Saturday, October 15, 2011

Down but not out

When I was laid off in December, I was devastated — I felt a combination of hurt and betrayal that a company I had worked for loyally for 16 years had dropped me, with little more than a short “thanks but we don’t need you anymore” and a couple of boxes into which I could unceremoniously cast my belongings.

The loss of daily contact with my friends and colleagues — who for five days a week had been my social circle — hurt like hell as well. But the greatest pain was the sense that I had failed my wife, my kids, myself, and a career I’ve loved since I began a little more than 27 years ago.

Yes, in recent years I grew weary of the tough times, with budget cuts, no raises, increasingly frequent rounds of layoffs, then furloughs and pay cuts. Nevertheless, all that did little to dull my passion for a job done well on tight deadlines when hard news broke on any given day. Nor could it quell the adrenaline rush that came when a story broke before deadline, requiring me to make quick decisions about which pages to pull apart as we gauged the time we had left while wondering just how many words we could get from the reporter.

Deadlines were absolute (mostly — there sometimes were ways to stretch them), and the adrenaline flowed all the stronger as we rushed headlong toward the finish line on such nights.

But the years and continuous cost-cutting brought change that was killing our efforts, and ultimately a familiarity with what would become routine and often boring.

Meeting deadline each night started to become largely a dull, lifeless task. I was good at what I did and still cared about my work, but with fewer people around, opportunities diminished for investigative reporting and meaningful but time-intensive projects. We filled our paper each day with local news, but it increasingly seemed to lack relevance, initiative, the impetus for change in our community.

In the meantime, the Internet had blossomed and grown. Its capabilities had piqued my interest from the time I first was exposed to it in the mid-1990s. It had the potential to make local news instantly relevant again. Still, an opportunity that was convenient to my family would not present me with the chance to migrate to this new media until 2007.

When it came, I leapt.

For 38 months I strove to learn everything I could to become the best Web content editor I could be. I learned how to use the archaic central management system that until 2010 was the heart and soul of Sun-Times Media’s websites. As I became familiar with that knowledge, I began to learn to manipulate it, to innovate. And I was having fun.

But I was still too much the copy editor, perhaps, because my attention to detail, coupled with my passion for this new media in journalism and my love for learning, brought long hours on the job. I didn’t mind so much — I’ve never been one to watch the clock unless I’m bored, and I certainly was not.

The end came Dec. 2. The hurt, grief and near despair fairly smothered me for several weeks, until I pushed myself to revise my resume and begin anew a job search I’d initially begun in late 2006.

I’ve written about Mike Bailey and Steve and Ruth Munson before. They, and Mike’s son J.J., are the principals behind BocaJump, a startup hyperlocal Elgin news website. Mike had hired me at The Courier-News in Elgin back in 1994, and he had been my boss for most of the years through 2007. Sun-Times Media let him go a year or so before, so when the company let me go, he offered me a little work. It was a welcome boost to my spirits. I had started this blog several weeks before, and that, along with this opportunity to be a reporter again, immediately reminded me that for all my years as an editor, I largely had been neglecting my love for writing.

Time passed and I picked up two more part-time jobs, freelancing as a copy editor for two dozen area websites.

However, as I have learned before, some things don’t last.

During the last week of September, I learned that one of the jobs would be eliminated as of Oct. 1, and the hours for the other would be cut by three-fifths. About the same time, BocaJump principal Steve Munson died after a short, difficult fight with cancer. I did not know him well, but I liked him — he was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever met. His wife, Ruth, is a peach of a person as well.

I was able to post one blog entry, Let go at 52: The Sequel. Oh yeah, and then my laptop crashed. At this point I was thinking if it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.

My reaction to all this? WelI, I pretty much shut down for a week or so.

Ten months ago, the layoff had scared me, but I knew in the back of my mind that if nothing else, we could live for a while off my retirement savings. We depleted that in August, but September had started well — for the first time since that layoff, I’d earned enough money in the month to make our mortgage payments.

But that was over. Any money I earned or collected from unemployment would have to go toward groceries and utilities first; there would not be enough to cover the mortgage.

A friend of mine — we attend the same church — is a computer geek, a term I in no way intend as disparaging. His valiant efforts over the course of the week to revive my Dell ultimately failed, but he was able to recover some files that I failed to back up in a timely manner, meaning I’d have lost some important work.

In the meantime, my Dad surprised me with a new HP laptop that has far more capability than the faithful old Dell I’ve used since the spring.

Mom and Dad are helping us out in other ways as well, so we have breathing room yet.

Still, the past 10 months have left me battered and bruised. In February 2010, in writing about her husband’s decision to end his 38-year career in newspapers, Mimi Johnson described journalism as a fickle mistress who does not return love to those who pursue her with great passion.

When I first read her blog several months after she posted it, I understood how her husband, Steve Buttry, must have arrived at his conclusion. Particularly over the past decade, journalists have been battered and beaten, largely by their own colleagues and employers. The pay has never been good — those of us who enter it knowing that.

Understanding that, I think, and knowing that, ultimately, God is directing all this, even if we cannot discern exactly what’s happening or why, is key to explaining why I’ve never been angry at my former employer, even while I at times have been angry with this situation, with the state of this industry.

So I’ve been knocked down, had the wind smacked out of me once again. I am down, but not out.

Last week I penned an open letter to the president, Congress and our state elected officials. This week I stepped up once again to serve as a reporter for BocaJump. Throughout I find I still have a passion for my craft, even as I face the likelihood that my career as a full-time journalist may be at an end. After 24 years as a print journalist, I switched careers to become an Internet journalist. I adapted and I succeeded.

If need be, I will adapt again.