I’m no Margaret Wente fan, but I have nothing invested in this story being either true or false. If it’s true, I should have heard about it before someone posted a link to this article on Facebook. If it’s false, I should have heard about it before someone posted a link to this article on Facebook. The fact that I only heard about it when somebody posted this article suggests to me that the author’s point, once reached in this article, is well made. And maddening.
I have sent out at least one job application each working day for the last nearly seven weeks — to both actual jobs and to companies I’d like to work for which had no posted openings. That’s a minimum of 35 — I suspect the real number is higher. So far I’ve had two interviews, one of them pretty positive, and received two no-thank-you letters (both in response to cold-calls). I have had one cryptic non-official offer of a job I don’t know that I’d take, and another cryptic communication that sounds like it might be an offer in the making but it’s sure taking its time cohering into something I can put on my CV.
Even though I’m trying to spend as little as possible, I feel like I’m watching my bank balance trickle away. The bills still need to be paid, after all; I still need to eat. I’m someone who’s not particularly suited to counting pennies if there are quarters in the jar. So when my enabling neighbour knocks on my door and asks if I’m interested in an outing — to the grocery store, or that store where you have to have a membership and you buy toilet paper rolls by the gross, or the nearby big-box hardware store — I go, promising myself that I won’t spend a dime, but I always end up seeing some small thing I can’t live without. Drip drip drip goes the money…
My mood, which was unrealistically bright and sunny seven weeks ago, is becoming darker. I’m yelling at the cat, impatient with myself and my friends — and about to come to blows with my ISP. The little no-see-ums that are impossible to escape on the front lawn reduced me to tears the other night (and the Off clip-on that I bought to combat them and the mosquitoes in the back was useless against them). I’m becoming tired of penny-pinching and frustrated at the lack of action on the job front.
My job search hasn’t even dragged on that long, relatively speaking. I just started with such good energy, it seemed like it would be impossible for it not to pay off in some way, and quickly. It’s hard not to measure myself against the success of my fellow layoff victims. Of the ones I know about (there are a couple that I’m unsure of) about four or five have landed in a better position than they left (though three left the province to do so); a couple of others have regular freelancing gigs; a bunch took lower-paying jobs at our former employer’s new workplace; a couple more are back in the old office as summer interns. I may have come flying out of the gate, but I’m currently one of the very few among those original 25 who is not re-employed in some way. And that’s freaking me out, say what you will about the relative “success” of those who took their old jobs back for less money.
I’ve started to be assailed by self-doubt, imposter syndrome, wondering if maybe I’m not as good as I think I am and worrying about what happens when the money runs out. And I don’t care if this is something that happens to everyone in my position. My position is that I have years of experience, have been told I’m really good at my job, have been told I’m doing all the right things to find a job, and have been told that there’s lots of work out there for someone with my qualifications. When the sum total of all those parts is continuing unemployment, I figure it’s my right to feel like hitting something.
You know what’s funny? I actually wrote about the exact position I’m in while I was still employed — about being over 40 and out of work and not being able to sell employers on your fabulousness. I have to be better at following up on applications I send out, but otherwise I’m managing to avoid the traps I described in those articles. I’m beginning to think, however, that there are pitfalls to this job search thing that I failed to warn me about.
One of my friends, a fellow journalist who professionally has climbed heights I’ll probably never survey the world from, is slowly being driven crazy by her job (undocumented, but you learn to recognize the signs). In fact, since I’ve known her she has had three jobs and every last one of them has made her that little bit more unbalanced.
She’s a better-than-average journalist, but she has a wild case of imposter syndrome, which means she’ll work twice as hard as anyone else in the room because she feels she has to continually prove she even has the right to stand in the doorway. That work ethic has certainly served her well on paper — and it’s why she has her current job. But having established early on that she’ll work like a fiend, she finds herself constantly called on to do so. That, combined with her family obligations, leaves her with little time to enjoy her husband and kids and the other fruits of her labours.
