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A 30 on a near-30-year career

Submitted by on Saturday, 6 September 2008 No Comment

I’ve been through five “last days” in my professional career. I’ve survived downsizings, and I’ve been downsized. But I’ve never been through anything as wrenching as today.

It was departure day at The Modesto Bee, where I’ve cheered, cried, gloried and groaned as a mid-level editor for a decade. Ten newsroom employees were leaving — I among them.

I was the junior member of the group — one is younger than I, but she had more years at The Bee. She and I have spent much time since having kids hiding out in locker rooms and restrooms, gnashing our teeth at the frustration of being a working parent in a tough, tough business.

The wake was Thursday, when I went to lunch with two people I’ve worked with from the beginning.

We’ve spent hours querying databases for illegal campaign contributions — found them, too. We’ve sorted records on city officials’ expense reports and found that one city councilman stayed at the Four Seasons for a Boston conference while another checked into Howard Johnson’s. And the city had no policy preventing the former. I worked on national political scandals and high-profile murders with them.

And that was just the professional stuff. On a personal level, they’ve hosted Christmas parties and baby showers. They cooed over the baby guys and made sure I stayed in the loop while out on leave. I’ve watched their kids grow from wee folk to teens in high school.

They’re honest, ethical, talented and driven to get the story and get it right. It’s been an honor to share a journalistic foxhole with them for 10 years.

I choked a bit as we walked back from lunch. Another co-worker walked up, and I regained my composure. Or so it appeared to those looking at the outside of my dark sunglasses.

Overheard today: “”It’s going to be a long day that goes by fast”"

I had conflicted feelings about departure day. There was a certain level of relief and hope for a future with work that works better for the guys. There also was a heavy dose of guilt at leaving comrades on the battlefield. And sadness — you form a lot of close relationships over 10 years.

The morning was merely bad. Exit interviews, routine paperwork with Human Resources. It’s the fourth wave of departures since spring — this has to be hard for HR, too. Then it was back to try to finish work that there are far too few folks left to complete if I dropped the ball. A few goodbyes were interspersed. A somber mood set in. “”It feels like a funeral here,”" a colleague said.

Around 11, I passed my mom friend in the hall. We stared, shell-shocked. “”You don’t need to say a word,”" she finally said. “”I know”

Overheard today: “”Amazing to me a couple of college developers in a room could bust newspapers out of business: craigslist, Google, etc. We should have been leading the information industry”"

Whatever advantage newspapers had in the information age they ceded long ago. They put up Web sites but treated them as a sideshow to the main event — the printed paper.

Somewhere along the line, though, people with the right power failed to realize that you could count in dog years the age of stories on the front page as far as Web readers are concerned. They don’t want information that’s been available for more than 24 hours. They do, though, want context and analysis, to help them sift through the cacophony of ;”"news alerts”" screeching at them all day.

And they want Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Ning. They want to blog, and they love it when you interact with them on their blogs. They IM, text message and tweet — but not so much email. If you’re there you’ll reach them. If you’re not, well …

That’s the problem. Too much focus on putting the paper on the Web and not enough on making the company a part of the Web.

Overheard today: “”This isn’t departures. This is destruction.”"

All of which has led to newsroom weep-a-thons across the country. We weep if we leave and abandon our first love — I started in this business at age 15. We weep at the loss of talent if we stay — more than 200 years’ experience left Modesto today. We weep because we believe that, unpopular though we might be, democracy depends in part on us and we’re letting her down.

This afternoon, even the angry and bitter in the crowd — and I count myself in the angry category of late — choked up at the party honoring three retirees and recognizing the rest of us. We weep for all the brilliant work we’ve done in the past and wonder to whom the job will fall now.

Death knell for newspapers as we know them? Don’t even deny it’s ringing. I heard it all day.

Something will replace the current set-up. Something has to — even my media-bashing friends agree. There has to be a trained professional presence on the Web to sort the facts and present both sides.

But what?

I can see it, and others can, too, because we talked about developing it more than a year ago. It looks stunningly retro. Why can’t someone get past the rush to regurgitate and do it? It couldn’t fail any more miserably than the current “”Waiting for Godot”" approach.

And why can’t the “”print side”" and the “”online side”" stop battling as if we’re two different entities? We’re supposed to be a team.

Overheard today: “”I don’t know how to say goodbye”

I studiously avoided my foxhole friends for most of the day. Put your head down, focus, avoid losing it, I told myself repeatedly. I’d already lost it with one of them, the day he asked if I were leaving.

“”I think I might be,”" I said, swallowing hard.

