Tag Archives: journalism

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.

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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.

Thoughts on redefining journalism, Part 2

A recent commenter on a post I wrote here some time ago clarified some thoughts I was trying to make on “redefining journalism” by reminding me it wasn’t necessary to go that far:

“In my opinion it isn’t a matter of ‘redefining’ journalism. The definition hasn’t changed.

“It is, as has been somewhat indicated, a matter of changing how we pursue and execute the craft.”

Last week Salon co-founder and “Say Everything” author Scott Rosenberg laid out one of the most succinct definitions of who’s a journalist, and what it means to be doing journalism today. It might make traditionalists squirm, but it’s not a redefinition at all. Rather, it’s an understanding that what journalists have always done isn’t limited just to those of us who’ve done it for a living.

It’s one of several compelling media and journalism pieces I’ve been reading in recent days and excerpt below:

No more bouncers at the journalism club door:

“The law should stop trying to protect journalists, and instead protect acts of journalism. Any time someone is pursuing an accurate and timely account of some event to present to some public, he or she should be protected by the law in whatever ways we now protect professional journalists.”

How to Save the News:

“A decade ago, Jon Stewart was not known for political commentary. The news business has continually been reinvented by people in their 20s and early 30s—Henry Luce when he and Briton Hadden founded Timemagazine soon after they left college, John Hersey when he wrote Hiroshima at age 32. Bloggers and videographers are their counterparts now. If the prospect is continued transition rather than mass extinction of news organizations, that is better than many had assumed. It requires an openness to the constant experimentation that Google preaches and that is journalism’s real heritage.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallows demystifies — without coming across as too much of a fanboy — Google’s experiments to bolster journalism online. Fallows goes beyond interviewing the usual Holy Trinity of Google executives — Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin — and talks to the engineers, former journalists and others in the Google trenches. A very long piece, but worth taking some time to read and absorb.

Do journalists need to learn to be programmers? Yes and no:

“I think the ability to mark-up some HTML and understand why <span>, <div>, classes and IDs are important for CSS and Javascript is essential for anyone publishing on the web.

“But my answer is that no, journalists don’t all need to be able to write programs, but the ability to think like a programmer is an invaluable skill.

London-based information architect Martin Belam, who’s been a developer for The Guardian’s lauded website, offers a relieving thought to former print hacks like me who are overwhelmed merely by dabbling in this stuff. Still, there’s a big jump in conceptual thinking involved here that goes far beyond mastering basic HTML and CSS.

What Web Media Can Learn From Print:

“When you hear someone say they like ‘holding” a paper in their hands what they really mean is that reading online sucks. It doesn’t have to be that way. The most popular news sites on the Web look horrible and do little to promote actual reading. It amazes me that when pundits talk about the fact that people skim instead of read online that they assume that that can’t change.”

Web designer Bud Parr says Web publishers who can create a better online reading experience will thrive. But we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

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.

Hoping for a better media year in 2010

I’m usually old-school in observing New Year’s Eve traditions, so I dusted off this definitive rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. And hey look, digikids, it’s on vinyl!

Best wishes to all for a prosperous 2010. After another difficult year in the media world, the coming weeks and months probably will feel no different for many. My 2009 was filled with expanding horizons and pursuing new opportunities. Many of them did not bear fruit, but I’ve got a better feel for the direction I need to go while understanding the importance of staying flexible.

I don’t set forth predictions or make fancy resolutions. This isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but I expect to continue to see a steady stream of print and mainstream media refugees trying new ways of doing the news, or carve out other work with their journalistic skills. There’s an amazing wealth of talented reporters, editors, photographers and multimedia professionals with so much to offer to their craft, their areas of expertise and their communities.

In this past year, many of them have been been battered by the recession, their former employers and some new media sages who don’t highly value their work. But I’ve been energized by their many stories of resolve as I plug away at creating my own future. And so it goes . . .

Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas 2009!

Not much more to say except that I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I just received the nicest gift any humble blogger could expect when Ink-Drained Kvetch was included on a list of 91 journalism blogs and Web sites you will love.

What a pleasant surprise! There are some excellent resources there for all journalists and media professionals to use. I know I’ve gained so much from many of those individuals and organizations.

One of the many benefits of having a blog hosted on WordPress are the snowflakes that appear during the holiday season. Nice touch, WP! Thought I’d pass along some of my favorite holiday songs.

Will return next week with more on journalism, media and the digital age. Until then, enjoy!

Best wishes to a young former journalist

“Loss and destruction has been almost all that I’ve ever known in journalism. . . For now, journalism is just beginning its trek underground, searching for a ray of light and fresh air. I needed a break from that long, dark trek. Will I ever return? I don’t know. I’ve stopped worrying about what the future will hold for me.”

Patrick Thornton, the “Journalism Iconoclast,” is bidding farewell to the profession of journalism after only three years. The reasons are understandable — he’s gotten a job with a conservation social network, and congratulations are in order. Given the poor job prospects in so many fields, he’s wise to take what he can get and not to look back.

But I’d like to offer some perspective from an old print hack in response to the angst expressed by someone so young:

• “Loss and destruction” were staples of this business even in better times. Poorly managed newspapers got away with this for decades because their advertising-based business model was still intact. Far too often, I watched many colleagues walk out the door when we were still young, frustrated they could not make a living (I will not tell you how embarrassingly low my salaries were for the first decade or so of my career).

Some had their instincts and drive thwarted by newsroom bureaucrats who hadn’t pounded the pavement in years. These idealistic reporters intent on “making the world a better place” came to hate journalism during the heyday of print and network TV news, distraught that their employers were raking in profits and had the resources to do better.

•  There have never been any guarantees that I would avoid a similar fate. It wasn’t until I was 15 years into my career that I could finally say I had known “prosperity in journalism,” after toiling at weeklies and small dailies. I’ve worked for a newspaper that no longer exists, and in between jobs I strung together non-journalistic part-time work and freelanced to pay the bills. When I had enough extra money to max out on my 401(k) contributions, I thought I had hit the jackpot. That period hadn’t lasted very long when I took my newspaper buyout last year.

I don’t begrudge anyone’s decision to find work that’s more stable and will offer peace of mind. And I’m sad that some aspiring young journalists are facing horrendous career odds during this chaotic time. However, I know many former journalists who have made similar choices over the years, often reluctantly and with great anguish. This reality existed long before the bottom dropped out of the newspaper industry. Just not on this scale.

I’m not sure what Thornton was expecting three years ago, but I wish him the best in his new endeavors.

He just wasn’t in the business long enough to know how badly it can break your heart.