Monthly Archives: March 2014

Life after a newspaper layoff: Sometimes it’s not a disaster

A former Tribune Co. reporter—laid off and struggling with cancer—writes to Romenesko about the pain of being having a career in journalism ended at age 45. She ripped through the 401K and ended up without a calling and feeling lost and betrayed.

I have tried to recover but am still bitter and angry at the dirty pool that was played. So many people I considered good friends, whose weddings and baby showers I attended, stabbed me right in the back.

I’m hardly alone. It was journalist against journalist when the rounds of layoffs happened, and people did vile things. I’m sure we all know some total sociopaths who have managed to hold onto their journalism jobs by beheading all their “friends.”

I have no idea where most of my coworkers went. Some have gone on to other jobs or lives, and some have just sunk to the bottom. One guy, this total straight arrow, has spent many nights in the drunk tank. I know another who is drugging himself to death. Others are just trying to live in a world that is diminished in every way—less money, less purpose, less reason to be here. I wonder how many involuntarily ex-journalists have attempted or committed suicide? That’s another story you’ll never see.

This is a poignant and bitter piece, and my hat is off to Charlie Madigan for calling it to my attention and reaching out to the author.

In reading it, however, I realize how lucky I am. What the ex-reporter describes was not my experience when I was laid off nearly five years ago at age 49. The day I was told to clear out my desk, I felt exhilarated. (Admittedly, I did not have cancer.) The sole supporter of a family can’t just up and quit a job, but, hell, when you’re thrown out, there’s no choice. And after you walk the plank, the horizons are limitless.

As I watched the SS Chicago Tribune sail along, circling at sea, listing to starboard, smoke pouring from the portholes as the bosses frantically shoved people off, I thought, I’m better off out here. It was bracing. No sharks. My family and I could go anywhere. I had just backed out of what probably would have turned into a job offer teaching journalism in India, and I could have called them back, but my reasons for not going hadn’t changed.

Nonna was great. She said, “We lived through far worse in Russia. We can get through this. Remember the ruble crisis?” Of course. The value of our wages collapsed. Shelves were bare in the stores. People were panicking and buying massive bags of flour in Vladivostok. But nobody starved, and a few weeks later, the papers were chock full of recipes for pancakes, dumplings and other flour-heavy foods.

I don’t share this journalist’s sense that backstabbers played any role in costing me my job. I was middle-aged and better paid than someone two decades younger would have been. In every industry, mid- and late-career people are the most expensive and the first to go.

The Trib is a paper with a great history, talented staff, and many strengths, but it also was in decline. And it always was an editors’ paper. I worked for several great editors there, but the Trib was also a hard place to sell a story idea to. (Or maybe it was just me.) I had many ideas turned down that I could easily have sold when I was freelancing, starting with day one in 2003, when I wanted to write an op-ed about our move to Chicago. A TSA agent had yanked our 10-day-old baby out of Nonna’s hands and patted the newborn down for explosives. No, thanks, I was told. Not of interest. The New York Times, which published something like seven op-eds of mine, would have taken it.

Like the Romenesko contributor, I found it a little unsettling no longer to receive invitations to social events from some journalist friends, but I had expected that, too, having once been one of those pariahs known as a boss. Then again, the Elmhurst Press Club–a jokey name for a group of reporters who gathered for a beer every once in a while, continued to invite me and other out-of-work ex-Tribsters along. I faded out only because I didn’t like driving back to Oak Park after drinking.

In the end, I was lucky. I finished a novel and found an agent (if not yet a publisher). I taught a graduate workshop in fiction and mentored students for a semester. I freelanced and did a fiction residency. Right now, for four weeks, I am again a writer-in-residence, this time with a literary organization in Brussels, and delivering journalism lectures to two universities while I’m at it. I’m taking the train to London this weekend to interview a former investor in the Russian shipping industry for a nonfiction book I’m working on.

As for my full-time job, I ended up at a great company at Ragan Communications—a place that (go figure) likes the way I write. We produce trade publications for people in PR and corporate communications. The job may not be as sexy as reporting for the Chicago Tribune, but it’s a good place to work, with colleagues I greatly admire. Two years ago, I made an ill-advised lurch into PR, mainly because I wanted to get closer to my parents in California, who are full-time caregivers for my disabled younger brother. I hated the job and was lousy at it. How had I not seen that coming? Maybe because I got the job offer the day before Christmas and had to start Jan. 4, leaving no time for thoughtful consideraton.

Never mind; I quit PR within weeks. Unemployed again! But our CEO Mark Ragan forgave all and hired me back. We turned around and moved back to Chicagoland. Few wives would have tolerated two cross-country moves in three months, so again, I lucked out. And Ragan has its perks. In December, I got to go on a reporting junket to Rome, something I couldn’t have done at the Trib.

Forgive me if it sounds heartless to mention all that in response to an ex-journalist’s cri de coeur. I have had many down times, too, if nothing like the nightmares this reporter lays out. I bring all this up only to offer a different perspective to those journalists living in fear of the next round of layoffs. Sometimes, as this writer makes clear, a layoff is a disaster. But often something better awaits you.

