Category Archives: career

On creating a new working way of life

(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.

Why journalism keeps breaking my heart

The news this week that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had left the industry for a job that could better pay the bills certainly caught my attention, although the path Rob Kuznia made from The Daily Breeze in southern California to the public relations field is a very familiar one.

So I didn’t think much more about it; this has happened so many times and will continue, to many people I know. Even by going into non-profit PR for a Holocaust-related organization in higher education Kuznia boosted his income by 25 percent over his newspaper salary.

What brought me to gut-wrenching tears by the end of the week was all the piling on in many of the same news media corners that have been shedding staff for years. That, too, shows no signs of letting down, although there aren’t many more people to cut.

This in The Washington Post illustrates the journalism-to-PR ratio that has become alarming, and the concentration of journalists in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles.

While those are sobering numbers, Felix Salmon of Fusion was just maddening, as he likes to be, in declaring there likely will be no such thing as a digital journalism career. His usual dismissiveness really angered me when he cranked out this paragraph, clearly designed for his site’s millennial audience:

When you see a company like Vox Media investing millions of dollars in Vox.com, the youth of the founders is a feature, not a bug. When you see companies like Gawker Media or BuzzFeed building newsrooms of young people, that’s partly because young people are cheaper and hungrier, but it’s also because they’re better at doing these very new things than their more experienced colleagues might be.

Permission to commit age discrimination is how I interpreted the end of that remark, which is categorically untrue. Salmon later touts “old fashioned specific expertise” as being necessary for success in journalism in the future.

You know, what those cranky old farts being tossed out into the street were pretty good at, but that is increasingly being devalued in the digital age. The kind of expertise that millennials are not being taught, at least not as stringently as my generation was.

It’s not their fault; it’s the environment they’re in, in which mentoring and cultivating things like sources, news judgment and craft are seen as luxuries, not essentials of the profession.

Kuznia, 38, appears to be an exception, but he’s had to leave what he loved behind, as so many of us have, either by force of layoffs or by the reality of a grim future if they stayed.

On Friday, I almost lost it at work when I read this post from former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson about 2007 layoffs he had to impose. After the ugly business had been done, there was this:

I wept when I got home. Wept from guilt, from regret, from stress. Wept because I knew this was the beginning of the end for me and the paper.

In the ensuing days, it was clear that a bond between the company and the employee was broken. The deal had been this:

They would work hard, do good work, miss family dinners, have coworkers critique their work, hear from readers that they were stupid and biased and worse.

We would give them a place to do what they loved, a paycheck and job security. We could no longer provide the security.

After that day, that covenant wasn’t ever fully restored.

The following year, I took a buyout from my former newspaper, and last year, I was laid off from a job editing a community news site. Two dislocations in less than seven years have taken a toll, but I still can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.

In addition to occasional sports freelancing, I’m also contract web producer at a public radio station, work that I enjoy and that keeps me in the business.

It’s a business that grows ever more fragile, and I may have to face the same crossroads as Kuznia. It’s the kind of decision I’ve desperately tried to avoid having to make. But at 54, I realize I’ve beaten the odds a lot longer than some of my peers.

What’s been more agonizing than the loss of jobs — which has been bad enough —  has been to watch a decent way of life virtually disappear before your eyes.

Covering school boards, zoning cases, high school football games, chamber of commerce luncheons and community theatre wasn’t work that was ever going to make anyone but publishers and high-ranking editors rich.

But the work was never boring, and most days being a journalist never felt like having a job. It was so much more than that, despite the low pay, long hours and ultimately for those of my age, rotten prospects to retire in relative comfort and security.

I remain bullish on the creative possibilities of digital journalism, but the financial component remains elusive. Journalists of my generation probably cannot afford to hold out for a new “golden age” to realize itself.

But while I don’t want to have to step away from something that’s been in my blood since I was a high school freshman, I have to admit I have been thinking long and hard lately about making a clean break. And not for the first time.

This week’s events rekindled that reality with a sledgehammer.

Explaining a long hiatus

Ink-Drained Kvetch is back, with a new look and feel and what I hope is a fresh outlook as I resume posting about journalism, media and digital trends and how mid-career types like me are adapting to them.

My absence here was far too long and not intended, but I found out the hard way what many bloggers discover — these things are easy to start and hard to maintain.

My last post was a few months after I had begun working as a local editor at AOL’s Patch community news initiative, and what happened after that became the most consuming job I’ve ever had. I loved it in so many ways, but it was unlike any job I’ve ever had.

That position was eliminated in January, quite a few months ago, but I also encountered another common blogging experience: Not feeling like you have anything worthy to say.

One of the reasons I posted less and less often here was that I preferred doing the news rather than writing about doing it. There are so many sharp, perceptive people out there commenting about these matters, people whose insights have been invaluable to me.

