I am still friends with people from my old, dusty newspaper days, as well as from my middle newspaper days. I still lunch with friends from my most recent newspaper days, story-coaching for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Newspaper, meaning (I am sure you know), the guys that are trying to figure out what to do with their various stumbling newspaper properties, and as they do, they have to unload many fine editors and reporters and photojournalists.
I loved my job as a Story Coach at the Sun-Sentinel. We did some wonderful things, like a huge series on AIDS orphans in Haiti, which got a lot of buzz, but not a Pulitzer, but that's OK, because it was (as my one-time mentor Bob Maynard used to say) "the most fun you can have with your clothes on..." Actually, mine was a contract-consulting position, not a real Tribune-Hearty-Handshake-When-We-Dump-You job, but in June 2008, my supervisor (nice person, still friends) called me in and said:
"You will have noticed how grim things are around here ... people losing jobs right and left. I am afraid I won't be able to justify, you know, training, in light of all this ..."
Things there were indeed grim, as they were elsewhere in the newspaper world. I said: I am done. Been doing this, i.e., newspapers, story-coaching, writing for newspapers that plop on your driveway in the morning, for 25 years. More than a lifetime. Finito.
I decided to go back to school to get an MFA in Creative Writing. This so I could teach creative writing—my lifelong dream, my pre-journalism dream, a dream deferred because of a career that kind of chose me one day when I wasn't looking. You know, the journalism bug. It bites you.
So, now that I am almost two years out of the newsroom, with a full semester (just ended) of taking three classes and teaching two (Freshman Rhetoric & Composition), I can offer other recovering (or soon to be) journalists some sage advice. Or, at least, tell them what worked for me.
So, all of you thinking about slipping out the back before your pensions disappear, before the ink dries (oops—they no longer use real ink), before they pull the handshakes you so richly deserve after 15, 20, 25 or more years laboring, for love, in American newsrooms…
Here is my best advice for how to go back to the Real World at the advanced age of ... (Insert Your Profile Data)
#1. Learn Math.
For four months after I was severed from the Sentinel, I sat on the brown leather coach in my living room and taught myself Math. Started with fractions. Went up to decimals (or the other way around, can't recall). Went all the way up through algebra.
You should learn math because, to get into any graduate school, any discipline, you have to take the Graduate Record Exam, the "GRE," a glorified SAT (like the one your kid takes to get into UF), a thing that has study books (Borders, Amazon) that walk you through Math, showing you how it works from the ground up. After about two months, once you sort of get it that
square = a 2
rectangle = ab
parallelogram = bh
trapezoid = h/2 (b1 + b2)
then you get more confidence. And with confidence, good things start to come your way. For example, you can now actually grasp pi: A number, 3.141592..., equal to (the circumference) / (the diameter) of any circle. Any circle! How cool!
And then, you can actually start to read some of the books that have been lying around your house for years (The Life of Pi, heretofore intimidating only because of the name, or Pi: The History of a Number, which everyone in your family, all math brains, has read, save you.) Learning Math is also good for your self-esteem. Self-esteem is key to your striking out on your own after a quarter century of writing lean ledes and having people you meet say, "Oh—Newspapers! How interesting! Must be fascinating!"
It was. But I am done.#2. Never Worry About Your Advanced Age.
It is an article of faith among us aging Baby Boomers that the second you turn 50, you get an automatic subscription to AARP, the Magazine
. (How do they know you turned 50? Must have something to do with why they are so rich.) So, if you are planning to leave the unhappy bosom of your newsroom, and you are an involuntary subscriber to AARP, The Magazine, don't worry. Don’t apologize.
According to the authors
and "Generationalists" William Strauss and Neil Howe
, we (aging Boomers) are not "too old for the marketplace." We are, rather, on the verge of greatness, of Prophet-hood
: "A Prophet generation grows up as increasingly indulged post-Crisis children, comes of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of an Awakening, cultivates principle as moralistic mid-lifers, and emerges as wise elders guiding the next Crisis. (Boomers—indulged, narcissistic, moralistic, wise...)"
