(This post was originally published on Medium. You can follow me there by clicking here.)
Shortly before Labor Day 2008, I was suddenly out of work. For the last time, with security guards by my side, I walked out the front door of a major city newspaper that had been my career aspiration. For most of the nearly two decades I worked there, it was indeed a dream job.
I was among several dozen of my colleagues who accepted a buyout as the company, like many others running newspapers, as the newsroom was “resized,” in management-speak. In my buyout group, it was announced that our combined experience was close to 1,000 years. At a farewell party the week of our departure, people gasped at the thought of all that institutional knowledge being swept away, like idle swimmers caught in stormy winds off a shoreline.
Yet I left behind the collapsing newspaper industry confident that as I approached middle age, with several years of online newsroom experience, I had the skills and the chops to thrive in “the digital age.” I happily embraced the move to web journalism that recharged my career, and felt I was at the top of my game professionally.
A couple of weeks after I left the newspaper, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, triggering the Wall Street crisis that had been brewing for months. I hadn’t been paying much attention to all this, caught up in the stress of trying to hang on at a struggling newspaper.
But it wasn’t only the recession that followed, taking hundreds of thousands of middle-class, mid-career and white collar careers with it, that proved to be the most challenging prospect for me as I looked for work.
While I had thought that I may have to leave journalism behind, I wasn’t prepared for the psychic reality of that scenario as I applied for jobs with the word “content” in them. This wasn’t the work I had known.
As the fallout in the newspaper industry continued, was this the closest I would come to using my skills and energies? Other journalists I knew eased into public relations, copywriting, content marketing and similar jobs. While these are honorable professions that pay a hell of a lot better than journalism, they weren’t what I have ever had in mind.
After several months of freelancing, and helping a friend lay out plans for a website, I was hired by AOL to serve as an editor for its Patch network of local news sites. I loved the work of doing community news as I had at the start of my career, and doing it in the place where I grew up. People in the community were appreciative; despite the long odds of this venture becoming profitable it might have been the most gratifying job of my career.
But after hundreds of millions in losses, Patch was sold in early 2014, contingent on massive staff reductions. I was affected by that, and several more months of freelance drifting ensued before I began serving as a contract web writer at a public radio station.
That position lasted only a few months, and for the third time in eight years, I was faced with job-hunting and freelancing, trying to scratch out a living and figure out what’s next. My friend had launched his website, and has paid me to write for it. I am so grateful for him and family members who’ve been by my side all the way. I know my story is hardly unique.
What I also didn’t anticipate is the massive generational change that has come to the media and other industries. It’s exasperating to see job notices coded for “early career professionals.” You’ve got everything they’re looking for and more, but do not get an interview or even a notice that someone else has been hired.
In a media field that has always trended young, this is getting even more pronounced. Likewise in the male-dominated sports media subset where I have worked for most of my career, and where female visibility is largely limited to perky sideline reporters and snarky, sassy bloggers.
I admit I sound like the middle-aged woman I am, and I can’t hide the despair I’ve felt, especially after being laid off from AOL. While I have prided myself on being adaptable and resilient, my faith in myself and my abilities is being tested like never before. It’s been hard for me to accept, as a noted (and middle-aged) sports columnist has written of our line of work, that “experience is completely devalued.”
I’m trying to find a place where that isn’t the case, where the full range of my experience and talents can be utilized, preferably in doing the news.
A retired newspaper editor I follow on social media was asked by a student he teaches at a university how he handled layoffs.
He wrote poignantly on his blog how difficult this had been for him, to carry out what amounted to execution orders he disagreed with, from managers at an out-of-town corporation. He thought he had failed his staff, even though this wasn’t his doing.
Tears were streaming down my face as I read this; having been on the other side of the table more than once, it dawned on my what was being lost here, besides livelihoods. As I wrote in the comments section, this wasn’t a career, but a way of life.
I have retooled and rethought so much of what I thought about my own profession to position myself for current and future opportunities, but I’m thinking now that the best opportunity may be what I create for myself.
After years as a traveling reporter and community editor, office and cubicle life is not my natural habitat. Schmoozing at networking events and hiding my age on my resume is alien to the bone. I’m not a careerist; I just want to do the work I have done all my life, and that I have done well.
I’ve gone around the U.S. and the world covering sporting and other events during the days of newspaper expense accounts, and wouldn’t trade that for anything But it all seems so fleeting now.
I crave being a homebody, being part of my community. It’s suburban Sunbelt sprawl, to be sure, but it’s home, and that’s all that matters. Everyone else in my family lives on the Gulf Coast (should I take a hint and follow them?), and I want to reconnect with the kind of people I grew up with, and who nurtured me as a youngster.
The editor and publisher of a successful local news site in a rust belt town advocates what he calls “localism,” and has carved out a philosophy that has me thinking constantly of trying my hand at this, at taking what I learned from my Patch stint and doing it better.
More than anything, it’s about doing the work, it’s about doing the news. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, from the first time I stepped in the newspaper room as a high school freshman. Based on my previous work, I know there’s a community need for solid, authentic, local journalism, not just where I live, but everywhere.
Turning this into a livelihood is the biggest challenge, to be sure. But I’m a news “lifer,” and for far too long I have been paralyzed by the fear of failing.
Even as my financial and emotional resources are stretched thin, creating the working life that I truly want, and that I think I can get people to pay for, remains a worthwhile, if humbling, experience.