Thursday, June 21, 2012

Then and now: Peaks and valleys on a journalist's career roller coaster

Over the past 18 months or so, I have found that working through an extended season of un/underemployment can be a roller-coaster ride.

There are flat stretches when not little more happens than the passage of time. There are hills — solid job leads for which I must slow down and carefully consider my steps. Hopes rise with an initial email contact, then soar with a phone screening and the prospect of a face-to-face interview.

Until now, there has been a thundering, rapid descent into blackness — perhaps with the realization, a week or so later, that
there would be no subsequent interview, or that when an offer did come in to go to work with a great crew of people, the pay would be phenomenally low.

The black dog licks at my heels at times like those.

In almost every way, this has been far more difficult to navigate than my transition from college to the working world of news, which also was a significant trial. I graduated during a recession, at a time when, like today, the newspaper industry was struggling. Starting in the spring semester before leading to my graduation in 1982, it seemed that every week, I read or listened to news reports of more newspaper layoffs. In Minnesota, where I attended college and hoped to land my first job, newspapers were folding. The same was true elsewhere in the Midwest.

After I graduated, I had something like 200 resumes printed. In that first year, long before email, I sent out 150 of them. My cover letters were typed, because home computers were a luxury few could afford. It would be some time before prices fell, their quality increased and they rose to the level of ubiquity at which they exist today. I learned quickly to type slowly and carefully — there were no spell checkers in most electric typewriters back then, and because I had chosen to have my resume printed on gray parchment — ditto with the letterhead for my cover letters — Whiteout and erasers were not an option.

I wrote mainly to papers that were not even advertising, because very few were hiring; those that had openings were giving preference to experienced journalists who had lost their jobs. I always thought that was as it should be.

In the meantime, I worked long hours in a warehouse, lived with my parents, made friends, had backyard cookouts featuring beer, brats and volleyball, and generally had a good time. But as time passed, my frustration grew. My idled dreams left me sullen, angry. My education, my longing and what, over the course of my life I have come to know as my vocation, were not germinating but dormant in sterile soil.

I went 18 months from the time I graduated to the day I started my first newspaper job at a small daily, the Rawlins Daily Times, in Rawlins, Wyo. It was a “Wild West” adventure I’ll always cherish, working with some great journalists who were good people, good friends. The people in that town and throughout the state were best caliber, like myself often blunt or direct, and could disagree loudly and then meet up at the bar later to share a few laughs and some brews.

Fast forward nearly three decades and the scenario has similar elements yet is vastly different.

Then, I was single, living with my folks and without much responsibility. Today, I have my own family — a lovely, many-talented wife, and five wonderful children. The roof over our heads comes with a monthly mortgage payment. There are bills to pay and daily expenses such as food and clothing that perhaps we took too much for granted when I was bringing home a paycheck that reflected full-time work.

I’ve mellowed over the years — less inclined to anger, more patient, more appreciative of those around me. I attribute much of that to my faith in and love of God. There also have been people around me over the years, whether at home, at church or at work, who set good examples for me to emulate in terms of optimism, encouragement, perseverance.

Another great difference between then and today is the industry itself. The sea change called the Internet arrived in the 1990s. It is a technological marvel that has sparked a paradigm shift in how journalism is done, that has add varied and spectacular methods of storytelling and presenting information in ways that newspapers never had had available to them.

The Internet is immediate — information can be made available as quickly as it can be gathered. Conversely, newspapers are nearly the informational equivalent of a snail, with information that gathered, say at 8 in the evening delivered to your driveway 10 hours later. It is that difference in timeliness, not to mention the expense of printing, that will doom newspapers, or at best relegate them to more of a roll as a holdout or remnant. I say that with a fair degree of confidence since it already is occurring.

Sun-Times Media took its suburban papers down to six days a week several years ago. Since then, it has considered cutting the number of publication days further at The Courier-News in Elgin, my hometown. Since that consideration, however, the company has changed hands, which makes it difficult to predict when the publication cycle will diminish, but it will happen. That example is close to home but is by no means the exception.

Elsewhere, publications have ceased to print entirely, cutting and converting their news operations to delivery by website. One was the widely reported decision by the Christian Science Monitor to eschew print in 2008, another was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2009.