But I’ve learned, as I skimmed through old posts, that writing here did help me in my work, and in my understanding of what was happening in news and media innovation.

So I want to revive this blog as I embark on yet another phase of my journalism and media career. I’ve got several options I’m exploring and know that coming back to these topics here will be helpful in these prospective endeavors.

Ink-Drained Kvetch also was the first blog I ever started, launching shortly after I left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008. So much has happened in my profession and industry since then, and I remain as energized about these challenges as I’ve ever been.

So I decided to give the blog a face lift with a new design, and I’m updating my links and blogroll to reflect what’s transpired in these six years. WordPress.com has gotten so much better too, with snappy themes like the Twenty Thirteen look here, and improved dashboard features that make blogging simpler and more enjoyable.

I was up all night — until 5 a.m.! — retooling this site, and I’m not quite finished. I haven’t done an all-nighter like that in years but I was so happily immersed in the process. You know the feeling when you’re perfectly in your element: You forget to eat and bring in the cat. I’m paying for it today, but I feel like I’m starting over again, and in many ways I am.

It remains hard as hell to continue doing a living in a business that you love, and especially a business that has been brutal to so many practitioners who have loved it even more. What I learned from my last job was how to become resilient in truly profound ways. The Patch experience also rekindled a love for local news, and I saw the possibilities to revive community journalism and civic engagement — and that is best done in independent fashion.

Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover the joys of the work I did at the start of my career,  when my perspective was that this was a stepping stone to bigger and supposedly better things.

I’ll be writing about all of that very soon.

Thoughts from the media bootstrapping frontier

The new sports site launch I’ve been working on has been delayed and has garnered most of my time in recent weeks, but I am hopeful it will be up and running in the very near future.

I’ve been very busy from the content creation and strategy angle, blending together with newspaper-style reporting, blogging, the employment of social media and multimedia components and SEO. I’ve also been working on e-mail marketing and busieness model ideas, and planning out the next phases of where we want to go after the launch.

Now it’s down to a Web developer and my business partner giving it the look and functionality we’ve been planning for months.

Taking such a long break from posting here is not what I anticipated, but I’ve been finding some good links to keep me focused on my primary task, and I thought I’d share them here while I’ve got a brief break in my schedule:

Liberate Your Life: Put Yourself on Auto-Response:

“Putting yourself on auto-response means silencing your practical mind, in the face of the seemingly unpractical and ridiculous ideas. Faced with liberating your life, instead of thinking ‘I don’t know where to start,’ your auto-response becomes ‘I’ll figure it out.’ ”

I haven’t worried about plunging into something — the deep end — for a couple of years. But it’s especially important to think this way when you’re outside of an institution that is the embodiment of reticence and caution.

Every day as I work on my project, I tell myself over and over, “Nobody’s doing anything quite like this.” There is no other template except to carry on.

random thoughts on being an entrepreneur:

“Once you become an entrepreneur, you find the company of non-entrepreneurs a lot harder to be around. You’ve seen things they haven’t; the wavelengths alter, it’s that simple.”

I’m not quite there — not yet. I still think of myself as a “bootstrapper,” but the entrepreneurial mindset is starting to take hold. Surrounding myself with self-directed people has been indispensable for me as I slog along, getting the concept for this site into the shape we have in mind.

(via Darren Rowse)

New media? I’ve worked 38 years in the newspaper business:

“I am not a new-media person dumping on old media. I am an old-media person who wants to look at the present and the future through clear eyes, not through a lens of nostalgia.”

This was written by veteran newspaper editor Steve Buttry right before he left newspapers to plunge into the world of online journalism. Upon his move, Buttry’s wife, a journalist in her own right, penned this exquisite tribute to him, including this painful summation of a stagnant industry that has created a large and growing diaspora:

“Did it ever occur to you that even the most deathless love could wear out?”

“The people who run newspapers and those who work for them are engaged in useless foreplay. They cling tightly, trying again and again to make the way they’ve always done it still work, but the passion is gone. They talk change: tearing down silos, building audience and monetizing content. But talk is their only capability. They eye non-profit status with government subsidies like it’s Viagra for print. They tussle through regrouping, ‘right-sizing,’ and stripping down to ‘lean and mean.’ They reorganize, then reorganize again, then grope their way back to same old position that no longer works. The wretched gyrations are hideously frustrating for the poor souls involved, and sadly fruitless. They give birth to nothing new. The newspaper business is an aging, impotent beast, bringing down a lot of good journalists who are tangled in its foundering arms.”

It’s been a year and a half since I left my newspaper, and those words and phrases are still chilling to hear. “Resizing” was the term that accompanied my buyout offer, and it left me numb.

