Friday, February 25, 2011

When your best ain't good enough

Sometimes, your best just ain't good enough.

It's not that it isn't good. But somehow, somewhere, someone makes a decision that what you've been working on, the career you've made a life of, or perhaps, just perhaps, the revolution you've started is just too risky.

The latter is what appears to have happened this week to TBD.com, a revolutionary website launched in August in the Washington, D.C., area that was to present "hyperlocal" news on a variety of Web-based platforms using television, the Internet and increasingly ubiquitous social media.


But owner Allbritton Communications on Wednesday pulled back from the project, which still was in its infancy. Allbritton reorganized and slashed the staff and apparently relegated the Web site to a third-class kind of status among its other media holdings.

If you wonder why a laid-off journalist from Illinois would care about a website half a continent away, it's a little complicated.

Nearly a year ago, I read Mimi Johnson's Feb. 22, 2010, blog post about her husband's disappointment with the news industry. If I remember correctly, Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert tweeted a link to the blog, which one of my co-worker's saw and read before posting her own tweet about and link to it.

We had watched a lot of people get laid off by our employer, Sun-Times Media, leading up to a bankruptcy filing by the company, and Mimi's post resonated deeply within us. And it struck me personally because of Mimi's description of journalism as her husband's other love. Many of us in the business know what that means -- and how it can disrupt the lives of our own families. And yet Mimi wrote about their resiliency as a couple and her own acceptance of her husband's passion for the work he did.

Her blog post touched me so deeply that I did something I had not done before in response to a blog: I wrote her an e-mail to express my appreciation for her writing, her own ability to craft words so beautifully, and to let her know that I recognized in her words my own bittersweet affair, as it were, with this profession I have loved and enjoyed and on occasion even hated.

Mimi directed me to her husband's blog, The Buttry Diary, where I learned about the breadth and depth of Steve Buttry's experience in the industry. I was impressed. He not only had a solid background as a talented journalist, but he had become recognized in the field for his expertise. And I watched with interest as he took an active leadership role with TBD.com, and as he began writing about a new journalism that could transcend newspapers, embracing the Internet and mobile technology in ways that the industry had yet to fully consider -- in ways that engaged the community, actually elicited readers' involvement on a scale I had not witnessed before.

Some of what Steve wrote about in his blog echoed the same ideas I had heard espoused by Sun-Times Media leaders. But the implementation of those ideas was botched as badly by the company's lack of financial wherewithal, I think, as by the company's own failure to train everyday journalists how to use the Internet to dispense news, as well as using social media to engage those in the community, to name a few examples.

Finally, the company failed to create an environment in which the use of and planning for online coverage would be nurtured and encouraged, even pushed. Everybody talked a great game and paid homage to the Internet for special projects, but it seemed that few made it a priority on a daily basis.

I point this out not as a criticism of my former supervisors or co-workers. Ultimately, I think, there was little direction and few were granted the authority to do some of what needed to be done. Or perhaps, if they were indeed given that authority, it was so poorly communicated to them that they never caught on.

Other factors came into play as well. One thing I am certain of: None of the people I worked with at Sun-Times Media was an idiot, and those who remain are some of the smartest, most-talented people I know. They continue to make their best efforts out of pride in their craft and in hope that the company will pull out of its spiral.

There were bold initiatives taken during my final two years as a Web editor. But there appeared to be little effort to encourage those bursts of energy into becoming something longer-lasting, something more sustainable. We Web editors encouraged this, but between worry and the increasing workload that came as co-workers were shown the door, people were too overwhelmed to effect much change.

So I followed Steve's blog and watched his Twitter posts with amazement, because TBD.com was doing many of the things that were being talked about at Sun-Times Media, and more. From my perspective, this seemed to be what we should be doing.

Instead, human nature reigned, as did the fear surrounding Sun-Times Media's financial morass and the ensuing sale. And so many did what came naturally when people get stressed out, fearful for their futures and uncertain about technological change: They hunkered down and did what they did best -- put out the best newspapers they could with dwindling resources.

And so it continued, at least until Dec. 2, when Sun-Times Media laid me off -- just one more casualty of cost-cutting. And two weeks after that date, I began writing this blog.



And the next day, I found a number of comments on the blog, including one from Steve, saying Mimi had urged him to read it. He expressed his condolences and then added links to two blog posts he had written about looking for work in digital journalism. I've not found a job yet (the economy is still awful, no matter what the economists say on the news), but his advice has helped draw attention to my resume and I remain optimistic (if somewhat impatient) that I will find something that uses the skills I've developed over 27 years.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Steve and his staff at TBD.com were giving it their best shot, and by many accounts were seeing a great deal of success -- at least until this week, when the staff cuts and reorganization were announced.

There were many blog postings and articles related to TBD.com's shakeup this week, and I am not going to take the time now to summarize them all here.

But I see at least one comparison between TBD.com and my own career before it was involuntarily interrupted.

Those who have worked with me and supervised me will attest to this: I gave my heart to my work and gave the best I had every day. That by no means is a claim to being a perfect worker, because I am just as flawed as the next Joe (Joe and Joe, my friends and former co-workers, if you are reading this, I pray you will forgive me for that).

But, like Steve and his staff, I gave Sun-Times Media my best shot and tried as hard as I could to make it work, just as those around me did.

Ultimately, my best wasn't good enough -- not in terms of job preservation anyway. And for the staff at TBD.com, their best apparently wasn't good enough either.

But that does not mean the efforts were wasted or that their achievements were meaningless.