Around 4 today, I couldn’t delay any longer. One foxhole friend’s shift was over, and he tracked me down.

“”Well, I’m leaving,”" he said. “”No, you’re leaving.”"

“You’re the hardest one to say goodbye to,”" I said, choking. We hugged, and I babbled those same words, over and over.

He left and I rushed to the lady’s room, where I banging my fists on the wall for five minutes.

Overheard today: “”Why are you sad, Mommy?”"

Enough of that weepy crap. Time to pick up the guys.

I knew I would need a diversion tonight, and, luckily, a church in our neighborhood was holding a family festival — water slides, hot dogs, snow cones, games. I promised them we’d go after school.

It worked so perfectly I didn’t have time to think for the next two hours. Later, though, another tear tsunami hit. I tried to hide in Little Guy’s bedroom, but Big Guy found me.

“”What’s wrong, Mommy?”"

“”I’m sad because I’m going to miss my friends at work,”" I told him.

“”I miss when you were Happy Mommy at work. Can you be Happy Mommy about work again? I’m sad for you,”" he said.

Overheard today: “”You still love it, don’t you?”"

“”How did today go?”" a friend asked a few hours later.

“”It … was … the … worst … day … of … my … life,”" I sobbed. I doubt he understood a word I said for the next few minutes, but letting it erupt was cathartic.

After I calmed a bit, we talked about the future of journalism. He’s never worked in the business, but he’s an amazingly astute observer. Ideas tumbled forth from both of us. I was on fire.

“”You still love it, don’t you?”" he asked sympathetically.

Yes, I do. Like I used to love that crazy boyfriend I knew was bad for me. I finally walked away from him because I could see the damage the relationship was doing.

And when your 5-year-old asks when you’re going to be Happy Mommy again, you can see the damage loving journalism can do, too..

Goodbye, journalism. You’re in my heart, my mind, my soul. But I cannot be with you. Not the way you’re acting right now.

“”The newspaper industry is an abusive relationship. You get beat up, but you keep coming back because you love him.”" — Martin Gee, founder, Newspaper Escape


Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • InkyHack said:

    “Journalism ain’t dead. It’s thriving like no one’s business. It just isn’t in the newspapers anymore. I wasn’t really able to see that until I left the profession two years ago and got a chance to see the “”big picture.”" There is a lot of fantastic journalism happening online, and it’s getting recognized and helping good journalists like yourself make a living at it too.

    Here are just a few examples: There’s the two recovering newspaper writers (Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) who broke the Gonzales case. There’s the blog “”Talking Points”" that won the Polk Journalism Award this year (http://www.Brooklyn.liu.edu/polk/press/2007.html). There’s the “”Huffington Post”" which makes more than $5 million in profits every year and keeps the Republicans nervous and there are plenty of other great examples that show how blogs are bringing excellence to journalism http://creativecapital.wordpress.com/2008/03/30/shattered-links-why-web-journalism-will-only-get-more-powerful/).

    In my opinion, you hit the nail on the head when you said that newspapers “”should”" have dominated the information field. But unfortunately, they are run by pasty-faced middle aged old men, most of whom were curmudgeons about technology and driven by the corporate ideals that owned them all so hard. Instead of thinking about the big picture – that the point of journalism is to be a watchdog, inform the people and provide a public service – they somehow in the past 15 years thought that the point of a newspaper was to keep stock prices high and costs down. In other words, newspapers (and television stations too – they are really starting to suffer as well) only have themselves to blame.

    But us journalists, we can and will still thrive. Because journalism is not dead. It’s doing very well on the Internet and only has growth and clear skies ahead.”

  • Debra Legg said:

    “I agree with you 10,000 percent. You point out factually what I was too damn emotional to get to last night. “”Us journalists”"? Looks like someone else still needs a rehab program, too. Those instincts just never shut down, do they?”

  • InkyHack said:

    “Well, I still consider myself a journalist, but just one that is not “”published”" in “”traditional”" media. Unlike popular opinion, my job is not to try and “”hide the truth,”" as one of the reporters at the Modesto Bee once said was probably in my job description. Instead, my job is to take both the good and the bad that happen at the University and explain it to the general public.

    And I have done both. Almost every “”bad”" thing that has been reported by the Modesto Bee in the past two years from the University was not revealed to the reporters through any stellar reporting or investigation – rather, I just told them, directed them to third-party reporters to verify what I was saying and gave them access to whoever I legally could give them access to so they could do their jobs.. Same goes for all the good stuff (which thankfully, we have a lot more of). In essence, my job is to make sure that any news that leaves the campus is factually accurate and gives a well-rounded look at what led to that moment.

