“It was his turn up against the wall.”
That’s what I’ve been telling people who ask how my husband is doing since his paper, The Washington Examiner, announced in late March that it would lay off more than 80 reporters, editors, designers and other staff and shutter its local news operation, effective this Friday.
The only thing that’s ever different when these things are announced is the name of the city. Denver, Seattle, West Palm Beach, New Orleans, Chicago, D.C. Everywhere, exciting new opportunities ripe for seizing with digital innovation and social media and cross-platform synergizing. Always, praise for the dogged, peerless journalists who made us what we are but won’t be needed to take us where we’re going.
To their credit, the Examiner leadership handled everything as graciously as they could. Theirs is a private company and they can do what they want with it. While seemingly out of the blue, the news was delivered mercifully quickly. No weeks of rumors and unease. My husband got a call the night before telling him to be in for an all-staff meeting the next morning. He was scheduled to be off that day to watch our daughter, whose pre-school was closed. Just bring her, they said, you need to be here.
Shit. This is it. Neither of us slept.
After the meeting that morning, he called my office and confirmed it and I sat in my chair and cried.
Nobody is in newspaper reporting for the money. Which is good, because there is no money in newspaper reporting. A young woman recently wrote a post that went viral about her decision to leave the newspaper business prematurely, in part because of the terrible pay. I can’t fault her for giving up, because I did the exact same thing.
I didn’t mind my terrible pay when I was in eastern North Carolina covering the annual collard greens festival. I did mind it when I was at a major metro newspaper, covering the 10th largest school district in the country. I left for greener pastures and paychecks. Once, when I was moving up from a mid-size daily to a big one in the early 2000s — like getting called up to the majors — my editor at the time gave me a gift. It was my name in heavy, ink-stained lead typeset letters from an old newspaper press. His note said simply, “Keep the lead in your veins.” I kept the typeface and the note, but within three years I’d lost the lead.
My husband never did. He found his footing at papers in small Texas towns and eventually landed in the late 90s at The Palm Beach Post in South Florida, covering government and crime. The 2000 presidential election recount and the post-9/11 anthrax attacks on South Florida tabloids followed. It was a hell of a time to be in a newsroom there.
In 2005, he came to D.C. and began covering crime for a relatively new paper that nobody had heard of yet. Now they know it because, regardless of where they stand on the Examiner‘s politics, they love or at least grudgingly appreciate its local coverage.
He helped build that, part of a team of scrappy and talented reporters and editors who committed daily acts of journalism in the figurative and literal shadow of their competitor across 15th Street. They had a sliver of the Washington Post‘s resources but the moxie to go toe-to-toe with them each day. He helped nab 53 most wanted criminals — bad dudes, often already convicted of terrible crimes, who’d slipped through various agencies’ fingers. He was the subject of a fair amount of ribbing for his crossed-arms pose on the page that would come to earn him local fame — “Hey, you’re the crime guy!” was a frequent greeting when he was out working or we were dropping our car off for repairs — but it was what happened when he uncrossed them and typed that actually mattered.
That ends Friday.
We’ve been here before. Sort of. We kept our heads down at computer monitors while around us, the first wave of veteran reporters were pushed into buyouts or, when they couldn’t give up the ship, were laid off. I recently went to visit one of my former papers and after glancing at the reporter contact list and seeing that it was unrecognizably brief, I didn’t bother going past the lobby. There wasn’t much point.
We’ve been to the “retirement” parties that end with an empty desk. Or worse, a desk staffed two weeks later by a recent college graduate who is “OMG starting today at my DREAM JOB, you guys!” but doesn’t have a clue about the talent who occupied the chair before her, the freakonomics that land a kid with no experience at a major paper these days, or how to find a city hall story without a press release.
We’ve seen the staff purges and thought there but for the grace of God went he, and now, there he goes. It’s a lesson that men and women working the line in Detroit learned before us: watching the death of the industry you love, or that at least gave your adult life some definition, corrodes your nerves and your heart in equal measure.
And still, we’re lucky. We have family health insurance coverage and enough to pay the bills thanks to my job — something that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d stayed in newspapers. We have friends who have called and written just about every day to see how they can help. And we have the one thing that will keep us from ever really giving up on newspapers.
We met at one.
It’s impossible for a layoff from a newsroom to muscle aside the memory of falling in love in one. What it felt like to glance up, instinctively, from a computer screen to the entrance when the other came back in from an assignment. What it felt like to kick the other out of a chair to make their copy better, or, grumbling, to be the one kicked out of the chair. What it felt like to sit talking until midnight in the stilled, fluorescent glow of a newsroom after deadline, for no particularly good journalistic reason other than to be around each other.
The worst day in a newsroom may be coming Friday, but it’s outmatched by the days that came before it.