AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2007

Life After Journalism   

Two San Jose Mercury News staffers who took buyouts in late 2005 stayed in close touch with eight of their departing colleagues. How have they fared, what have they learned and do they miss the newsroom?

By Evelyn Richards Margaret Steen
      Evelyn Richards (evrichards@aol.com) and Margaret Steen (msteen@newsguy.com) are Mercury News alumni who are freelancing and working in education.     

It didn't take veteran copy editor Jim Braly long to get on with the job of reinventing himself.

Just two months after taking a voluntary buyout from the San Jose Mercury News, Braly was hanging out in a shuttered bar on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, wearing an ugly '60s-era plaid jacket and ogling an exotic dancer. There he was, amazingly, working as an extra in a film--a gig he had culled from craigslist that he hoped would be an entrée into the world of video and sound recording.

Braly soon landed a few other entertaining jobs, including one as a background singer in a hip-hop band's music video filmed in a chapel. But there was a hole in his plan: His new "career" didn't pay. For the day in the bar he earned $60. For the other jobs, nothing.

Braly is one of about 50 newsroom employees who left the Mercury News in late 2005 after the paper announced it was seeking voluntary buyouts. And although his particular dream to carve out a niche in sound recording may be unique, his experience is not. Life beyond the newsroom, it turns out, can be full of surprises.

To glean a picture of post-newsroom existence, two of us who accepted buyouts checked in regularly over the next year with eight former colleagues who left at the same time. Despite great enthusiasm--and often careful preparation--for trying something new, their journeys to new lives were often bumpy and, in most cases, incomplete.

By the end of that first year, everyone in the group was working, though most were not earning as much as they had at the paper. Five had secure jobs with benefits, three of those in the public sector. Others, by choice, were staying clear of the regimented working world. And although all appreciated the new flexibility in their daily lives, some still missed the passion of newspapers.

In one way or another, their personal passages are emblematic of the tumult shared today by so many in the newspaper business. As the industry continues to grapple with plunging circulation, competition from the Internet and an advertising slowdown, journalists everywhere are fretting about their futures. Recently, cuts have been announced at papers including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Some newsroom employees are forced to find a new direction after being laid off; others must weigh their options for the future when deciding, like these Mercury News employees did, whether to accept a buyout offer.

At the Mercury News, the anguish began at 4 p.m. on a Friday in late September 2005 when Executive Editor Susan Goldberg and Publisher George Riggs told the close-knit newsroom that 52 positions had to go, if not through voluntary buyouts, then through layoffs. While the announcement itself wasn't a surprise--the paper was in good company that month, with the New York Times and the Philadelphia dailies also announcing reductions--the size of the cut, about 15 percent, elicited gasps from the assembled reporters and editors.

For the next seven weeks, the newsroom buzzed about who might put in for the voluntary severance package, which offered pay and extended medical benefits. Partway through, it became clear who at least some of the takers would be--staffers at the Spanish- and Vietnamese-language publications, which the Mercury News had touted but was now abandoning.

Who else would take the plunge? For some nearing retirement, the decision was easy. But younger staff members wondered if they could find new work with the same material and psychic benefits as reporting the news. Some worried that if they didn't volunteer, they might get laid off. Around the newsroom, colleagues kept informal lists of who might go. A database of job openings elsewhere was created, and the local Newspaper Guild sponsored a career counseling workshop.

It was during that period of gnawing uncertainty in San Jose that Mercury News owner Knight Ridder confronted its own cataclysmic challenge when Private Capital Management, its largest shareholder, pressured the chain to sell out or face a boardroom shakeup. Goldberg could only plead ignorance when staffers pressed her on what the threat might mean for them; no one knew then, of course, that the company would be sold and dismantled, with the Mercury News landing in Dean Singleton's growing MediaNews empire (see "Surrounded by Singleton," June/July), or that a year later, the newsroom again would be shaken--by layoffs, not buyouts.

On Friday, November 11, 2005, Goldberg again stood before her staff, this time with a handout listing 50 names. She tried some positive spin--there would be no layoffs because enough people had volunteered--but she couldn't dislodge the gloom. Some who were denied the package, usually because too many in their department had applied, were bitter. Most who got it were pleased. Even so, several felt like zombies, worn out by anxiety over the decision and incredulous that the place they had poured their souls into would no longer be home. Friends hugged and cried.

Then, a standing ovation: Leigh Weimers, a local columnist for four decades, rose from his cubicle, lifted a box of personal items from his desk and strode to the newsroom's door. Applause continued as he vanished down the long bleak hallway to the back exit.

The 10 people we tracked, including ourselves, are a confident, ambitious bunch. They generally liked what they were doing; they weren't disgruntled sorts who couldn't wait to take the money and run. All 10 were deeply invested in journalism--financially, professionally and emotionally.

