Saturday, August 6, 2011

Good news amid Sun-Times’ bad

New opportunities, more Sun-Times layoffs

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
As much as everyone’s complained about all the thunderstorms this summer, I’ve enjoyed them — the sound of rain and thunder, the brilliant flash of lightning. It helps me sleep better.

But professionally speaking, I’ve been going through a dry spell of late, even though there have been some good things mixed in with that.


My layoff in December was just one in a long line in an ailing newspaper industry that has cut 38,440 workers since the website Paper Cuts began tracking such things in 2007.

Actually, even though I enjoyed my job immensely, in some ways the years leading up to my layoff stunk, too. I was working with great people — every one of them a real professional, and some exceptional leaders. I was enjoying the work and was learning new skills as a Web editor. But there frequently was a sense of foreboding, often fanned by a rumor mill, which ran rampant in the weeks leading up to and the days after each round of layoffs. And there were many rounds of layoffs over the past several years.

Consequently, even while I miss the people there and the work, I do not miss the growing sense of oppression I encountered over the last several years. That sense of something ominous lurking in the shadows grew in frequency until, in my last year, it seemed to stand like a wall before me each day as I walked through the door into the newsroom.

More Sun-Times Media cuts this week

So I am certain the rumor mill was running hot this week at Sun-Times Media, as well as the sense of apprehension.

The Tribune’s Robert Feder reported Wednesday in his Time Out Chicago blog that the Chicago Sun-Times laid off three people.

I learned on Thursday that a photographer at one of its sister papers, The Beacon-News in Aurora, whose newsroom was my workplace for two years before I got the boot, also was let go this week. Marianne Mather was among a crew of very exceptional photographers. She did not deserve this — none of us did.

Add to that 456: That’s apparently the revised total cited in a report on Illinois layoffs that Chicagoist carried Wednesday night as well. When Sun-Times Media announced it would close it’s printing presses in favor of rolling off most of its papers on The Tribune’s presses, the company said about 400 people would be laid off. Looks like that was understated.

It’s depressing — at this point, watching Sun-Times Media’s layoffs is what I imagine it would be like watching the dissection of a living human being: With every part that gets removed, the more cadaver-like the human being becomes.

Starting over

In spite of the bad news this week, the wheels that were set in motion by my layoff in December continued to turn, and I appear to be gaining ground.

On Dec. 14, two weeks after I was laid off, I started this blog, which proved initially to be very cathartic, particularly in those first entries. I needed that catharsis, but I also wrote with hope that my words might prove helpful to someone else in similar circumstances. I also reasoned that it would be a tool which would help me keep my writing and editing skills honed while I was out of work. Through this blog, I also learned how much I had missed being a writer for the past 20 years.

So I’ve continued to plug away at it and have gained a modest following along the way — and I’ve learned some new skills as well. Reading blog posts by Steve Buttry in The Buttry Diary and articles by other authors planted the seeds that grew into a small marketing effort using social media like Twitter, LinkedIn, eventually Facebook and others. A low number of page views in January became a starting point that marked six straight months of strong, steady growth for an overall increase of nearly 396 percent by the end of July.

Opportunities grow

I mentioned in my a recent blog post (Regrown roots at heart of debate) that I’d like to be working full-time again instead of selling my skills piecemeal to three or four or more employers. Wishful thinking, perhaps in times like these.

But piecemeal employment is precisely where I am at the moment. It started with a hand up from my former managing editor, Mike Bailey. He and Steve and Ruth Munson and Mike’s son, J.J., the principals at BocaJump.com, brought me on board to work part-time as a freelance reporter. The 15 hours a week they offered me was an important step — it helped me to regain composure, a sense of value and a sense of purpose. Community journalism, after all, had been my specialty in various roles for more than 27 years.

The rest of my time I spent trolling job boards, rewriting and redrafting my resume, polishing this blog, and finally, in June, setting up an online portfolio to display some of my better work for BocaJump.com. I also joined journalism discussion boards on LinkedIn with the hopes of building some interest in the brand I was trying to sell — Ted Schnell: Web-savvy writer, storyteller, editor, wordsmith.

In those months, I had job interviews — by phone — but they didn’t pan out. Either the pay was too low, they wanted skills I had not acquired (think marketing-type jobs), or a better candidate came along.

Eventually, however, there came an offer of part-time employment from Patch.com’s 12 northwest suburban sites. They wanted a copy editor who understood things like hot links, site traffic, search-engine optimization and reader/user patterns and trends. It was right up my line.

The second job was enough to kick me off the unemployment rolls in early June. Unemployment was nowhere close to what I had been earning. The cruel irony was that what I earned from two part-time jobs was less, after taxes, than the unemployment check had been.

An uptick in interest

But in late June and early July, there was a surprising uptick in interest in me from potential employers. I’d been following contemporary advice to job seekers to send out targeted resumes, which clearly had not been working well. So as summer neared, I busted out my resume shotgun and started blasting them everywhere — if a listing required the skills of a writer, editor or Web content editor, and the job description looked to me like it was within my ability, ka-boom! The company got my resume.

A couple of more interviews came up, as did a request for some consulting work. Finally, in the past week, I received an email from a colleague of the editor who hired me on a part-time basis for Patch.com, and I received an email from another prospective employer asking me to come in for an in-person interview. A third Patch.com editor, with whom I had once worked, emailed me about the possibility of writing for him from time to time.

A representative of a headhunting agency also called, asking me to come to the company’s downtown Chicago office for an interview.

The uptick was darned near overwhelming. Suddenly, instead of not having enough to do, I faced the prospect of actually having too much to do. My inclination, as someone who had been underemployed for eight months, was to grab it all.

First, however, I thanked God for the encouragement this brought, because I really needed it. I cannot imagine how people survive prolonged unemployment without going over the edge — some have shown exceptional resiliency in a period of unemployment measured in years, not months. Good news came knocking on her door not too long ago, as well.

So I started to pray about the opportunities and talked with people I trusted as I tried to sort out what my priorities should be.

They became quite clear fairly quickly. First, I did not want to stop writing for BocaJump.com. The website represents some very good, very kind people, people with integrity and with whom I’ve been proud to be associated. They have been very encouraging to me this past eight months, letting me write for them and, more recently, allowing me to use social media to help market BocaJump.com for them. Each has been rewarding, the results of the latter even more encouraging.

The copy-editing work for the Patch.com sites also is very good, playing to the strengths I’ve developed in this profession, particularly under the mentoring of Marty O’Mara during the 13 years we worked directly together at The Courier.

The consulting work plays to my strengths both as a writer and as a social media enthusiast, perhaps as a coach as well.

All told, it looks like I could be working 70 hours or more a week for a while. Quite a change from the past eight months — or perhaps not. At once point late this spring, my 10-year-old and 8-year-old daughters each mentioned to me on separate occasions they thought I had been spending more time on the computer since I’d been laid off than when I was working sometimes 60 hours a week for Sun-Times Media over the past several years.

They were right. But, I explained to them then, I now was working two part-time jobs for BocaJump.com and Patch.com, but I still was working full-time to find a full-time job.

Working multiple part-time jobs is not the path I expected to find myself upon after I was laid off. But as a friend pointed out last week, a few hours here, a few more working there and some more after that add up, and maybe it becomes full-time work. Maybe, for a journalist who really believes this call on his life is a vocation, that’s the best to be hoped for these days.

If so, I guess I’d better work to make sure it pays off.