A friend and occasional reader of this blog, Eileen Smith, said Wednesday morning when I ran into her at a Caribou, “When I read the list of buyouts at the Strib this morning, I just cried.” A lot of readers are, like her, in shock as they look over the list of talented journalists they’ll no longer be able to read — at least not in the daily paper.
As the corporate pirates who bought the paper lighten ship by throwing things overboard, journalists have been able to choose a buyout — some severance money and benefits paid to them to quit.
This doesn’t have to be sad news for the journalists taking the buyout. It’s a ticket to a new world. Change can be good, invigorating, and scary as hell. A lot of these people are in their 50s and have been writing and editing for decades. This is a chance for a second or third act. But, I know from leaving the newsroom myself 18 years ago, and from talking with friends on this list and off, this is more than just making a job change. Journalists consider their work a calling. It’s a virtuous profession (not always virtuously pursued, of course). Reporters rooting around for dirt, truth and beauty are part of what makes democracy work — theirs is the only job outside of government that’s written into the Constitution. They’re reviled and admired in not-quite-balanced proportions, and they love what they do although they bitch about it frequently and fluently.
A lot of journalists have no idea what else they could do for a living other than ask people questions and write stuff real fast. Well, these are people who can gobble up a bunch of information, spit out what’s insignificant, analyze what matters, look for patterns, and explain in clear compelling English what’s going on. The good ones can. And they’ve got magnificent bullshit detectors and are willing — giddily eager in fact — to challenge authority. These are great skills and attributes.
When I ran into Eileen Wednesday, I was meeting with a Strib journalist who’s trying to figure out what to do with his life next. I’ve had the pleasure of talking about what’s next with several journalists recently, from both sides of the river. The most important thing I’d say to people jumping off these listing ships is to figure out what you like to do, what kinds of activities give you satisfaction. Don’t just look for an open job somewhere, but take some time to put together a vocation that calls out the passion you’ve put into your work as journalists. There’s a lot of communications work in this town, and we need good thinkers and writers in a lot of places. Or get out of communications altogether — one of my favorite editors, Tom Helgeson, left the paper decades ago to open a trout-fishing shop. Life is short, we ain’t getting any younger, so do something you love.
Yes, for us readers, the list of people taking buyouts tolls like a church bell. Not being able to read Chuck Haga’s lyrical evocations of the life around us, or Eric Black’s clear explanations of complicated stuff, or Doug Grow’s bleeding-heart liberal looks at people who care deeply about community and causes, or Steve Berg’s clear-eyed view of problems and solutions, or Sharon Schmickle’s straight-on reports from hot spots, and more and more, it’s a loss. There are damned good people left in the newsroom, but there are a lot of holes there now, if all the folks on the list do take the buyouts. It makes me feel wistful, and old. I’ve worked alongside many of these people, covering everything from floods, droughts, murders and a World Series to just mundane daily stuff. But I’ve found life after the newsroom tremendously rewarding and challenging, and they will too. And I hope a lot of them will find outlets for their words and thoughts where we can read them again. Soon.
– Bruce Benidt