Hard to think that it was right around this time ten years ago when my newspaper career took the big turn.
The atmosphere at the office was tense, with contract negotiations approaching a deadlock. Actually, there was little back-and-forth but rather a take-it-leave-it set of ultimatums from the front office.
As much as I loved journalism, I had long dreamed of being liberated from the daily workplace grind to pursue my bigger passions fulltime – writing serious works that would stand as a legacy, plus more time for Quaker endeavors and activities of personal renewal. I envisioned a bigger studio at home and had several book manuscripts that looked promising, if only I could get them in motion faster. When you had an interested book publisher, as I tentatively did, you had to act fast, something that’s difficult when you’re actively engaged elsewhere. My big break, all the same, hadn’t happened, even if I was being published widely in the small-press literary scene. You had to build a name, after all, as well as connections.
The job itself had long ago turned into a production-line mentality, rather than a more deliberate craft. Gone were the big projects that allowed enough space for deep research, reflection, and revision. Even at the prestigious big dailies, the clout that came with having a byline had largely evaporated. I began joking, with a degree of factual backup, that I really earned my wages in a one-hour span every Saturday night, when our biggest paper of the week in terms of circulation, heft, content, and income, was about to hit the press. Missing that deadline by even a few minutes was costly and had consequences. In that hour, and the two that followed as we made corrections and updated editions, everything funneled down through me, carrying with it blame for any big errors.
Well, I was a pro. Suck it up.
The possibility of buyouts had been floated by the union but required a certain number of members to step forward as interested candidates – tell us more – before that possibility was soundly yanked away from the table by management. I felt left like a pawn in that high-stakes game. For me, the pension and Medicare were both still a year off, and a steady income between here and there was looking more and more imperiled. I’d stuck my neck out, after all, and could now be seen as disloyal – if the paper was still running at all.
A few weeks later, brusquely, I was called into HR and essentially told I had an hour or so to commit to a decision. What, it’s back on the table? Maybe I had a little longer to confer with my spouse, I don’t recall, but in the whirlwind, the closure still came down like a hammer.
And that was it – a bonus that included extended health coverage, plus opportunities for part-time employment, if I wished. No guarantees there, but good luck. Even so, I was giddy. This is it?
A few nights later, there was a cake in the newsroom in recognition of us who had walked the plank. Some of our younger colleagues, I suspect, wished they had the option, though part of our decision came in hoping what we did kept them employed duly, some even supporting families. These calculations get tangled.
My first month of liberation came as a welcome period of decompression. I loved sitting in our front parlor and reading in winter sunlight, for one thing. A favored new routine with my wife was strolling downtown every Wednesday around dusk, when a small pub featured a fine jazz guitarist. How civilized! I could even go to bed before midnight.
The paper soon found itself short-staffed, however, and I began receiving calls wondering about my availability. Enjoying the flexibility of picking-and-choosing, I soon found myself working three or four shifts a week, the max allowed under the agreement. The feeling was entirely different, free of the weight of internal politics and big responsibilities. My floating shifts liberated me to attend concerts and films and a host of other events not previously open on my schedule. I didn’t have to weave around others’ vacation time off, either, when looking ahead to conferences or travel.
But ten years ago already? It really does feel more like five.