Goodbye and Good Luck
The art of the newsroom farewell note
By Dana Hull
Dana Hull (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
Every newsroom has its own ritual for saying farewell to departing staffers: standing and applauding as they walk out the door, the mock front page, gag gifts, farewell cake and drinks.
But for the journalist who is leaving, there's one last piece of copy to file: the goodbye note. A maudlin and extremely heavy coffee table book could be created from the slew of farewells the industry has seen just this past year.
Writing them is not easy. Do you recap your entire career, waxing poetic about the early days when you covered the zoning board for the Timbuktu Times? Do you highlight exotic bylines and favorite stories, so people remember that you were once a rising star? Do you take the opportunity to rant about the corporation that is gutting the newsroom or the lack of diversity of the remaining staff? Or do you keep it short and sweet: goodbye and good luck?
"You're saying goodbye to the job, the career and a lot of close friends," says Joe Grimm, who worked at the Detroit Free Press for 25 years, the last 18 of them as the newsroom's recruiter. "People put a lot of thought into it. The goodbye note is kind of a career obituary, especially if you think you won't be back in a newsroom. It's sort of the last word on someone." When Grimm took a buyout in August, he skipped the farewell note and handed out ice cream in the Freep lobby instead.
So many gifted journalists are losing their jobs that it often feels like a mighty forest of old-growth redwood trees is being felled. The ax now falls so swiftly that many people are too shocked, or hurt, to pen a parting missive.
Goodbye notes vary widely in tone. Some seethe with barely veiled anger. Others are boastful or grateful. And there are office politics: Who gets to write the note? Is it edited by the bosses? Does the departing employee have control over how and when the e-mail is sent out?
At the San Jose Mercury News, where I've worked for almost 10 years, metro reporter Barry Witt was laid off in March 2008. His farewell note was brief and to the point: "And so it ends. But damn it was fun for the last 24 years. Best wishes and good luck to you all, Barry."
Carolyn Jung, a longtime Merc food writer who also departed in March 2008, wrote: "Well, I guess this means no more homemade almond macaroon cookies at the holiday potluck for you guys. Sorry, you'll have to make do with store-bought. ;-)"
The best goodbye note came from former National Editor Marc Brown, who left
of his own accord in May 2008 to become media relations manager for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.
"Since 1977, I've been locked in a serious staring contest with a newspaper career. But sometime in the past year or so, I blinked," reads the note, posted in full on Brown's Facebook page. "Maybe it was the Mercury News being sold twice in a year. Maybe it was when numbness replaced shock upon reading the names of perfectly good journalists who ended up on layoff lists. Maybe it was my 7-year-old daughter asking — more than once — why I'm almost never home in time to help with her homework....The next part of this missive will sound almost cliché, given how often the sentiment has shown up in goodbye notes, but it's true: It has been an honor and a privilege to work with each and every one of you. I am awed by the work you do, day in and day out — doubly awed, considering the ever-mounting odds AGAINST doing your jobs that you face every day."
Brown says he wrote a draft of his farewell a few weeks before leaving, then went back and edited himself.
"I didn't feel like I had to write something, but I knew there were things I wanted to say as I was leaving," says Brown, who made sure the e-mail went out at the end of the day, when many colleagues had already left the building. "And the thing to do was to put it in writing."
Peter Post is director of the Emily Post Institute and one of the manners maven's four great-grandchildren. An expert on business etiquette, he urges ink-stained wretches not to burn any bridges.
"Think twice before you start dissing the place you've been," Post says. "It's OK to say you're disappointed to leave. And listing all of your accomplishments is going overboard. Just mention one or two highlights."
Some farewells shine brighter than others. My favorite so far comes from Larry Minner, 62, who took a buyout from the Modesto Bee in August 2008 after 32 years there. A longtime sports editor, Minner says he always did his best work at night. He wrote his farewell at three in the morning, after cleaning out his desk, and attached a picture of a cup of coffee to it.
"I wanted to be smartass but heartfelt," says Minner, now retired. "When you leave, you're gone, so what I wrote was really close to the surface. Several people told me they cried when they read it." He wrote:
"The Joy of the Upright Man,
or Groping for the Appropriate Adios ..
To you all — saints, sinners and wage slaves alike — thanks for the memories.
And the laughs.
Thanks for sharing your smiles.
Thanks for sharing your energy, your ideas, your dedication and your lives with me.
Thanks for keeping me forever young.
You reminded me daily what it means to be devoted to a calling.
The collegiality, the passion, the horsing around in the guise of brainstorming ...
I'll miss it.
And I'll miss you.
I enjoyed the blessed good fortune of seeing newspapering through many lenses: sports editor, travel editor, food editor, sports columnist, copy editor, father confessor, village idiot and class clown.
My supervisors endured; my subordinates persevered. The paper got out on time most of the time.
I even hired some of you. And every one of you turned out to be better at this than I. Odd, but that pleases me.
My career fulfilled me and enriched my life — every day for 32 years. My warm-memory cup runneth over.
My job with this company paid for one house, two college educations, one law degree, one marriage, a couple of cars and the prospect of security and more creature comforts in my dotage.
For all I had, I wish the same for all of you.
These are crazy, awful, fearful times in our industry.
Persevere if you can. Follow your bliss — it's a must.
It's been good to know ya.
Now, where is that road less traveled?
Oh, and have a cup on me.
Hull (email@example.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.