Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Let go at 52: The Sequel

Second time around is no easier

I heard a joke some time ago, and at this moment, after learning a new life lesson Tuesday, it reminds me that I really, really wish I had two friends named Marge and Tina.

Life lessons can be good; some are hard. Tuesday’s was especially hard: Getting let go a second time is no easier than the first time, and it actually might be worse.

Aside from wanting to cry myself, my inner humorist desperately wanted to have two equally heartbroken friends nearby, if only so I could say, “Don’t cry for me, Marge and Tina.”

If you’re not familiar with Evita, you won’t get the joke, but it’s a pretty fair groaner.


I’d kind of figured cuts might be coming. Do a Google news search for Patch.com and AOL and it’s no secret there is pressure for these upstart online community news websites to start showing a profit, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. But because there is only one actual employee running the show at most of these sites, it was pretty clear to me that freelancers like myself could be in jeopardy.

Before I go any further, I want to make my feelings on one thing clear: AOL’s experiment and investment in Patch.com is, in my view, a courageous experiment — courageous especially considering what’s been happening in the news industry for several years now.

The Wall Street Journal story reports AOL has opened 870 Patch.com sites so far, and plans to open 130 more by year’s end.

This is something that’s never been done before, and certainly not on this scale. Think of it as AOL trying to reinvent community newspapers, except online instead of in print. I count the opportunity to have been a part of that on nearly a full-time basis, even for only a few months, as a blessing.

So when I heard Tuesday that the cuts had been announced, I sent a quick email to the two regional editors with whom I’ve been working. I was pretty direct but not rude, and because I’d heard something was up, I like to think that in some way, perhaps it made it easier for them to break the news.

It did not make it any easier for me, although I am grateful I am not entirely done working for Patch.

I’ve been working as an editing contractor for two separate Patch regions — about 25 hours a week for 12 northwest suburban Chicago Patch sites since late May, and another 20 hours a week for 12 southwest suburban sites since more recently.

The budget for my position was entirely eliminated in the southwest, and it was cut in half for the northwest. So I still will be able to work there for 12 or 13 hours a week.

The people I’ve worked with — the two regional editors and the 25 local editors — have helped make the work as enjoyable for a guy who is a social animal working from the dining room table of his home instead of in an office.

The words “thank you” came nearly daily in emails, and there were occasional, always pleasant and friendly chats by way of instant messaging. That was a monumental departure from the conditions under which I once worked, although to be fair, there were some very good people there, too. I think each of us fell away from common courtesy and exhortation, however, as we faced ever-growing demands from the company while simultaneously and repeatedly watching as the company slashed our ranks.

Unlike what happened nearly a year ago, there were no friends lining up at my desk to hug me goodbye, although my two regional editors from Patch.com did call. After all, it’s a little difficult for colleagues to offer a hug when everyone works from home.

But the sting is more disturbing this time. The meager retirement savings we had we poured into mortgage payments over the past nine months. The combined Patch jobs, as well as a reporting job for a local news website called BocaJump.com, and yet a fourth part-time consulting position were killing me in terms of hours, but they were just paying the bills. Neither the BocaJump nor the consulting positions are lucrative.

Time will tell. Perhaps it is time to close this career chapter for another, although I absolutely hate the idea of doing that. Journalism has never been a lucrative profession except for the owners, and it has been tough raising a family on what I’ve earned — in fact, it’s been impossible since we bought this house just a month more than seven years ago.

At the moment, I'm simply stunned, somewhat overwhelmed, and very weary of disappointment.