April 10, 2010

Crossed Over, IV

But I didn’t give up. This, after all, was before my soul was crushed, before my ambition had been reduced to figuring out ways to use the word “vomit” in my English lessons.

As tempting as it was to sit around and sulk about the Daily and fret about the LJ-World, I wasn’t going to turn down a chance to imbibe in the Royal. It really is a spectacle, a food/drink/music/fun orgy. Moreover, even though I wasn’t heading to Boulder, my journalism career would surely whisk me away to some far away city before long – you know, after my stint in Lawrence – and I felt that I should celebrate my numbered days in KC with this KC tradition.

But I wasn’t so caught up in the festivities that I failed to feel Tom buzzing in my pocket. I set down my overflowing plate – piled high with brisket, ribs, potatoes and, knowing my eating habits, probably some third animal – and found a place that wasn’t too loud to talk. I ended up wedged between a pair of moving vans which acted as a sort of sound barrier against the deafening music and chatter that was all around. Noise was still seeping through the cracks, but there were few quieter places within a 10-minute radius.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, David. This is Tom Keegan from the Lawrence Journal-World.” His voice was neutral, devoid of both “Welcome aboard!” giddiness and “We’re sorry, but…” contrition.

“Hey, Tom! How’s is going?”

“Fine, fine,” he said before moving on to what must have been an awkward explanation. “Hey, I’m sorry but the payroll department isn’t letting me bring on anyone.” My face was probably some grim combination of appalled and defeated. “I lobbied for them to give me 20 or 30 hours a week but they just wouldn’t budge. The entire company has a hiring freeze.”

Almost in the same breath he told me that his sports-editor friend at a Las Vegas newspaper was about to have an opening, and that he had just emailed me the guy’s address and contact information. I thanked him for that, not wanting to sound too downtrodden.

“I’m sorry again,” Tom said. “I really thought this would work out, and we really wanted to have you work here, but it’s out of my hands.”

I understand…thanks for everything…be in touch…

I was shaken and somewhat shocked. Mere days ago I had a pair of legitimate avenues through which I could enter the journalism world, and both had absolutely disintegrated. Now I was back where I was when I graduated last May, with one caveat: The United States economy in general – and newspaper industry in particular – was in a free fall. I was looking for work during the worst time to look for work in decades, and the newspaper industry was absolutely on fire. Papers everywhere were doing one of three things: If they were lucky, they simply weren’t filling vacancies and were shedding payroll via attrition. If they weren’t so lucky – which the majority of them weren’t – then they were trimming people from the staff. And if they were in real trouble, like the Rocky Mountain News or Seattle Post-Intelligencer – both of which shut down by March of 2009 – then they were simply going out of business. I know that there were very, very few good professions to be pursuing in late 2008 and early 2009, but the media/newspaper business was one of the very worst.

It would be virtually impossible to give a proper recap of the 2008-09 layoffs taking place at newspapers around the country, and difficult still to account for what was happening within sports departments alone. But because it hit close to home, I was able to keep pretty close tabs on the myriad layoffs happening at the Kansas City Star. A look at those cuts – while merely a small slice of the much larger shit pie affecting the entire industry – will give you an idea of the odds/futility of my plight.

The Star’s first big round of layoffs were in June of 2008, one month after I graduated, when 120 jobs were nixed. Among those let go was Howard Richman, a sportswriter who had been at the Star for 24 years. At the time, Richman was the paper’s Kansas State University beat writer, and he was pretty good at what he did. That someone so tenured and proficient was laid off was startling. But what made that his ouster transcend the realm of simply being a shame, thrusting it into the semi-depressing stratosphere, was that Howard had written me a really nice email the previous spring.

Being the beat writer for a major college at a major metro paper like Howard was my dream job; it still is, really. So I penned an email telling him who I was, that I ultimately wanted to do something along the lines of what he did, and asking if he had any ideas or advice for how I should go about cracking into the industry. His email began with the sentence “Thanks for thinking of me” and ended with the sentences, “Hope that helps. If there’s anything else, feel free to ask. Good luck.” I know that businesses can’t hang on to employees just because they’re nice – nor should they – and I know that responding to wannabe sportswriters’ emails doesn’t do anything for the Star’s bottom line. Howard wasn’t just a nice guy, though. He was an experienced writer who had been at the paper for longer than I’d been alive, and all of a sudden he was unemployed.

What’s even more telling about the state of the newspaper biz is that Richman’s spot wasn’t and never has been filled. Instead, the Star is now sharing a Kansas State beat writer with the Wichita Eagle, which, like the Star, is owned by the McClatchy Company. McClatchy did the inverse for the University of Kansas beat: the Eagle writer was let go, and the Star writer’s stories are published in both spots. If only that was all the turnover at the Star.

A few months later, in August, the Star instituted a furlough program for most of its employees, and one month after that, in mid-September, about 30 more Star employees were let go. An internal email from publisher Mark Zeiman said that the layoffs were “especially disappointing because we all believed the steps we took two months ago” – when Richman and others were cut – “would be sufficient to see us through the sharp revenue declines that have beset our industry during this current recession.” These cuts came one day after McClatchy announced that it would cut 10 percent of its workforce, which, according to the Kansas City Business Journal, was equivalent to 1,150 full-time positions. Fifty more Star employees were laid off in November of 2008, including Jeffrey Flanagan, another long-time sportswriter for the paper.

Think of the evolving logistics of the newspaper business: writers like Richman and Flanagan, who each had decades of experience, lost their jobs not because of their performance, but because the positions were simply being abolished. Moreover, they, like myself, were among the ranks of those looking for work in the industry. Therefore, the pool of unemployed writers was increasingly cluttered, and the number of jobs constantly shrinking.

I know that people like Richman and Flanagan weren’t necessarily gunning for the same jobs as I was, but the cumulative effect was nonetheless damning. People at small papers – papers where I could feasibly get work – would have more trouble taking that next step because (a) bigger papers weren’t hiring, and (b) there were oodles of qualified applicants. And since those people at small papers were stuck, the people at no papers (like me) were stuck as well. (The Lawrence Journal-World, by the way, had its own round of layoffs in November.) Some papers surely had it worse, some better. But that the axe was falling so hard and so frequently at a big-time paper like the Star speaks to the abyss the industry was slipping into. As you’ll see in a moment, the Star would keep slipping.

But I didn’t give up. This, after all, was before my soul was crushed, before my ambition had been reduced to figuring out ways to use the word “vomit” in my English lessons. I kept trying, opting to repeat the strategy that had come oh-so-close to working last summer: sending my work to newspapers all over America. I hit up every paper and Web site within 100 miles of Kansas City and scoured the Internet for job openings across the country (and world). In the meantime, I freelanced.

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