In February 2009, many in the Sun-Times Media newsroom in Aurora watched with dread an online video about the closure of the Rocky Mountain News. My eyes teared up as I watched the interviews — I once worked with some of those very people earlier in our careers in a newsroom in Cheyenne, Wyo.

In recent weeks, however, there have been signs that other steps are becoming more common. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans announced it was cutting its staff by 200 workers in preparation to shift from a daily publication cycle to just three days a week, with daily delivery of news via its website. Steve Buttry, in his blog The Buttry Diary, wrote a salute to the paper and its staff, whose coverage of Hurricane Katrina earned the paper the motto, “We publish come hell and high water.” In his blog, Buttry notes that Advance Newspapers, which owns the Times-Picayune, already has cut back is daily publications to three days a week at other papers it owns in Michigan, and is doing the same thing at papers it has in Alabama.

I can honestly say these recent developments, while sad, were hardly surprising. I’ve been reading in discussion boards now for the better part of a year discussions by media professionals predicting these very types of cutbacks. Some have suggested scenarios in which big-city papers might cut back to printing just once or twice a week to conserve costs as they struggle to preserve some revenues from the print side of their operations.

Time will tell.

Some blame the industry’s troubles today on the Internet. While I agree the turmoil it has wrought kind of stinks — I don’t like my status any more than any other un/underemployed journalist — I do remain enamored of the potential I see.

I said much the same about the technology changes in the years leading up to my layoff, more so in 2007 when I transitioned to Sun-Times Media’s suburban Web desk. Where some of my print-side colleagues perceived the Internet as a threat to our industry, I saw potential for dynamic change. I warned everyone, in words that today of course seem more like a self-fulfilling prophecy, that our profession was facing a technological roller-coaster ride that would be both painful and exciting.

When my own layoff came, the pain became even more intense than it had been watching time and again as co-workers were let go. Still, I held onto my excitement about the change, even in my worst moments during the valleys of my own roller-coaster ride over the past year and a half. There is so much potential for this profession to grow, to mature, to develop new, more effective ways of communicating with people about what is happening in their communities and the rest of the world.

But the reality facing my family and myself has been difficult to navigate. On the long, flat stretches of this ride, I’ve tried to establish a routine — working on my blog, my part-time work with BocaJump and as a guest editor for’s northwest Chicago region and others, all the while monitoring job boards, writing cover letters, sending out resumes. At the same time, I’ve tried to keep up on my reading of industry events via blogs by Buttry, Jim Romenesko, Poynter and many others, as well as participating in online discussions of issues facing the industry today. After the first of the year, however, I had to cut back or set a lot of that aside as I adjusted my routine to accommodate the training I sought on Adobe software.

The high points of the ride have been encouraging. Some involved job interviews, much of them involved my work with BocaJump. Many involved writing this blog and looking on in wonder as the number of people coming to take a look grew from several hundred page views a month what has grown to an average of more than 1,400 page views a month over the course of the 18 months I have been writing. Blog traffic has slowed, however, since the first of the year, but then I’ve not been writing as often.

But I’ve plumbed the depths of the valleys on this ride as well. I’ve struggled with doubt about sticking with a profession that cast me off with little more than a thank you, now leave. Self-worth is more than a paycheck, but of course it’s hard to feel validated about the skills you have wielded successfully throughout your career when no one seems interested in hiring you any longer.

The black dog has been a close companion but no friend during these times.

In the past couple of weeks, the roller-coaster again has ticked upward. Part of me wants desperately not to get excited, not to get my hopes up, because if there’s a letdown it’s going to hurt like hell. It gets worse each time.

But, as Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed creation Sherlock Holmes once said, “Come Watson, come! The game is afoot.” I can bridle my optimism and excitement no more than Holmes and Watson could set aside their search for Moriarty.

I am eager to learn more, to become a part of something that not only would make use of my skills and my experience, but also would provide a full-time paycheck and ease the strain my family has faced throughout this ordeal.

So I am excited, yet I tread cautiously. Perhaps this latest avenue will be my path, and I hope it is. If not, I dread another reunion with my canine companion on this trek. The black dog follows patiently. But perhaps this time he will lose the scent.