Marina Shifrin and I both studied journalism at the University of Missouri, and at roughly the same age—she's 25, I used to be—we quit jobs that didn't suit our talents. I remember nervously approaching the guy who ran the ad department of the Disciples of Christ publishing arm in Saint Louis to tell him I was moving on. "I can't believe you stayed as long as you did," he said. The other day, Shifrin went into her empty office at 4:30 AM and made a video she called "An Interpretive Dance For My Boss Set To Kanye West's Gone." She posted her video online and it went viral. The Kansas City Star, one of the more than 300 news sites that commented on the video, said Shifrin has found herself a place "in the 'Leaving My Job in a Blaze of Glory' pantheon."
I'm not so sure. That pantheon is reserved for rebellious wage slaves who hated their toil and let the world know it with Spartacus-like grandiosity. For instance, Garrison Keillor, on quitting the New Yorker after Tina Brown was hired as editor in 1992: "A great American magazine falls into the clutches of a Staten Island newspaper mogul who goes out and hires a British editor who seems to know this country mainly from television and movies, and nobody says much about it." Or George W.S. Trow to Brown on leaving the same magazine for the same reason: "For you to kiss the ass of celebrity culture at this moment that way is like selling your soul to get close to the Hapsburgs—in 1913."
Shifrin's video is close to friendly. Her interpretive dance finds her bouncing around cubicles, up on desks and down again, in and out of the john. "I work for an awesome company that produces news videos," say her superimposed titles. "For almost two years I've sacrificed my relationships, time and energy for this job. And my boss only cares . . . about quantity and how many views each video gets. So I figure . . . I'd make ONE video of my own. To focus on the content instead of worry about the views. Oh, and to let my boss know . . . (dance break) I quit. I QUIT! I'm gone."
Focusing on content, she got the views too. A lesson for us all.
On her blog, under the headline "Journalism Is Dead (To Me)," Shifrin expands on her situation. She begins, "I want to make one thing clear: I do not think 'journalism is dead.' In fact, I think journalism is the 'Madonna' of professions; it will get face lifts until it outlives us all. This is a post about my decision to stop trying to be a journalist."
Shifrin worked for a Taiwan-based outfit called Next Media Animation, which boasts that it's the "fastest 3D animation studio in the world," famous for its "daily CG animated news stories with their millions of followers." NMA's international news division "produces more than 30 animated news stories daily" as well as "funny, viral animations" that you might have seen on the Cartoon Network, Conan, The Daily Show, and the BBC.
When I was in journalism school we mastered the organization of something called the California Job Case, the box holding the lead type from which headlines and stories were constructed. This skill prepared students for a future that a few had in store: returning to their hometowns in rural Missouri to take over the local weekly from their fathers. Most of us had other ambitions; but if I recall correctly, signing on with a powerhouse animated-news studio in Taipei was on no one's horizon.
But if times have changed, Shifrin's experience out in the workaday news world was in fundamental respects no different from our own. There was joy: "I was free to make jokes and put my personality into my writing. I loved it!" she exclaims on her blog. There was obsession: "I dropped everything for work. I spent hours in the office perfecting my headlines, my voice overs, my stories." And finally there was disgust at her shop's taste in news.
To give us an idea about that, on her blog Shifrin provides a list of "stories we published one day." They include:
- Private jet crashes into Indiana houses killing two
- At least 10 dead in Somalia car bomb
- Six men arrested in gang rape of Swiss tourist in India
- British father and son in fatal accident on Mont Blanc
- Two killed after race car careens into pit lane in California
- Experienced Australian pilot killed in replica Spitfire crash
Forgive me for yawning, but how many times have we heard this beef? Here, for instance, is the 2000 valediction of an Arizona journalist, Rich Robertson, leaving the biz after 30 years in print and TV. He said then what Shifrin says now. "Journalists are forced to pander to the same gawker reflex that causes traffic to snarl near car wrecks," Robertson wrote. "We want viewers and readers to slow down to see us, so we give them a whole bunch of car wrecks and other forms of mayhem." If it bleeds it leads, in other words.
When Shifrin bared her soul to her boss his reply was in the best tradition of the cigar-chewing editors of yore setting straight the city room's perplexed young romantics. "Make deadlines, not art," he said.
Animation company, big-city tabloid: tomato, to-mah-to!
But there's one other strand to the fabric of Marina Shifrin that I want to acknowledge. Journalists of a certain vintage are confounded by the contemporary insistence on self-expression—the ukase that the story's not finished until you've ballyhooed it on social media, the dictum to do whatever it takes to get noticed if you want to get anywhere in a shrinking industry. But even by the new terms of the trade, Shifrin's an outlier. She has her website, marinavshifrin.com, and her occasional blog, where she publishes work of a more personal nature—"For the love of Brazilian waxes," for instance—and links to YouTube videos of her stand-up comedy act, performed in a club in Taipei. And for a while she had her "journalism" job, creating animated news in Taiwan, which must have appealed to her because it was so completely bizarre.
And looking around the Internet for Marina Shifrin, I discover there's a Facebook page, "Shifrin Genealogy," where members of the clan are invited to buy the "100 Anniversary Shifrin Family Tree Book" and nail down how they're related to Marina Shifrin, or to whiz kid alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, or to Hollywood composer Lalo Schifrin, composer of the Mission Impossible theme, or to "any other Shifrin whose fame lasted 15 min or more."
And now there's the job she's been offered by Queen Latifah as a digital content producer on her new syndicated talk show.
In other words, Shifrin has the earmarks of someone both adroit and driven, like other young creatives I've known who got into the news game because they wanted a roof over their heads, three squares a day, and a good time while they honed their art. As it happens, one of the Mizzou professors Shifrin was closest to graduated from the J-school there the same year I did. "Marina was one of my advanced students," Steve Kopcha tells me. "She was not a showboat, kind of quiet in class. But I discovered late in the game that she was extremely creative and talented. I can't imagine a more difficult way to try and make a living than stand-up comedy. But she has done it . . . and I hope she moves back to New York and gets back at it. She is an amazing talent and I have immense respect for her."
Years ago I knew a UPI reporter, Richard Sudhalter, who was based in Frankfort, then London, then Belgrade. That was his day job. But who was he? He was a jazz trumpeter. Finally he moved to New York to write books and make music—which is what he was remembered for at his death in 2008, his reporting mentioned only in passing. Journalism is stranger than ever, but a lot of unusual people have always been found roosting there. As different as Shifrin seems to be, there's a tradition and she's part of it.