Exit Interviews: Phoebe Gavin

A calling isn’t a job or an industry. It’s an activity or an impact.”

(Derek Coy photo)

About this occasional series: These exit interviews offer honest critique for journalism as an industry, through observations from news nerds who have recently left the field and still love it. For more insight on why people—particularly journalists of color—exit journalism, check out Carla Murphy’s “Leavers” Survey.

Content warning: Brief mention of sexual violence about two-thirds of the way through this article.

Phoebe Gavin began her media career in New York City as a writer for Upworthy. She spent time at ThinkProgress and Quartz, working on social media, search, and audience development. In March 2021 she left to work full-time on her career coaching business.

What drew you into journalism in the first place?

I wasn’t specifically drawn to journalism. I like to say I slipped and fell and rolled down a hill into it. I joined the Army out of high school so I could pay for college. I ended up getting a management and entrepreneurship degree from a fashion school, but then started my career at a non-profit doing community organizing and advocacy for veterans.

At the time, I was informally blogging on the side on the question-and-answer site Quora. The editor-at-large at Upworthy noticed my work and asked me to apply to one of the writer positions they were about to open up. I was burning out on advocacy, so I took the position. That was my start in progressive media. Truthfully, I struggled as a full-time writer–creating on deadline doesn’t work well for me–so I was almost relieved to be laid off a little over a year later. From there, I moved into proper journalism as a social media editor at ThinkProgress, and then on to Quartz.

I think having such a winding road to journalism has allowed me to keep it at a healthy distance from my identity. It’s always been what I do. It’s never become who I am.

I think we’ve fetishized the idea that your job should be your passion. It’s ok for your job to just be a job. When journalists think of journalism as their “calling,” they give power to a industry that is perfectly happy to chew us up, spit us out, and put up a new job listing the following week. I always ask my career coaching clients to separate the industry from the thing they feel called to do.

From my perspective, a calling isn’t a job or an industry. It’s an activity or an impact. When you can identify your calling in these terms, you can start to imagine many ways for it to exist in your life. For me, journalism was just one way I could help people make better decisions and live happier, balanced lives they’re proud and excited to live. I always knew that, so I didn’t have a bunch of emotional baggage tied up in leaving the industry.

Where were the hard parts for you in this work? What did your organizations have the hardest time getting right?

My on-the-job training as an organizer was based on one key philosophy: Everything you do should work to close the distance between the institution and its service population. The more connected they feel to the organization, the more likely they are to participate and donate. That was the philosophy I brought to journalism and audience development.

My instinct was always to meet the audience where they were, speak to them in their language, and show respect for their problems–no matter what they were. But most of all help them solve those problems in ways that felt approachable and collaborative so we could build a deep, lasting, mutually beneficial relationship.

But I consistently felt alone in that approach.

I think most journalists intrinsically understand that attracting an audience is essential. Journalism should make an impact, but it’s hard to make an impact without readers. But there’s often a strong resistance to the activities that help publications grow an audience. Sometimes it’s individual ego. Sometimes it’s newsroom distrust of the audience team. Sometimes it’s disdain for the entire audience or analytics function. Sometimes it’s a disdain of the audience itself.

Because of my leadership role, I often had a seat at the decision-making table. But my recommendations were almost always met with polite acknowledgements that never turned into action. When I gave notice, I was surprised how many people urgently sought memos, training recordings, wikis, and strategy sessions on audience principles.

I have never felt more heard in the newsroom than I did in those weeks. I gave them as much as I could in my notice period but it was hard to not say, “Where was all this energy two years ago?”

How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?

A core heart mission for me is helping people make better decisions so they can live happier, healthier lives. It’s been an important throughline for my career. I think journalism is a powerful way to do that–one society desperately needs. But this is an incredibly depleting profession.

I kept trying to find ways to be in this industry without feeling chronically depleted. But in 2018, I realized that this magical journalism job where I enjoyed the work, was respected, was properly compensated, and had good work-life balance probably didn’t exist. Thankfully, I wasn’t at a crisis point–Quartz was a great place to work–so I took my time exploring alternate paths.

I explored ways to monetize my favorite hobbies, interests, and causes. I wanted to make an intentional decision about how work was going to fit my life and make sure the next step wasn’t just another incremental improvement. So I daydreamed, brainstormed, interviewed people, took low-lift classes, and experimented with prototypes until I found something that felt right.

That’s how I landed on career coaching.

Coaching and mentorship have always been activities I’ve naturally gravitated toward. I was sexually assaulted during my deployment to Iraq, and I was mentally limping through my transition to civilian life. Someone who had been through a tough military-to-civilian transition connected me with resources and coached me through my recovery. Their willingness to mentor me saved my life. So I feel a deep need to pay that forward and reach down the ladder to pull people up as I ascend.

So in 2019, I started exploring how I could make a living coaching people into careers that facilitate happier, more balanced lives. I started putting out some of my favorite tips and practices on YouTube and Instagram in the most audience-centric way I could and it immediately showed green shoots. I knew that was going to be the thing for me and I spent 2020 iterating until I felt ready to leave journalism for good.

How has being a journalist shaped your approach to what comes next—in a new role and looking into the future?

Most of what I’m taking with me is technical. It’s important to give your audience a beautiful, frictionless user experience, and my journalism chapter has taught me how to do that. But I’m leaving a lot behind.

My audience will always be at the center of everything I do on social media, in my private community, and with my individual coaching clients. There are so many early- and mid-career professionals who just need some support to unlock their potential. Everything I do is for them. None of their questions, feelings, concerns, or problems are too trivial for me. It doesn’t matter if “they could just google it.” It matters that they get what they need so they can be successful.

Can you envision yourself returning to journalism full-time?

I’m still freelancing here and there and probably always will. I’ll never say no to a fairly compensated, values-aligned project. But I can’t see myself returning to such a volatile industry, so prone to abusing its workers.

If you could snap your fingers and raise one conversation in every newsroom, what would we be talking about tomorrow?

How can we make what we do so undeniably valuable to our target audience that they’re willing to consistently make space for it in their wallets and routines?

So much of the stress and anguish that comes with working in this industry stems from its instability. News doesn’t have a proven model, but lots of other industries do and they’re all based on at least one of the same three principles.

  1. Solve a problem people hate having

  2. Provide a way to embody a desired identity

  3. Create an unforgettably positive experience

From a roll of Charmin to a Rolls Royce, every single thing we spend money or time on (that isn’t taxes) checks at least one of these three boxes. A successful news business has to do the same.

The Exit Interviews series is here to help our community raise conversations that create healthier newsrooms. If you or someone you know has left journalism in the past year and you’d like to know more about sharing what you learned from the experience, we’d love to hear from you.


  • Phoebe Gavin

    Phoebe Gavin began her media career in New York City as a writer for Upworthy. She spent time at ThinkProgress and Quartz, working on social media, search, and audience development. In March 2021 she left to work full-time on her career coaching business.


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