Canadian Magazine Industry News
27 April 2009,     TORONTO
Guest column: A laid-off journalist's lament
By Chris Powell

At about 9:58 a.m. on April 22, I became one of the literally thousands of out-of-work journalists across North America. My prospects for future employment in my chosen profession are grim.

It took all of five minutes for my 20-plus year career to come to an end; summoned into my editor’s office with a gentle tap on the shoulder, a few barely-heard words–“restructuring,” “really sorry to have to do this,” blah, blah—and a manila envelope containing what I was assured was a “very good” severance package.

Oh, and a cab chit for the ride home.
 
I’d seen this happen to numerous colleagues over the years, and I knew the ritual: handshakes all-round from stunned co-workers (all secretly relieved it’s not them) and a few words of condolence. A week or two later, there will be a final drinking/bitching session. I’m looking forward to this.

But then, as the onerous task of putting out a magazine with fewer staff and an increased workload becomes a priority, the former co-worker with who you regularly chatted about last night's game fades from memory. There are features and news stories and briefs to be written. And we can't forget the blog and our Twitter feed. Oh sure, someone might occasionally ask about 'X' in an offhand manner, but it’s more perfunctory than out of any genuine sense of concern.

And now I’m that guy.

At the main entrance to my (now former) employer’s building, I noticed several people clutching the same manila envelope and wearing a stunned expression. If they were anything like me, they were already mentally calculating how certain financial obligations—mortgage, credit cards, the kid's hockey, fixing that goddamn grinding noise the car’s been making lately—would be met in the weeks and months ahead.
 
Sadly, we won’t be the last publishing employees to ponder such things. Not as long as legacy media companies continue tossing journalists overboard in a futile attempt to staunch their losses. The situation is dire: Ad sales have cratered and, despite bold assertions to the contrary, may never fully rebound; the web continues to siphon away readers daily.

Yet these are problems that cannot be rectified by firing journalists. We are a publishing company's best asset, and its point of differentiation.

"Innovation" had become the unofficial mantra at my former company in recent months, so I find it ironic that management resorted to such unimaginative means of cutting costs. I don't begrudge it, but I don't agree with it either.

It’s 1:17 a.m. on a Thursday as I write this (but what do I care? I'm sleeping in tomorrow) and I’ve just completed my first day as an ex-journalist. You know what? It was pretty damn good.

I played angry punk rock at an ungodly volume (the duo of Minor Threat’s “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” and Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You” can be quite cathartic), had a long, leisurely breakfast with my wife, and picked up my son at school. He’s a little confused dad is suddenly home, but delighted nonetheless.

I could get used to this… if it wasn’t for the mortgage and that goddamn grinding noise.

Throughout the day, I had several long, laughter-filled conversations with former co-workers and friends who called to check on me and wish me well. We reminisced, bitched about short-sighted management decisions, and they kindly tried to stroke my ego, telling me my employer was way worse off without me.

This was a good day. Yet I know there will be many anxious times in the coming weeks as I contemplate my future in an industry undergoing a seismic shift. My standard joke when asked about my qualifications is that I can read and write, which doesn’t exactly set me apart, you know?

On the ride home, my cab driver overheard the tense, nervous conversation I had with my wife. He proudly informed me that he, too, had been laid off, but now never took home less than $125 a day. He provided details on where I could go to pick-up an application.

Then, pulling up outside my house, he urged me to keep the pink copy from the chit. “Seems appropriate,” he told me. “A reminder of the day they betrayed you.”

I laughed and gave him a generous tip. If they want it back, they'll just have to take it out of my package.

Chris Powell is apparently a freelance writer based in Toronto. And he reads good too. He can be reached at chris_powell[at]rogers.com.
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