I welcome comments from anyone who has a different perspective, but as I am traveling this weekend, it may take a day or so before I approve them.

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Women, books, Dr. Tom Dooley, and quality IKEA furnishings

Kid ponders "Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley" at IKEA furniture store.

Kid ponders “Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley” at IKEA quality furniture store.

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day by visiting a Swedish store that sells furniture you can crumble into kitty litter in your hands, with a cafe famous for its horse meatballs (or horsemeat balls?) served with lingonberry jam.

Why? Did we go to IKEA, you mean? If the furniture’s so cheap? Because Nonna wanted to, that’s why. And they do sell other stuff. So we got her International Women’s Day present there. Plus, the 99-cent breakfast was free, which means we drove 48 miles round-trip to get $2.97 cents’ worth of food. But there was horse sausage, so it was worth it.

Pictured, the kid drops into narcoleptic state with prop: a copy of Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley, by James Monahan. It was stuck in a stack of books supporting the base of an IKEA lamp, because it’s cool and stylish and Nordic to place lamps, salt shakers, TVs, gerbil cages, diaper pails, and so forth on books. I was shooting pics of our kid to tweet, as we were suckers for a contest that offered a coupon for a thousand dollars’ worth of furniture you can beat into sawdust against any household surface, pet, or family member.

Tom Dooley. Physician working among Vietnamese and Laotian refugees in the 1950s. Humanitarian. Saint? Spook? Or not? Lord knows. Not the same guy who was supposed to hang down his head and die, but dying young, anyway. He succumbed to cancer in 1961 at 34 years old.

I can feel guilty about anything, so I chose to feel guilty for joining Crümbleables of Stockholm in disrespecting both books and a great humanitarian with my photo-mockery. Tom Dooley would have absolved me, though. I was sure of it. Had a sense of humor. Paused while vaccinating children long enough the crack up over jokes involving the final days of once-famous people.

So instead I felt a little sorry for Dooley biographer James Monahan, even more forgotten than his subject, the book that he wept over, as he wrote it, now sitting on a plank of IKEA shelving that doubles as a hot breakfast cereal (crumble in your hands; add milk, salt, horse grease, and brown sugar; boil), all in order to appeal to the aesthetics of Norsemen who like roasting themselves pink in banyas and whose most famous export is a vodka whose name is a synonym for arbitrary, autocratic, tsarist, despotic, dictatorial, monocratic, tyrannical, arrant, blank, blooming (chiefly British), bodacious, categorical, complete, consummate, cotton-picking, etc., per Merriam-Webster. Absolut, I mean. Is this the eventual fate of all books in the end? To sit on an IKEA surface that might be crushed to talcum powder under their weight? Then again, Monahan’s Dooley book is probably read more often at quality Swedish furniture stores than mine are in the libraries. That made me feel better.

Also, Nonna got two things made of iron. Which you can bend, if you’re Superman, but doesn’t crumble.

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Snow shovels and the perils of winter

So, I’m walking home in a blizzard, reflecting on the soft winter beauty of another six or eight inches of snow, how it covers all the squirted yellow holes in the white embankments along the sidewalks and buries another generation of frozen dog turds. Two guys are coming my way, carrying snow shovels on their shoulders.

I’m an American. I say “hi” to everybody I pass. It’s in our genes. So I do—just as the first guy turns around to say, “What?” to his buddy.

WHAM! He hits me in the eye with the corner of his snow shovel. I fall to my knees and nearly black out. The darkness dissolves into a swarm of horseflies on a corpse, which become whiteflies in flight, and then start falling again as snowflakes, and I am kneeling in fresh snow on a white night, clutching a chain that someone strung up along the edge of his yard in case anyone needed help to avoid toppling over.

“Oh! Shit! Wow! Sorry! Are you all right?”

“Ugh. Jeez!”

“Shit! Man! I didn’t mean to!”

“I know.” I pull off my glove and explore my eye socket. Still there. No blood. All right. I scoop up snow and hold it to my eye. He grabs my arm and helps me up.

“Your eye? Let me look at it. Ain’t bleeding.”

“Ungh.”

“Hurt?”

“Kind of.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“Good night.”

“Ugh. Yeah, good night.”

I trudge home. If there’s a lesson in this, beyond the value of a good pratfall, it’s how unlikely it is that I will successfully disarm the next madman who wanders into a mall or a movie theater and starts taking out people with a snow shovel.

Later I get out our own shovel, and I work with a neighbor to clear out the parking lot out behind our condo, because the guys the association hired, identity unknown, left heaps of snow that prevent us from getting our cars back in. It feels good to shovel, even though I worked out in the morning. The shiner, though, turns out to be disappointingly meager. Just a touch of red, like the eye shadow of a Chinese opera singer, the ones whose voices sound like you’re twisting the tail of a cat.

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Filed under Winter