Monthly Archives: August 2009

Is it ever too late to reinvent a career?

A late 50-something executive with an MBA, regarded as a leading figure in his field, gets laid off with a nice (nearly $200k) severance payment and is having extreme difficulty getting a job.

Michael Blattman, with a long career in the student loan business, has sent out 600 job applications in the last 18 months, and has had only three interviews. Imagine the rapid downward spiral that has him on the ropes emotionally, if not financially just let. Let him tell you how he feels:

“Here’s the reality. I used to be somebody, I had a job. Not anymore. Everything ground to a halt. No sense of purpose. No self-esteem.”

There’s nothing in this personally revealing piece that indicates whether Blattman has contemplated switching fields or using some of his severance to start a business, or at least do some self-employed consulting work while job-hunting. At his age none of these options is easy, and the way the job market works now — especially in this economy — is a cold shock to those who haven’t had to look in decades. It must be an absolutely overwhelming feeling of paralysis and the fear of change.

But do I know someone his age whose position was eliminated after four decades with one company. He also got a nice severance, though probably not close to Blattman’s sum. After months of grueling consultations with a career counselor, accountants, lawyers and small business owners, he’s launching his own company. It’s a difficult grind, and several times a week the long days are extended by evenings at networking and business association meetings.

What is even more daunting than jumping in the deep end is passively sending out tons of job applications. This tactic simply isn’t going to cut it in this economy. I haven’t sent out nearly as many as Blattman, but I know this firsthand. I just got a reply today from a job application I sent out more than a month ago: “We are unable to further your candidacy for this specific position . . . ”

Can’t you just feel the human warmth exuding from those words? At least there was the courtesy of a response; I’ve not heard from from at least a half dozen black holes for jobs whose qualifications I meet or exceed.

I realize that some displaced workers can’t, or won’t, be able to cut it striking out on their own. I know several people who keep sending them out constantly, landing an interview here or there, but little more than that. They’ve never thought of anything else but going back into the workaday world, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

But as it appears that any economic recovery will likely be a jobless one, plenty of professionals of all age groups are trying to create something for themselves. As I wrote about last week, many are mid-career or older, having the same fruitless experience looking for a job, competing with workers who could be their children. No surprise whom employers are going to choose for the jobs they do have.

If I could suggest a few things to Blattman, it would be these: Expand your network beyond people who are also unemployed; spend some of the time writing a second novel to outline a business plan; and use professional and personal contacts not just to get a full-time job, but to help find clients. The “chaotic and rude” experience sending applications via e-mail is something we’ve all come to know. Shrug it off. This is the way of the job-hunting world.

Remaining stagnant is not an option. Blattman does come to understand this:

“I’ve got to the point — no one’s going to do that for me. It’s all about me making it happen. I can’t rely on the old world to take me back.”

Readings: Newspapers and democracy, the freelancing life, Craigslist and slow media

Some good long-form pieces on journalism, the media and related topics for some weekend reading. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the fate of newspapers, but soon I’ll be unveiling a revamped blog concept designed to move far beyond those boundaries.

As usual, I seem to conclude this roundup with an admonition to get off the Web for a bit. It’s a great and wonderful thing, but not merely for its own sake:

Unnecessary death of an institution: “To see the word ‘I’ in any kind of piece written by a reporter is about as shocking a development as a reader can read in the Times. Suddenly Times reporters are writing in the first person. The next thing you know Times beat writers will be cheering in the press box.”

Vanishing down the ink hole: “Not to be snide about it, but is quality journalism the best tool to foster democracy? Advocates of participatory democracy and government accountability might be smarter to invest their time directly in reforming government.”

The Midnight Disease: Freelance Writing’s Joy and Terror: “One night, sharing drinks with a woman, long after the thrill of seeing my byline had died, she asked in wonderment, ‘Don’t you just love seeing your name in print?’ I replied: ‘I love seeing my name on a check.’ ”

Why not sell EveryBlock to a newspaper? “It’s like asking me, after I put together a band of musicians, why I didn’t choose the musician who spoke Portuguese. What difference does it make if a musician speaks Portuguese?”

The New Media Crisis of 1949: “Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.”

Of Media Poverty and Passion: “Add a healthy dose of old-fashioned journalistic passion to the mix, and you will be more successful than your father or any journalism professor ever could have imagined. That knowledge is all that keeps the hope within me alive after three consecutive layoffs, two of them within 10 months, in a changing media world. The future of journalism is both scary and exciting. It will be literally what we formerly ink-stained wretches make of it.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Digital Native: “As a creative type you can promote your work as much as you can online, you can give samples or all of your work for free, but until now a sure foot on ‘old’ media is still needed for success. Notions of authority, professionalism, quality, respectability and good artistic reputation are still defined by gate-kept models.”

