Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's not just news, it's people

Second layoff likely means —30— for journalism career

It was 2:30 in the morning on a late summer day in 1985 or ’86, I think, when the call came. The Carbon County Fair was in full swing in Rawlins, Wyo. that week, and until a tragic incident the prior afternoon, I had been tasked to “cover the fair.”

Instead, I was called away to cover a standoff in which a mentally ill man ended up being shot by police when he attempted to use a large knife to attack an officer. Authorities would not discuss the incident with another reporter at the paper, and my boss hoped I would have more success. And I did.

“Where do you get off writing stuff like this? You made my brother look like a criminal,” the caller said. The raw emotion in his voice was thick with anger, but also, I felt, with anguish. I recall imagining vividly that there must have been tears in his eyes as he talked.

“No, I don’t make anyone look like a criminal,” I responded, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and trying to keep my voice low so my wife, who had answered the call, could get back to sleep. “He did that himself. I accurately reported what happened.”

I was not unsympathetic. I did not intend, however, to take the blame for casting someone in a bad light in writing about the actions of that individual, deranged or not. Nevertheless, the caller was not done, so for the next 15 minutes or so, I listened.

What had unfolded the day that story broke, during the early morning phone call, and in the days that followed, highlighted the importance of relationships in this profession — relationships built on trust, integrity, and ultimately, on mutual respect. Some months before, I had told Rawlins’ new police chief, “If your guys are good cops, you have nothing to fear from me — the stories I write will accurately reflect that. But if they do wrong, I’ll write that, too.”

But I also told the police chief that if he noticed me making a mistake, he should call me on it, so that I could check it out and make a correction if he was correct.

The chief understood where I was coming from — I respect the authority police wield, just as I recognize the responsibility and scrutiny that comes with bearing such authority. The two go hand in hand, and the Fourth Estate has a role in that.

Ultimately, that conversation set the parameters for a solid relationship I developed with him and his officers. They knew they could tell me things, which I would verify elsewhere, without them getting into hot water with the county prosecutor. He frequently was confounded by the information I knew before he had filed a criminal complaint in a case, but again, I cultivated a relationship with him also based on mutual respect.

So it was that I gathered information on a hot, arid August afternoon and wrote about a schizophrenic man who had gone off his meds. On this particular day, he barricaded himself inside his apartment and began flailing a knife out his window at passers-by.

Police had tried to talk him out, then tried two or three times to force him out with teargas. When that failed, a sheriff’s deputy and a police officer donned gas masks and protective gear and entered the apartment.

The cop entered first. Through his mask, he saw nothing but tear gas, which filled the apartment like a thick fog. Suddenly a figure emerged from the fog. A knife slashed toward the officer, who fired his weapon. His assailant went down.

Flashback to the phone call: “Ernie’s not a criminal,” the caller said. “He didn’t know what he was doing. You made him look like a criminal …”

In the days that followed, I wrote more stories as more information became available, as a criminal complaint was filed against Ernie, who survived the shooting. I talked again with members of Ernie’s family. I don’t believe they ever changed their minds about my coverage, but I am fairly certain that they appreciated my listening to their grievances.

Listening is one more aspect of building relationships, perhaps the hardest part for someone who talks as much as I do, but it is key.

I have been a journalist now for 30 years, and the tales like this one resonate particularly with me at this moment, as do the relationships I have built with co-workers over the years.

The hardest part, every time I have moved on, has been the relationships lost or diminished by an end to daily contact. We say keep in touch, but often those contacts fade, albeit not entirely thanks to social media like Facebook.

A little more than three years ago, I was devastated by such a loss, as well as feelings pf hurt and even betrayal was a financial struggling Sun-Times Media laid me off after 16 years of faithful, loyal and usually stellar work for that company.

That event left me feeling eviscerated. I lost a job in a career I thoroughly love, daily contact with a wonderful group of people representing three different suburban daily newspapers, not to mention my income. I collected unemployment for six months as I developed leads and developed four contract jobs, two of which eventually also were cut back. In the meantime, I also spent my retirement savings to keep a roof over the heads of my family. Finally, I secured a job with Patch, a network of community news and information websites. My duties initially were in St. Charles, Ill.

On Jan. 29, 2014, after 18 months with Patch, I was among hundreds of other community journalists whose tenures came to an unwilling but inevitable end as Patch laid us off. For at least a few of us, this was the second layoff we had gone through. There likely are some who have gone through this three or more times.

As stunning and debilitating as the Sun-Times Media layoff was for me, this time around I felt remarkably little. Actually, Aol-Patch is treating us far better than Sun-Times Media did. During the past 18 months, I received more training than I had my 16 years with my prior employer, including training in new skills, as well as honing those I already had.

As I leave Patch, I also carry away the pride I felt as a participant in a bold experiment, which Patch has been and I trust will continue to be. Hand in glove with that is the pride I carry in serving a wonderful community — St. Charles, Ill. — for the past 18 months, in addition to Wheaton, Ill. over the past six months.

Despite ungodly long hours, juggling myriad priorities that seemed sometimes to change from minute to minute, Patch provided me an opportunity to stretch out a career in journalism to the 30-year mark. It also proved that I am an eager learner who can embrace changes within my profession with enthusiasm. One young lady who served as my supervisor/mentor during my first year with Patch told me at one point that my eagerness to embrace new technology set me up as a leader in our area for the younger “Patchers” in our area. It was one of the most encouraging and endearing compliments I have ever received professionally.

I already miss the folks I worked with at Patch, as well as the folks I have come to know in St. Charles and Wheaton.

It is my hope and prayer that my attitude and the ability I have demonstrated repeatedly over the years to embrace and to adapt to change will make me more marketable as I again try to gain a foothold in the job market.

I do not approach this task lightly, and perhaps I do so with a degree of reluctance and a pending sense of sorrow as I prepare to set aside one of my greatest passions for the past 30 years. As much as I have loved this calling on my life — indeed, I can refer to journalism as nothing less — I find it difficult to stomach the idea of subjecting my family to the continued contortions of an industry that has imploded, largely by its own arrogance and inflexibility.

Certainly if the right position came along, I would be tempted to stay within my field. But, like many others since the Great Recession, an underwater mortgage tethers me to this area for at least a while longer, and let’s face it: The Chicago area has far more unemployed or underemployed journalists than positions available.

Looking at other career options, I believe, will prove the wisest move for my family. Journalism was never lucrative for most of us in the field. I doubt the industry will see much stability until news providers figure out a business model that will allow them to succeed financially in the digital age.

Seeking Joy in Change is on Facebook.