Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, I am unemployed.
I was temporarily laid off as a newspaper reporter for a small weekly paper four months ago because of the pandemic. That temporarily layoff has become permanent. For the first time in 17 years I have no steady employment, and it sucks.
Before my former job, I worked for both daily and weekly newspapers. I was first hired 27 years ago as a part-time obituary writer and proofreader. Then, I was promoted to a full-time reporter, and have pretty much hung on to that position since.
I am grateful for the decades of experience, but over the last few years this job left me a burned-out husk. Well, maybe not a husk, but it has chewed me up and spit me out. Okay, that sounded too strong. What I’m trying to say without the hyperbole, is that this career crushed my hope in mankind, and made me realize that nearly every politician out there is either a full-time liar or part-time psychopath.
Let me explain.
Journalism, especially local journalism, is needed. Local reporters cover issues the daily papers and cable news outlets won’t, so their contributions are necessary in providing the public with accurate information. Your weekly paper, that once-beloved bastion of local news and features, is rapidly facing extinction. Local papers hold elected officials accountable, and without investigative reporting, the public doesn’t get the stories that are easily missed. Enterprising reporters can warn the public of official misconduct and spur governments to act and not ignore important matters.
Sadly, journalism and journalists are distrusted and not respected. They’ve been the convenient pariahs and scapegoats, branded as unscrupulous muckrakers and “enemies of the people”. Irresponsible reporters and editors with their own axes to grind, who stir sensationalism and destroy reputations deserve to be held accountable for the shit they unleash. However, competent and industrious reporters digging for stories and tenaciously following leads are doing their jobs. These are the kind of trustworthy, shoe leather reporting that’s missing in this high-tech phone-it-in age, when everybody is following the same stories and are crushed by the same deadlines.
Newspapers are being bought and dismantled, reporters laid off, and advertisers pulling out. Even before the pandemic, print journalism was on a downward spiral, outpaced by technology and changing consumer appetites towards cable news and online news sources.
There were warning signs to print journalism’s downfall. For years printed newspapers suffered, and learned to migrate their content online or risk certain death. The pandemic pushed my small newspaper over the edge. The pandemic closed businesses, who don’t have advertising funds. Less businesses advertising means revenues are way off and salaries for local reporters just aren’t there. A publisher told me that editorial (meaning news departments) don’t pull in revenue. Thus, the reporters are the weakest link in the chain. They’re the expendable Redshirts, the first ones to get flung out of the airlock.
It also doesn’t help when opponents of a free press raise the hue and cry over “fake news” and blame reporters for harming democracy. Reporting is already tough enough with the low pay, stressful hours, and uncertainty over our disappearing jobs. Throw into the mix an irate president trying to discredit the press and attack reporters and we have a volatile shit stew of paranoia, mistrust in news outlets, and a media hellbent on defending its usefulness.
Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham is credited with saying that journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” I believed this when I was a journalist, that what I was reporting wasn’t really finished and constantly evolved. I believed in the free press’s responsibility to provide the public with accurate, timely and objective reporting, informing them of their communities, nation and world.
Sadly, we don’t always get what we want. After 27 years, 23 journalism awards and thousands of stories, my career has ended, not with a dramatic climax, but with an email from my editor. I’ve known reporters who’ve suffered layoffs. They’ve reinvented themselves, developed other skills and left the newsrooms behind. They’re fine and I will be, too.
If I’m bidding farewell to my dead career, I’m laying down a eulogy, because that’s what one does when something is truly dead.
So here goes:
HERE RESTS MY JOURNALISM CAREER. Aged 27 years. What a ride, eh? From those heady, optimistic days in the 1990s when I won my first major journalism award to the rough-and-tumble shitshow of the 2010s when jaded cynicism was all the rage, you served me well.
We grew, thrived, and survived together, our words informing and educating the citizenry and making irate politicians hate me even more. You dared me to step out of my comfort zone and into uncharted territory every day. Because of you, I endured phone calls from cranky elected officials, crusty grammarians who corrected my work, and decrepit elders who waxed poetic about the way things used to be when newspapers cost a nickel.
Bidding farewell to a career that defined me for over the last quarter-century isn’t easy.
How do I put into words the opportunities and adventures I had with you? Together we rode in an airship, traveled on boats, interviewed dignitaries and celebrities and witnessed history. We sat in courtrooms and saw lives change, heard grieving parents during their lowest moments, and described the triumphant human spirit.
In scrapbooks and on refrigerators, clipped articles I wrote still survive, treasured by those impressed by my work. Even though sometimes you made me want to punch a wall, I still stuck by you, partly out of love for writing, but mostly because the monthly mortgage payment was due.
We now lay you to rest, in a place where all failed institutions go, a shallow grave behind an abandoned housing project off the interstate. We raise a glass and drink to your memory, you oft-maligned career, bringer of paychecks, queller of hunger and homelessness.
You were more than a boot camp for a scribe breaking in his writing chops. You were a friend, and agitator, a stressor. You filled me with the love for truth and American history, and fury over an eventual societal collapse. You were ink-smudged fingers, paper cuts, and stolen paperclips. You were notepads filled with indecipherable notes, tapes with recorded interviews, and a stack of newspapers so large you’d think the office was a crazy old woman’s apartment.
Despite the occasional shitty editors and harassment I received in and out of the newsroom, you provided me with fascinating colleagues. We were the front lines in a war against ignorance, the chroniclers presenting local news to a public that mistakenly called us elites. We didn’t care for their trite criticism. We kept winning awards and dedicated ourselves with sincerity, sass, and gallows humor.
Though there were times when you pushed me in directions I hated, made me uncomfortable and brought me to my breaking point, we remained steadfast pals. Because of you, I understand human nature and how our system supposedly functions. Human complexity is an easier grasp than New Jersey’s draconian laws, by the way. And so, it is with a heavy cholesterol-laden heart that I bid you farewell, my journalism career. You taught me infinite patience, kindness, and humility, and that reporting, for all its rewards and challenges, is really just under-edited, shoddily-produced non-fiction.
Goodbye, old friend.