Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2011's been a turkey, but ...

Still thankful, despite job status
(stock,xchng vi)
A year ago, I was thanking God that I had escaped yet another brutal round of layoffs as Sun-Times Media continued the draconian downsizing which I ultimately believe will prove fatal — if not to the entire company, then at least to its neglected suburban holdings.

On that Thanksgiving Day a year ago, one of my brothers asked me what I would do if I was laid off. “I’ll work as a janitor if I have to,” I said, but not nearly as glibly, I suspect, as I had intended to sound. The relentless cuts were taking their toll on me, even as I still hoped, at that point, that my years of loyal, 110 percent service to that company would count for something.

Ultimately, however, they did not count.

Exactly one week later, and two days after company executives told the editors of the suburban papers there would be no more layoffs in the Aurora office until the end of the year, I was let go. I was now just another statistic among the swathe of jobless journalists whose employers for decades had focused so much on easy money that they failed to comprehend the ultimate threat the emerging technology called new media, the Internet, would pose, not to mention the Great Recession of 2008.

There have been little more than a handful of days in my life that I can think of which were more painful than the day I was laid off. Five involved deaths, a sixth was another kind of loss I will not discuss here.

Now, on the anniversary of my last Thanksgiving as a gainfully employed human being, I pause to write down my thanks, for even as just one of the nation’s 9.3 million underemployed, according to U.S. News and World Report, I have much for which to be thankful.

First off, there’s God: He has done more to get me through this test of faith, this winnowing and paring, than anyone else could. He’s provided — sometimes through part-time work, sometimes friends and family — when my meager unemployment checks or part-time earnings could not. More importantly, He’s kept me from giving in to the black dog. Have I felt down at times? Yes. Really stinking depressed at times? Yes — particularly when the job offers from insurance companies roll around every couple of months or so. But ultimately, I know things are going to be all right. Even if this lifetime stinks, the long view does not.

Next is my immediate family: If any good comes out of this at all, it’s the extra time I’ve been able to spend with my three sons and two daughters. Even when I at one point was working four part-time jobs, I was able to break away now and then to tickle, chase or squash the girls, or to be chased, tickled, swatted and spanked by them. (At 24, 19 and 17, the boys are a little too grown-up for that. But we get to talk from time to time, and there is still some horsing around, as well.) There’s a lot to be said for a little insanity from time to time.

Along the same line, my children have shown me unconditional love, even though I’m no longer much of a breadwinner in this home and frequently wrestle with feelings of failure. They bless me far more than they know.

My parents and most of my siblings: My parents in particular have helped in sometimes unexpected ways. Because I have no editor but myself on this blog, for example, Dad calls faithfully to report typos and to ask questions about the finer points of grammar and punctuation. At another time in my life I might have resented this, but I actually invited him to do this, and I’ve appreciated it a lot. My youngest brother and my youngest sister also have been there with encouragement from time to time. Barb sometimes IMs back and forth with me. Sometimes I’ll call via Google, and now I’ve got my Web cam settings right as well, which opens the door to using Skype or Google’s own video platform.

My church family: Another group of wonderful, kind and encouraging people. Some are right here in the Elgin area. Others are in Wisconsin. Another is in Florida. Others are in Colorado.

Friends and former colleagues. There are far more people in this group than I could possibly name in one blog post, even keeping in mind my tendency to write like I talk — a lot. That said, Mike Bailey offered me part-time work at the hyperlocal website BocaJump just a few weeks after I was let go. Before that, he was the guy who convinced me to return to Elgin back in 1994.

For those of you who don’t know him, Mike Bailey used to be the managing editor of The Courier-News in Elgin. He was let go about a year before I was — a stupid, foolish and idiotic (the redundancy here is intentional) mistake by a company no longer concerned about really knowing the communities it served.

Over the years, I watched and learned as a darned good newsman led our newsroom in putting out some exceptional community journalism. One of the things that has most impressed me about Mike has been the loyalty he’s shown, most often behind the scenes, to the very people he hired. Most of us recognized him only as a boss, but he is a great friend as well.

Working with Mike on BocaJump put me back in touch with the writer I’d left behind for the most part when I became an editor two decades ago. I’d forgotten how much fun being a reporter can be.

This blog. Truthfully, it’s been a lifesaver in any number of ways. When I first started writing it on Dec. 14, 2010, my intent was to chronicle some of what I was experiencing as a member of the nouveau jobless with hopes of encouraging others in similar circumstances. At the same time, I hoped this platform would help me hone and sharpen my writing and editing skills. The truth be told, the blog has made me a better writer, but editing your own work is difficult. For years, reporters would complain when I or other editors would question them about their stories. “I already read through it and it was fine,” was a common refrain. “But,” I would respond, “you’re reading it with eyes that know what you were trying to say. I’m not wearing those blinders.” Of course those blinders are a problem for me when I am the author. So Dad, thanks a second time for your help on this.

This blog also has introduced me to people from all over the world. One couple in particular — Steve Buttry and Mimi Johnson — have been a tremendous source of encouragement. After he read my first blog post, Steve reached out to share some tips via his blog, The Buttry Diary, on finding journalism jobs in the digital age. I’m fairly certain that, had I not been tied to a house, I’d be a full-time journalist again. Regardless, if you are a digital journalist, Steve’s blog is a fantastic resource both on the tech side as it relates to social media and community engagement, and on the more traditional journalism side. Steve’s a respected, longtime newsman who cut his teeth on newspapers and transitioned successfully to the online world. By the way, Mimi’s an accomplished writer — this entry in her blog, RubyEyedFox.com, resonated deeply when I first read it about seven or eight months before I was laid off.

My blog also has introduced me to new ways of doing things — blogging itself was new to me.

While at Sun-Times Media, I’d been using Twitter to promote news stories. When I started the blog, I started sending out email blasts to friends and family as well as tweeting links to each new post, which I also promoted on LinkedIn. I’d been building my LinkedIn profile for years, but it was not until I’d been laid off for a while that I started participating in some professional discussion boards, where I became acquainted with journalists from all over the world.

Facebook became another tool for promoting my blog — and for getting reacquainted with far-off cousins, old friends. Add Google+ to my social media list.

Then there’s the use of social media for plugging into the community — as a tool to get to know what people are thinking, what they’re saying and how it all pertains to news.

So education would be another item to add to my Thanksgiving checklist.

Finally, I am grateful that the blinders have come off. I like people, generally have liked being an employee all my adult life. I’ve never aspired to run my own business, for example, although I’d one day like to lead a newsroom, assuming there are going to be any left in the coming decades.

I also have liked being able to trust people. I have less trust now for those in the business world. There was a long time in this nation’s history where hard work and loyalty were valued qualities in an employee. Now, it seems, it’s just a numbers game. With that realization, I lost something for which I am not thankful. Perhaps it was a vestige of innocence, perhaps naïveté on my part — ultimately, a betrayal shattered that trust.

That is a sad thing.