Why Craigslist is such a mess: “It is easy to find hypocrisy in the idealism of a business owner who prescribes democracy for others while relieving himself of the tiresome burden of democratic consultation in the domain where he has the most power. But of course, craigslist is not a polity; it is just an online classified advertising site, one that manages to serve some basic human needs with startling efficiency. It is difficult to overstate the scale of this accomplishment.”

A Manifesto for Slow Communication: “Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world.”

Basking in the decadent glory of print’s decline

I don’t want newspapers to go away because I will always love them. But how much more watered down and hollowed out do they have to become before the hardiest print defenders stop deluding themselves about the real reasons for their demise?

How much longer will they blame the Internet, mock the efforts of those who are trying to refashion journalism on the Web, and ridicule those terrible bloggers, aggregators and digital creative types who apparently are guilty of nothing less than intellectual debauchery?

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has been taken to task before for defending the work of rank-and-file journalists, and most recently, for urging newspapers to build a pay wall and consider not posting print material on their Web sites. I generally agreed with him on the former and shook my head at his latter idea.

Now he’s totally jumped the shark from nuanced, thoughtful writing on these subjects to reignite a phantom clash between bloggers vs. journalists. He’s not the first to launch the following ad hominem attack (halfway down in this link, after much rambling about the Washington Redskins):

“I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.”

Oh yes, here’s another tiresome bloggers-as-monolith screed. Which bloggers? What are they blogging about? Why don’t they care? We don’t know, because then Farhi’s off fielding more readers’ questions about the Redskins — talk about a lost cause! This is how online chats go.

But Farhi’s shots are more than cheap. They’re reflective of the deep denial of so many still bound up in the cult of print. Print good, bloggers bad. Either you’re with newspapers or you’re with the “digital barbarians.” If we don’t save newspapers, democracy will die.

I’m fed up with digital triumphalists who like to kick print when it’s down, who can’t wait for it to slip into further irrelevance. They have been tone-deaf to the plight of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been dashed because leaders of the newspaper industry failed to prepare for the future.

But to suggest that the fate of self-government is bound up with newspapers is to ignore what’s been happening (to both) for several decades:

“Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

“How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along? This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?”

Still, desperate, hair-brained schemes, such as bringing in the heavy hand of government to prop up newspapers, stubbornly persist. These actions will not stop the continued decline of print, which is nothing I feel good about.

It’s necessary to examine what’s being lost because reviving the news cannot take place without this understanding. But the ceaseless, hyperbolic hand-wringing that only newspapers — instead of journalism — can provide the necessary checks on government is tragic and misplaced:

“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.”

For the quarter-century I was in newspapers, the journalism that I and many others influenced by Watergate idealized dwindled, replaced with lifestyle and celebrity fluff that hardly serves exalted notions of democracy. As a sportswriter, I knew I was helping readers escape the duties of citizenship.

I’m skeptical about the purported renewal of democracy on the Web, but that comes more from my pessimism about our political system. And I am extremely concerned about the fate of reading and cognitive development among the Web generation. But those are topics for another time.

What I find so sad about these newspaper laments is that the hard-headed realism that journalists supposedly possess has been completely abandoned for treacly sentiment and arrogance. As has been said often before, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the newsroom-on-a-pedestal that’s being conjured up now never really existed. While I do terribly miss the camaraderie I enjoyed with former colleagues, I never worked in such a place.

Not long ago I finished reading “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald-Tribune,” an engrossing account of a great, but flawed newspaper that went by the wayside in 1966. Its fate was sealed by rancorous newspaper strikes and poor family-run ownership. Like many newspapers, it often did great public service journalism (and employed the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the end).

But it was also guilty of lacking a backbone on many other topics, worried about offending its advertisers and fiercely loyal to its moderate Republican political ideology. In the immediate post-World War II years the Herald-Tribune fatally missed the opportunity to expand its reader base by ceding the vastly-growing suburbs to The New York Times.

This was a full 30 years before the advent of the Web. And while newspapers weren’t facing the levels of extinction they do today, Ben Bagdikian’s assessment, first delivered the same year I got into the business, predicted what complacency and monopoly power could yield. He envisioned that one-way ticket to Palookaville before most everybody.

Like many former newspaper journalists and as a proud product of print culture, I am also wistful of what’s fading away. My former newspaper is giving up the ghost in astonishing fashion, which actually has made it easier to shed the last layers of nostalgia I’ve held for it.

It’s also far too easy to be snarky and dismissive of what’s being attempted to follow newspaper journalism. Say what you will about Arianna Huffington and cohorts (and I’ve said plenty about her), they’re not the problem here. Some of their solutions are knuckle-headed, but they’re doing much more than their fiercest critics, who are content to take potshots from the bleachers.