So as you leave the newsroom, and go out to mentor and create, fulfilling your obligation as an Elder, do it with pride, with the knowledge that the money you need will come because you are doing Good. But remember: If you are a woman, spend serious money on your colorist; if you are a guy, don't do a comb-over.#3. Learn Multimedia.
This is an order. This is key to your survival, no matter what new job or discipline you embrace after the newsroom. You simply cannot be a Prophet (see Strauss & Howe above) in the 21st century without it.
Multimedia is not just a thing that turned newsrooms on their head about five years too late for their own good. It is the way of the 21st Century. Young kids (my Rhetoric & Composition students at Florida Atlantic University, for example) are getting paid good money by non-profits, for-profits, magazines, Joe the Barber, sports Teams, English teachers (yes, I hired a student to teach me) to do multimedia presentations of whatever it is the non-profit or for-profit happens to do. You can do it.
Just get a digi-camera. And an audio recorder. Sign up for a community college course
. Or just google "Cheap Multimedia Classes
." Easy. You can do it in a weekend. It will save your tail. You will not be considered a serious person without it. (BTW, my student is for hire. She lives in Miami. See me for details.) #4. Have a Web site and a Cool Facebook Page.
As with multimedia above, you cannot be a serious Prophet in the 21st Century, or even a serious person, unless you have a serious Facebook presence
. There are still some people in our (Boomer) generation who think Facebook is a place where kids & others "friend" each other and share gossip, and pictures of last weekend's Beer Pong Marathon. This is not true. Facebook is a serious Global Communications Construct that fosters dialogue among peoples, businesses
(for-profit and non-profit), nations
, etc. Get over it. Get with it. (Just don't make the mistake of trying to "friend" your teenage or college-age children. That is the Facebook-world equivalent of having a comb-over.) #5. Don't Spend Too Much Time with Journalists Still in Newsrooms.
Caveat: The following is the author's opinion only. It is not shored up by independent research.
In general (I have found), people who stay in the newsroom long after they have ceased being happy there are not happy people. People who are not happy/integrated/on a path to righteous self-fulfillment (whew!—it's the old San Francisco Hippie in me) are not people you want to spend a lot of face time (or Facebook time) with.
People who are not happy tend to want to drag others down. If you are being dragged down by the Swamp People, you cannot marshal the energy needed to learn new things. As I have told young journalists in a different context, learning new things
is the key to your survival. No matter what generation. #6. Spend Most of Your Time With Creative, Innovative Types.
Since going back to school, taking classes and teaching, I have met and befriended people I never could have imagined knowing, let alone spending hours at Starbucks with. These include:
- a 28-year-old former high school teacher in my creative nonfiction workshop, who now is my weekly writing partner, meaning, we deep-read each others' pieces and tell the truth about our writing lives (vs. Oh I really loved your piece! Too bad the idiot editors lopped off the lede!);
- a 29-year-old Professor of Rhetoric & Composition Theory (these are the people who never met, let alone used, a single-syllable word in their lives), who has become not only my friend, but the inspiration for a book on—get this—rhetoric and composition theory (but with single-syllabled Anglo-Saxonisms, not the usual semantical-semiotic-social-epistemic syntactical constructs these people usually speak and write in.)
- Also: an Elder-Prophetess-Poet who teaches the Lyric Essay, and who has inspired me to write about JuJu, the research for which led me to a young Haitain man named JuJu, which then led to a nun in Orange County, Calif., who runs a homeless shelter for women in transition where I am going in the spring to do a writing workshop, etc., etc.
Creativity and innovation (whether in the newsroom or the Academy or the orchid patch), pure and simple, leads to more of the same. It's all about the Mandala.
(This is not the San Francisco Hippie talking. This is the recovering journalist who has found a certain wisdom in learning how to be a student, maybe for the first time in her life.)
There should be a Seventh Tip, because seven
is the symbol of completeness. But I will not include a seventh here. I will leave that to you, to find the seventh for yourself.
Just be careful out there.