By Bill Graham
A reassuring feeling came from opening the office door, sitting down in the familiar cubicle and logging onto the computer as a team member.
After all, I’d worked in the bureau of a major daily newspaper for 25 years. I’d become the veteran who knew the turf and I was the go-to guy when big daily stories broke in our coverage area. My opinion column graced the weekly neighborhood news insert, too. Plus, I carved a natural science beat that let me put outdoor stories on the daily’s front page and metro section.
Life was good. The bi-weekly paycheck arrived in my checking account via automatic deposit without fail.
Then the fractured advertising market and profit taking by corporate honchos was followed by the rise of free news and classified advertising on the Internet. Finally, an economic depression crippled display advertising flow.
I survived two voluntary buyouts and three rounds of forced layoffs. I did not survive the fourth round in March, and neither did many colleagues who were also veterans.
Unfortunately, many of my OWAA newspaper and magazine colleagues are in the same boat, or they’re still on the ship but eyeing the lifeboats and wondering if there will be room for them.
I offer this report from the layoff battle front lines in hopes that a tidbit or two will help someone else get a toehold or be better prepared.
Time management is issue number one.
In the first days after my two-week notice, I sat at my desk and imagined the spring and summer ahead. Uncertainty was frightening. But on the upside, I imagined myself hunting and fishing almost daily and having many postponed home chores done by June.
I did kill a gobbler, catch a few crappie and put in a little better garden.
However, most days I was on the run tying up loose ends from the newspaper, getting Cobra running, dealing with 401K and pension rollovers, enduring unemployment insurance hassles, watching for job openings and getting started on new freelance ventures to pay some of the bills. Plus, since my wife has a day job, by default I became the kids’ fulltime chauffer rather than splitting that chore.
You won’t have that much extra time after layoff if you’re going about the business of starting over. Use time wisely.
Another issue with time is that you’re now in charge of your own schedule. There’s no editor coming down the aisle to your cubicle to ask when the next day’s story will be done and how the weekend feature is progressing. It’s up to you to get started and make stories happen.
This is easy at first. But then the adrenalin wears off, new realities dampen your spirits and self motivation becomes something you have to reach deeper inside to find.
Recreating some familiarity helps. I need a work station with reference books, notebooks and telephone at hand. Eventually, I recreated my cubicle resources at home for freelance purposes. In retrospect, knowing that layoffs were likely, I wish I’d had the home work station already set up and running.
The upside is that good computers, printers and extra hard drives for storage are very affordable now. Tools you used at the company office can be easily replaced.
Everyone you meet will ask you if you have a new job yet. Due to various family factors I’m rooted to my current residence, and that has limited my search for a new job.
If you can move, there are jobs out there. If you can’t, it’s going to take longer. My laid-off colleagues who have found work have moved into public relations for government agencies, television news production or positions that combine research and technical writing.
However, most of my immediate co-workers, like me, remain unemployed.
Freelance writing is a place where you can find a big morale boost and a little bit of pay. But be warned, even veteran big-time outdoor freelance writers talk about tough times and diversifying to other markets and Internet work to survive.
That means it’s even tougher for newcomers to crack the freelance market. But it can be done. Just don’t blow your severance package on a trip to Vegas because you figure freelance money is going to make the house payment and put shoes on the kids.
Writing a freelance story now and then in your spare time from the steady job is one thing. Trying to sell a bunch to pay bills is another matter.
I started by writing two columns for my suburban town’s local weekly paper. One is a general opinion column and the other is an outdoor column. The second one is the first fulltime outdoor column I’ve had and I love it. The pay isn’t great, but the spirit boost is, and at least there’s a base of some steady income to build upon and a gathering of material that can be used for stories sold in other markets.
The Internet obviously beckons. But beware again, Net publishers are not committed to you like your old newspaper bosses in the newsroom, where tooth and nail battles over copy and editing are part of the lifestyle.
I lost a music column gig because I complained about a person who was suddenly brought in to do some editing for the Web site. This person, whose identity was never revealed to me, changed my opinion column lead, added two fact errors in sentences composed with his writing style, deleted stuff and made unneeded word changes – all without my knowledge until it was already posted on the site. This was my first dispute with the site publisher. But he dropped me because I complained. I was easily replaced by links posted to stories printed in other publications and posted on the Web.
So don’t approach your new freelance bosses in far-away places like you would a crusty metro editor; it doesn’t pay.
I have enjoyed the satisfaction of cashing a few checks for freelance magazine stories and unwrapping the complimentary extra copies. KEY TIP: I worried about spending money to attend the OWAA conference, but the freelance connections I made there were well worth it.
My future is still uncertain.
But I’ve found something that keeps the blues at bay – doing constructive work each day. Sometimes that’s as simple as making sure I bring back some photographs and notes from a hunting or fishing trip that would have been pure recreation before the layoff.
Today I quail hunted by myself and found no birds. Near the end, I found some standing corn and foxtail beside ground where the corn was harvested. I decided it would make a photo of ideal quail habitat for my outdoor column. I leaned my Browning over-under against a corn stalk, called the dog in and took his photo running toward me beside the shotgun.
I came home with a photo that will work nicely for my column and be part of a digital stock collection I’ve now started.
I’m not secure because of this approach, but I’m not whipped yet, either. That’s the most important part of the layoff battle. ◊
Bill Graham recently served on OWAA’s board of directors. Contact him at email@example.com.
By Bill Graham