Life after newspapers

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran as an Editor’s Pick on Open Salon.com on April 2, 2009.

If I would have known that Sunday’s column in the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell, Mich.) was my last, I would have written something very, very different. Lesson learned: In this fast-changing day and age, we should treat every conversation we have as if it is our last. We should leave nothing unspoken.

For nearly two decades, it’s been my pleasure to give voice to so many stories. I’ve written over 800 columns, one a week just about every week. It’s been a wonderful ride, and I’ve loved the conversations with the community, even the ones that were uncomfortable.

The first published story for which I got paid was a freelance assignment for the Livingston County Press in 1990. The story was about people gathering outside bars in the rural community of Fowlerville to fight, sort of like small-town Jets and Sharks. It made the front page, and I was hooked.

Shortly after that first freelance piece, I was hired by the editor who gave me the assignment; I’ve always been thankful that he took a chance on a writer with no reporting experience. Since then, I worked my way up the journalism ladder, and with the editor who hired me, did something few journalists get to do: we combined two weekly newspapers with over 100 years of publication each to create Michigan’s newest daily newspaper in 2000. At the rate things are going it could also be the state’s shortest lived. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, 40 miles to the east, just began home delivering only three days a week; the Ann Arbor News, just 15 miles to our south, is folding in July; the Oakland Press, about 40 miles to the northeast, just filed for bankruptcy. This is a brutal time to be in the newspaper industry, and an especially brutal time to be in Michigan; it seems perversely right that my career at the Daily Press & Argus, as well as that of the man who hired me, ended this week on the same day in the same way.

The minute I walked into the newsroom for my interview those many years ago, I knew it was where I was meant to be. After years of crappy jobs, I fell in love with the energy – the tap, tap, tap of keyboards; the ringing of phones; the rustle of paper and people moving about; the hum of conversations. It was exhilarating, and I am so sad to see it end.

No one goes into community journalism for the money. It’s the love of the work; the privilege to advocate for the communities in which we’re raising our families. It’s being invited into people’s hearts and homes so that we may give voice to the stories of their lives. I’ve been humbled by the grace with which some people move through unspeakable tragedies. I’ve learned lessons in humanity and faith and kindness; I’ve shared in people’s great accomplishments and deep despairs. I am eternally grateful for the way this community has embraced me, and for the honor of being part of it. I’ve also been blessed to produce a newspaper with a talented, passionate, dedicated group of people.

Some of those very good people lost their jobs yesterday, too. Understanding that the decision was nothing personal, that it was purely economic, doesn’t make it hurt any less, and I know it was a sad, sad day for the Daily Press & Argus. It’s also a sad, sad time for newspapers.

Waking up at my usual time this morning and not heading to the office felt weird — not bad, just very, very weird.

For the first time in a long, long while, I was home to see my 9-year-old son, Will, off to school. Before he left, I found myself explaining to him the difference between being “fired” and “laid off.”

“You get fired for doing a bad job,” I told him. “Don’t ever say I got fired, because I didn’t. I got laid off. I lost my job because of the economy, not because I wasn’t doing a good job.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“So you’ll be here when I get home from school today, right,” he asked.

I nodded.

“Cool,” he said, running out of the door after giving me my first — and perhaps sweetest — silver lining in all of this.

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