What are these print Cassandras doing to ensure the vitality of journalism in the digital age? Instead of lending their time and talents to invigorate a profession they insist is vital to democracy, they’d rather defiantly (and selfishly) go down with the ship. I just wish they would admit that.

Stepping outside a niche, or creating a new one?

Below are a few items from my heaping Delicious collection of bookmarks on topics that range beyond journalism to take in career and technological change, entrepreneurship and creativity. This is how this modest blog seems to be evolving as it approaches its first year.

I’ve learned from forward-thinking former colleagues and other journalists eager to redefine themselves and what they do that breaking free from our own little world is absolutely essential. It’s taken me some time to fully embrace this notion, and there have been times when I wanted to cling to the past and the heyday of a big, sprawling newsroom that gave me tremendous opportunities to shine.

Those memories and friendships will always endure, but I’ve been re-energized by new opportunities to learn and grow and contemplate work I never imagined. And not just because it might be a financial necessity.

Perhaps I’m breaking a sacrosanct rule of blogging by stepping outside my niche, but I like to think I’m fashioning a new one as I open the door to new ideas and experiences from people outside my cloistered profession:

The Day My Industry Died: “We were fortunate enough to have a software product under development, so that when the Web consulting industry disappeared, we still had money coming in. Because if you can survive the death of your industry, well, you can survive just about anything.”

The Leaner Baby Boomer Economy: “As a boomer herself, Wang, 60, feels her generation’s pain. ‘You don’t have 30 years to reinvent yourself.’ “

The New New Economy: ” ‘Involuntary entrepreneurship’ ” is now creating tens of thousands of small businesses and a huge market of contract and freelance labor. Many will take full-time jobs again once they become available, but many others will choose not to. The crisis may have turned our economy into small pieces, loosely joined, but it will be the collective action of millions of workers hungry for change that keeps it that way.”

The New, Faster Pace of Innovation: “Genius is born from a thousand failures. In each failed test, you learn something that helps you find something that will work. Constant, continuous, ubiquitous experimentation is the most important thing.” (via BBH Labs)

First, Break All the Rules. Then, Enforce Them: “My worry is that this shift in the thinking of the powerful cripples the creativity of the organizations that they oversee. The quest for creativity, freedom, and results seems to have become the exclusive domain of those climbing the ladder; once people get to the top, they only worry about staying there.”

Journalism was an adventure, but now it’s time to write: “He agrees that journalism was a different world now from when he entered it, perhaps the last generation to be able to enjoy that Scoop-style chaos and liberty. He will miss the excitement, he says, but he won’t miss the writing. ‘Journalism and writing are like methadone and heroine – they fill the same nerve receptors in your brain, but one of them is more powerful.’ And for him, it’s not journalism.” (via Mark Luckie)

Lost amid the clamor over health care reform

I had just posted here yesterday about the subject of entrepreneurship and media when I came across this piece from the Talent Zoo career site urging media professionals to rethink the future of their work in a radically different way:

“Do I think that jobs are obsolete? Hardly. There’ll always be a need for steady, daily people. Those who are familiar with the work, the clients, etc. But I’m not sure there will be a need for the huge number of them. Freelancing was considered risky. Now, it might be that a job is risky. If you lose that job, your income is zero. But if you have a few clients and you lose one, well, you’re not running on empty.”

Bingo. This scenario is quickly becoming for many of us the reality of our careers, and not merely an idyllic work-at-home setup after fleeing cubicle life. (The Web Worker Daily site last week wrapped up a very useful series of posts entitled “The Future of Work” that I highly recommend.)

As I mentioned yesterday, starting businesses, or joining small enterprises, is a better bet for some to line up steady income than sending out job applications to the anonymous black holes of job sites and hoping for a reply, much less the longshot of getting an interview. I’ve not done this often, but it’s been enough to convince me not to fritter away more time doing it.

So many middle-class, middle-age, mid-career professionals are facing these prospects, yet they are usually presented in a standalone context by the media because, well, we are pretty much on our own. Many are eager to take the risk of helping restore the economy and create dynamic, future-oriented careers for ourselves and others we may potentially employ.

This economic recession should have made it clear that there is a drastic need for encouraging and nurturing a new entrepreneurial class. Large corporations that have shed workers by the thousands aren’t going to re-create jobs in those numbers. Their business models are rapidly spinning downward. What’s more, there are many office worker bees who want to energize themselves, spark their creativity and rediscover their passions in new ways.

Unfortunately, we have political leaders who, being bought and paid for by corporate oligarchs, are making a farce of the need to eradicate one of the biggest obstacles facing the self-employed and small business owners. Until we move away from a health care system that is tied to employer-sponsored insurance plans, no such entrepreneurial renaissance will take place.