Which is why, whenever the two of us talk, the conversational circle will always come back around to “if we didn’t do this, what would we do?” It’s almost a heretical question for true believers — those who live to serve the news, and are in turn nourished by it. And some parts of our souls will always be faithful to the cause.
Our apostacy is rooted in a number of causes: for both of us it’s disappointment in never having, for whatever the reason (and they are legion, and at least some of mine are my own fault) done the jobs we dreamed about doing when we entered the profession. For me there’s a lot of frustration at not being able to pass through closed doors and low ceilings; for her, it’s exhaustion and never being able to admit she’s exhausted (her world is far more cutthroat than mine). And that’s just for starters.
So if not this, then what? I don’t know what it’s like in your workplace, but I suspect this is also true outside of my own profession: when you’ve trained to do a certain thing, and your very training for that thing teaches you to put on the blinders of the faithful and not to consider doing other things (journalists are continually warned against the evils of the public relations field which tempts with better hours and pay) — well, you eventually stop being able to see over the walls of your box.
Another friend is a guidance/career counsellor and a few summers ago when this question was once again making my head spin, she took me through the exercises she gives her clients to determine what they’d be good at. Mine came up “newspaper reporter/editor” but that’s at least in part because I weighted my responses so that it couldn’t be anything else in top spot. Other potential careers for someone with my skills included politician (ha!) researcher, public relations agent, book editor — the list went on.
It was mind-opening in some ways, because as I said, once you’re in that box it’s hard to see over the sides to the bigger world — especially, I might add, if you’re a desk jockey, as I have been for most of my career, with limited professional exposure to the public. Working nights, as I did for years, limits your exposure even more.
But just having the list wasn’t the answer either, particularly in this day and age when it’s nearly impossible to walk into a workplace, claim you have skills and a willingness to learn more and get a job. A B.A. is the new Grade 12, and a Master’s is the new B.A. For every kid with a dream and a desire to learn from the ground up there are a kazillion others with credentials who get first pick. Given my own disdain for “citizen journalists” I have to be careful of hypocrisy here, but I will admit — and argue — that credentials aren’t everything. And even if you took the time, did the work, to become credentialled, there’s no guarantee of employment in your chosen field, especially if you still lack experience.
All this leaves me back in the circle with my friend, who’s starting to suffer physically from the stress she’s under. If not this, then what? How? When?
One of journalists’ favourite drinking games is “Save the industry.” How it’s played: journalists get together for drinks and eventually the talk turns to the state of the newspaper industry and how to save it. One sip for every suggestion that newspapers need to offer more in-depth coverage; one sip for every time someone says the answer is to go “hyperlocal;” three sips for every time someone says newspapers need to erect “paywalls” (and every corresponding phrase that is some approximation of “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube”). Down your drink for every time someone says “stop killing trees, go online.”
One well-known and respected newspaper that has stopped killing trees and gone online is the Christian Science Monitor. This is an analysis of how that is working.
Alligator clips. They’re completely obsolete now, but when I graduated from journalism school that was the first thing I realized no one had taught me about.
Other things: networking. How to find a media job when media jobs are almost never posted. How to freelance. How to search for publicly available (though deeply buried) information. I could go on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy for the things I did learn. I’m a better writer than I was before I went to j-school, and I’m much better at organizing my thoughts into a coherent pattern. I even developed a certain facility for critical thinking. But I started compiling the list of grievances against my j-school education early into my first media job (which was with a national wire service that had hardly received mention in my classrooms, and was not spoken of positively when it was mentioned) and conversations about the state of the industry with my former classmates almost always include a tangential foray into the shortcomings of the program as we experienced it.
But apparently it’s not just us, and it wasn’t just then. In this blog post in The Guardian, a newly minted journalist mentions a few of the things he wished he’d learned, some of which overlap with the things I wish I’d learned, and some which echo the things I wish I knew now. Interesting read.
*Alligator clips are like little metal clothespins with teeth that back in the Stone Age enabled broadcast reporters to connect their tape (!) recorders to a phone line in order to feed tape back to the newsroom. They also (and I protest that I have no personal knowledge of this) could be used as roach clips in a pinch.