    Am I a completely unbiased source? Probably not, but then what reporter is? However, I try to be as truthful as possible given the constraints of both the University system and the state of the mass media. And when the mass media fails, I have found ways to get University news directly into the hands of our students, alumni and supporters.

    So it is with great pride that today, Google recognizes my “”news”" section on the University’s Web site as an official news source. Their crawler hits it several times a day. AP’s crawler also hits the “”news”" section at least once a day.

    So, yes, I still consider myself to be a journalist, for is it not the primary objects of a journalist to accurately portray the state of a community? (and with nearly 7,000 students and 3,000 employees, my community is actually larger than some of the cities the Modesto Bee has covered over the years).

    Anyway, there’s my self-serving speech of the day.”

  • Debra said:

    “Interesting question! I’ve never really thought of it that way but I suppose, yes, by some definitions the tasks of a spokesperson could be considered journalism. From a practical standpoint Google is right on to consider an organization’s Web site a news source, particulary since in many cases, that’s where news is going to break first these days. And the Web is all about getting it out and getting it out quickly.

    I suppose where I differentiate between a spokesperson and a journalist is the former is a paid advocate. And, yes, an ethical paid advocate is just as honest and fair as any reporter. I took great pride in being exactly that when I last worked in public relations an eon or so ago. But I still see a difference between paid advocacy work and the journalism I committed until recently.”

  • Joe said:

    “Debra, thanks for the touching story. I just had a sad final one at a paper in Ohio. I’ll share a touch:

    My final day
    devoted to an invaluable
    project, push-pinning
    my farewell to my now
    barren cube wall.
    “”joe was here”" in multi
    colored pins, spacing off
    message clear
    Bye, bye.”

  • Debra said:

    “Condolences! Believe me, I know the feeling. Ain’t a lotta fun. It still kind of smarts today, but it’s getting better.

    I wish I’d thought of the push pins, though. It would have been much more my style than the weepy stuff.”

  • Kids Allergy (author) said:

    “TITLE: Organic, allergen-free — but pricey — treats now available”
    “I recently found myself vaulted full-time into the “”more time than money”" category, and even before I wound up there, I would have balked at spending five bucks for a half-dozen cookies. The way the guys can scarf treats, that’d be about $1 a minute, given the short life expectancy of a cookie around here.

    For those whose budgets are a little more flexible, though, the New Hampshire company formerly known as Gak’s Snacks

  • Kathi said:

    “Deb ~Oh my GOD! I’m so very glad I didn’t talk to you that last day. And I’m glad that I didn’t get to read this before I was sitting in my own living room, alone, so that I could finally let it go. It IS like the boyfriend that’s bad for you. It turns you into an infocrack addict and then laughs as it runs away. Laughing.

    It’s also very hard to explain (to anyone) the fear of going to the next thing, the next job, and maybe not be surrounded by witty, intelligent “”word”" people. Everyone else pales in comparison.
    It was a good run. A really good run.


  • Kathi said:

    “Oh my GOD! I’m so very glad I didn’t talk to you that last day. And I’m glad that I didn’t get to read this before I was sitting in my own living room, alone, so that I could finally let it go. It IS like the boyfriend that’s bad for you. It turns you into an infocrack addict and then laughs as it runs away.”

  • Debra said:

    “You definitely should be glad you didn’t talk to me. I was the human storm cloud. Though every once in a while,  an email would pop in updating the status of the auction on the minifridge and that made me laugh. Thanks for some much-needed levity!

    You’re right: It was a really good run with a lot of great people, and that I will probably always miss.

    But, for now, on to finding the next thing.”

  • Leslie said:

    We miss you at The Hive…the inmates have once again taken over the asylum….pls give Big and Little Guys kisses from a ‘cyber auntie’.

  • Leslie said:

    I forgot to tell you…my real blog is at blogspot and is named A Quiet Consecration…..

  • Debra said:

    “Thanks for stopping by, LSK. I miss some folks on The Hive, too. When it was good, it was very good. When it was bad, well, there are better things to do in life than fire cyber shots at folks.

    I’ll definitely check out your blog!”

  • Marijke said:

    “That was that wonderful piece of writing, Debra. We will miss you, newspapers will miss you.”

  • Marijke said:

    “Dammit, this is why writers need editors. “”That was A wonderful…”" Grumble.”

  • Debra said:

    “That’s all right, Marijke. I was going to fix it. Old habits die hard!

    Thanks for stopping by. I wish the best to all of you, though my 12-Step Program for Journalistic Recovery tells me to stop thinking about it!”