I’m not trying to make a political statement because I have doubts that current reform proposals will improve and simplify the present “system.” But I’m incensed that a marvelous opportunity to make it easier for workers to light out on their own is being squandered, perhaps for my generation and beyond. This is not a luxury but an economic necessity being obliterated by the ugly spectacle of rowdy town hall meetings and the hideous dialectic highlight loop on cable “news.”

As elected officials cower from the shrieking about “death panels,” freelancers are increasingly facing this reality. It is a continuing disgrace.

Flashback to a journalistic future

As I was throwing out some old magazines recently, I came across a few copies of Entrepreneur dating back to the early 1990s (yes, I’m a bit of a pack rat).

These were the days before the Web, when I was a part-timer at my former newspaper and was coming up with a Plan B alternative to full-time work. Until I made it to that salaried, benefitted place in the newsroom, I had been charting a course for work as a freelance writer and editor.

Among the possibilities were to write, edit and publish print newsletters. But it was too expensive for me to bootstrap on a solo basis, especially when I started adding up the costs of mailing. In another part-time job I took an organizational newsletter to the post office every month, and even the non-profit bulk rates were eye-popping.

Now that the Web has made it easy for anyone to self-publish with very little cost, that has enabled me to revisit a familiar career path. So when I saw these pieces recently on how the economy is prompting many laid-off, bought-out professionals to become “accidental” entrepreneurs, I experienced quite a powerful flashback:

“Now they have certain practical realities that are forcing them to consider new options, and entrepreneurship is one of the options they’re considering. And so, they may have never done this before and may not understand what it means to operate as a business right now.”

Building social networks is also far easier in the Web age, and I’m finding that entrepreneurial-oriented events — not just to network, but to learn and gain skills — are in such abundance it’s hard to choose which ones to attend. A former colleague who’s also striking out on his own goes to two or three events a week, and says he can’t get to all that he puts on his calendar.

While I’ve got a couple of serious money-making possibilities in the works, I’m finding that the scramble to lay the foundation for an entrepreneurial route is fraught with challenges that are much more complicated now than a decade or so ago. Occasionally I do wrestle with this question:

“You should try to be clear if you’re starting a business that that’s really what you want to do, as opposed to you’re only doing it because you can’t find work elsewhere.”

The work I’ve got in mind is precisely what I want to do. But the job situation is rotten and many of us in mid-career are competing with recent college graduates and young adults who earn far less money, have fewer health issues and are presumed to be better suited for Web work. For some, starting a business isn’t a luxury but the best chance to make a living.

Above all, the kinds of jobs media professionals have had won’t be coming back to the corporate realm. Even a strong economic recovery will not bring them back. People with savvy, skill and experience in their fields will be needed to create small businesses or solo enterprises. Why not us?

I wasn’t equipped to do this in my late 20s, when I faced grim job prospects. But having had to persevere in the past is something I’ve been drawing heavily on in recent months. I don’t think I’m an “accidental” entrepreneur but rather a latent one.

Before taking a little time off the grid . . .

I just got a bit too busy — at least to write here in any meaningful way — during what’s been a very productive week.

What I need more than anything is a bit of a break from the Web and will be posting lightly here over the next week. A number of freelance writing proposals, laying the groundwork for some sports media startups and the brainstorming needed to put everything in order will be my priorities.

In addition, I’m doing a little rethinking of this blog to go beyond career reinvention for displaced journalists. I’ve altered the blogroll already and soon will explain more fully the changing focus of what I want to examine here.

But I do want to pass along some good weekend reading links on media, the Web and digital life, as I try to do each Friday. Enjoy and as always, I do appreciate your feedback and comments:

For Families Today, Techology Is Morning’s First Priority: “This is morning in America in the Internet age. After six to eight hours of network deprivation — also known as sleep — people are increasingly waking up and lunging for cellphones and laptops, sometimes even before swinging their legs to the floor and tending to more biologically urgent activities.”

The Future of Work, It’s Data, Baby: “As suggested by Daniel Pink’s assertions on the rise of a right-brained working elite, the ability to extract stories from a world of increasing and abundant data will be increasingly critical to many industries. Indeed, the opening of U.S. federal government data at data.gov implies a new societal and cultural importance for data wranglers.”

Tim Berners-Lee: We No Longer Fully Understand the Web: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand — yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”

The Age of the Stream: “As it becomes the primary way we interact with content, streams threaten longer formats like TV shows, articles, albums or books. Over time, we will find we’re no longer a nation that eats media meals. Rather, we’re all-day content snackers — which means we become more source agnostic too.”

Disappearing in the Digital Age: “Mr Ratliff is truly testing the ability to just simply disappear in an age of 24/7 connectedness and digital clues that litter our lives. It’s an intriguing project that at its heart aims to find out ‘what does it take to up and disappear these days? Not to head off the grid for a few days, mind you, but to actually vanish from your life?’ “