This piece caught me off-guard emotionally, because I don’t dwell on these thoughts and experiences all that much any more. They serve as a reminder of why I wanted to forge a new identity for myself as a journalist. It’s being carved out, gradually but surely, with nothing but renewed passion as my guide.

Happy happy gobble gobble

Just wishing everyone observing the American Thanksgiving a very good, peaceful, restful and enjoyable holiday.

I’m still burrowed in the work of launching a sports site I’ve mentioned here before, and hope to finish that in the coming days.

My posting here has been more sporadic than I intended as I work on that project, but I want to return to more active blogging as soon as possible. There’s been a lot going on in the journalism and media realms, as usual, and there’s so much I want to explore when I get the time.

So my thanks to you for your patience.

In the meantime, help yourself to some links on journalism, media and work, plus some miscellany, that have caught my eye on the fly . . .

Walt Disney vs. the news industry: How bad management is killing newspapers and their websites (Online Journalism Review)

Journalism, Technology Starting to Add Up (MediaShift Idea Lab)

How Demand Media’s Business Model Can be Applied to Niche Sites (Poynter)

Reinvention: Now the job requirement for Boomer women (Vibrant Woman)

It’s Not the Recession, You Just Suck (Outspoken Media via Mike Wells)

Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization (Clay Shirky)

Coffeehouses: Bringing the buzz back (Wall Street Journal via Evgeny Morozov)

 

 

Finding a work discipline that works

While reading about the abundant and various ways that acclaimed novelists work — specifically, how they develop the discipline and routine to complete highly individual and creative tasks — I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s not one good way to do anything well.

But can Web workers — or anyone in this age — who handle a myriad of tasks on a regular basis find one way of getting them done and not succumb (too often) to the time- and occasionally mind-killing choices available on the Internet? Lately I’ve been sucked into the maw of distraction and I’m trying to claw my way out.

I’m a big fan of Merlin Mann’s prescription to “Write about what you are passionate about. Find out what your voice is and blog the shit out of it.” Clearly this requires concentration of mind and habit and quite often means, for me, to organize research well in advance and write offline. When I accomplish this, it’s because I adhere to the solid practices I crafted as a print journalist, and this is serving as a very familiar foundation.

Yet as I alternate site-building and management work with writing words under my own name, this juggling act runs counter at times to Douglas Rushkoff’s rule to “Pay as much attention to your process and tools as to your output.” These are plural, and not singular, processes, tools and tasks, and at times it seems they are proliferating beyond my ability to grasp them. The biggest challenge is getting things done without feeling overwhelmed.

In a lightning-paced environment that presents constant disruptions and more opportunities to procrastinate than ever before, I occasionally have trouble resisting the temptation. Twitter, take me away!

No wonder contemporary writers often follow the most extreme measures of their predecessors and close themselves off from the world. I think of the bleak setting of Annie Proulx’ “The Shipping News” and place myself in it, at least for an hour or two.  The sooner to get my mind back to a warmer climate!

What brought all this about?

I thought this was a bogus story when I first heard about it, and can’t believe The New York Times made such a big deal about it over the weekend: President Obama’s all-guys hoops games, and what that might say about the true influence and “place” for women in his administration:

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Ms. Myers said women have high expectations of the president. “Obama has a personal style that appeals to women,” she said. “He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes.”

But wait, the hectoring gets sillier still, from NOW president Terry O’Neill. Then again, Obama was remiss in filling out an NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket last season. What a Neanderthal!

At least Obama is playing golf with a woman! Oh joy! Nip that Martha Burk problem in the bud before it sprouts.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the realm of high political circles, but I do cover sports for a living, and have devoted much of my work to covering women’s sports. Dee Dee, you don’t know towel-snapping like I do!

I know what it’s like to operate in a mostly male environment, and to push for more media coverage of women athletes who aren’t in the so-called “Bambi” sports (tennis, gymnastics, figure skating, etc.).

But I find this whining from very privileged women — the products of elite educations and powerful political, corporate and social connections I have never enjoyed — absolutely bamboozling. Former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor and Portfolio editor Joane Lipman, also writing in the NYT over the weekend, sounds as though we’re still in the 1970s.

Perhaps this is the mid-life crisis issue for women of my generation. I understand their frustration, but I don’t share their dour mood. And I don’t like the implication that their experiences speak for all of us.

Neither do I have a problem with guys wanting to be with the guys, at least some of the time. Even males I know who are deeply involved in women’s sports need this release. Ladies, just let them be, for a few minutes out of the day.

Obama was right to call the claptrap over his hoops games “bunk.” As usual, he was being too polite. Women need to be more concerned with finding satisfaction with their own work and lives instead of worrying about symbolic issues and infantile name-calling on the Web.