of them have paid at least partially by the number of clicks I got for articles. (Which, yes, just the nature of it all, late stage capitalism, the Google/Facebook duopoly, I am not actually inclined to criticise either of those websites specifically, but in the general case this obviously is not conducive to healthy journalism. I mean, I wrote deliberately provocative stuff with a view towards getting higher views. Most of the time it didn’t work; one time, I ended up writing one of the most read Metro articles of 2017. That’s fine – well, ‘fine’ – if all you’re writing are relatively trivial hot takes about television, but as that sort of mentality starts to pervade and sweep across journalism more broadly, well, that’s not healthy for anyone.)

Which, you know, ties into the other thing. There’s a need, I think, for freelancers to start to develop a personal brand, to try and cultivate and grow that profile, because that’s the only way you’re ever gonna get those clicks. After a while it gets a little solipsistic, and you’re making spending a little too long thinking about constructed personalities and online artifice, and probably it’s all nonsense in the end anyway… but still. There’s a performance of Alex Moreland, Writer – because there has to be – and it’s becoming less a question of a creative voice, of a critical voice, but of a branded one, and there is something fundamentally very strange about trying to market your own constructed personality rather than your actual work.

I was reading a job listing recently, to be a political reporter – there’s a thought, how much value do I attach to entertainment and culture writing anymore, if I want to write is this still what I want to write – over at BuzzFeed. Not with a view towards anything in particular, I was just procrastinating. But anyway, for this job, you didn’t need a degree or an NCTJ… you needed to know how to go viral, you needed to have a lot of twitter followers, you needed to be good at TikTok. So I have a TikTok now, anyway. I’m not especially good at it.  Hopefully eventually though.

And, look, I am probably being very silly about all this. If nothing else, I still lost confidence in the actual words as written themselves. This isn’t entirely about all the associated ephemera: there was a lot of good old-fashioned writer’s block too.

Still. Somewhere along the way, this year, it stopped being fun. And that’s a shame, if nothing else.

This is not an announcement of retirement or anything, I will still be writing stuff to an audience of tens, you’ve nothing to worry about there. But I guess what I am saying – for myself more than any of you, dear readers – that this needs much, much deeper thought going forward if I’m going to make it work. For one thing, I probably need to figure out what it actually means for “it” to “work”! And hopefully, maybe, I’ll be able to figure out how to make it fun again… because if I’m not enjoying it then, well, what is the point?

So – brief (!) prelude over – here’s the work I was pleased with this year:

And that’s that! 2019, drawn to a close. Hopefully 2020 will bring… well, I’ll skip the traditional targets, if only because it’s getting increasingly dispiriting to look back on them a year later, still unfulfilled.

Hopefully 2020 will be fun.

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