The group is not necessarily representative of everyone who has left a newsroom recently: Its members are in their 30s, 40s and 50s--not as close to retirement age as some who leave. Several could afford either not to work or to take a pay cut, at least for a time. Some had access to health insurance through a working spouse. Under the Mercury News' program, everyone left voluntarily, though many probably would not have if the paper hadn't been cutting back.

Many in the group, though not all, had some notion of what they wanted to do--ideas that ranged from selling real estate to improving children's writing. Some had started preparing for new careers even before the buyouts were announced. Everyone wanted to find not just a new source of income but a new way to engage their minds and spirits.

They might not have realized it then, but they were embarking on a difficult search for a new identity. Here is how three Mercury News veterans struggled with that challenge.

Eugene Louie: A Work in Progress

Journalism was not the field Eugene Louie's parents, immigrants from China, had hoped their only child would enter: They wanted him to be a doctor, or perhaps a lawyer. But when taking a break from college, Louie got his first journalism job as a photographer for a small magazine in Los Angeles called Tennis West. The pay was low, the work exhilarating. It was the beginning of a satisfying career as a photographer that gave him not only a paycheck but also an opportunity to meet personalities like actress Shirley MacLaine, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the Dalai Lama. It also gave him a sense of identity.

When it was time to get out, after 26 years in daily journalism, Louie discovered just how integral to his life photography had become. Yet when the buyouts were announced, Louie, then 52, also found himself "realizing that I was renting out my life..to an employer." It seemed time to do something else; his wife, Karenina Grun-Louie, was employed as a nurse, and his son, Jonathan, was away at college. If only he knew what to pursue. "I grabbed a community college catalog to see if there was something that would interest me and I could complete in two to three years," he told us a few months after leaving.

Louie quickly crafted a plan that would, ironically, take him closer than he had ever dreamed to his parents' vision of a medical career. If he became a radiology technician, he reasoned, he could find a part-time job almost anywhere that would provide health insurance and a steady income while allowing him time to pursue fine-art photography. Perhaps he would move away from the over-photographed West Coast to Utah or the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. "As opposed to trying to change the outside world, I just felt that at this time of my life it was time to go inward a little," Louie says. "I would photograph my vision, not some editor's idea of what a good photograph should be."

It sounded both romantic and practical. But as Louie (and several other former Mercury News staffers) discovered, re-inventing yourself often involves trial and error. The first reality check came in February, three months after leaving the paper, when Louie dived into algebra, one of the radiology program prerequisites. "All I could think about was numbers," he says of those first few frustrating weeks of math. It was difficult to struggle alongside community college students, some of whom were 30 years younger. "With the buyout, my self-worth was already on the line."

During Louie's mathematical struggles, his father died. Louie, who had been managing his father's finances and paying for some of his care, found himself with one less financial responsibility and the freedom to invest the equity in his father's house. He made the first deviation from his plan: He bought a 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom house just outside Charlotte, North Carolina, with plans to rent it.

Louie depended on family support while he took the needed time to explore his career options. He knew, for example, that he could be covered on his wife's health insurance once his Mercury News insurance ran out. And it was his wife and son who eventually forced him to reconsider where he was going.

Over the Labor Day holiday almost a year after Louie had left the paper, he attended parents' weekend at the Air Force Academy, where his son is in his final year. "I'm the kind of guy who is always giving advice," Louie says. But this time he found himself on the receiving end. "I was really surprised that both my wife and son were saying, 'Do you really think you're going to be happy pursuing what you're pursuing, a medical career in radiology?' Everybody seemed to think that I would not be completely happy once I got there."

When he thought about it, he realized they were right. He enjoyed the routine and the intellectual challenge of school, but he wasn't sure he would like an emotionally draining job in medicine. What made him happiest was freelance photography, both because he enjoyed taking photos and because of the challenge of building a business. Luckily, he had added business, marketing and sales courses to his medical load at the community college. "I think that deep down, there was a secret entrepreneur inside of me," Louie says.

In fact, his freelance photography business was blooming. He found, for example, that parents appreciated--and were willing to pay for--the photos he took of their children performing in a local children's theater production. "It's just as valuable if it goes to a circulation of a family of three as if it goes to a circulation of 300,000 strangers," he says.

Louie is persevering with his radiology prerequisites--dissecting a cat testicle and a sheep's heart in an anatomy class--even though he increasingly has doubts. "I'm not sure that that's going to give me the psychic dollar that photography does," he says. "But at the same time, I can see myself having the skill."

Although Louie is less certain now than when he left the Mercury News about his second career, he has learned an important lesson about himself. "When I worked as a photojournalist for some sort of media outlet, it gave me an identity that I think I really needed in my younger years. I always knew that if I got to the point where I would give that up, it might be a problem for me in terms of my self-image and my self-worth," Louie says. "Surprisingly, it's not been as difficult as I thought."

Guy Lasnier: An Emotional Adjustment

Even carefully laid plans don't guarantee a smooth transition.

Guy Lasnier, the Mercury News' deputy national/foreign editor, found it tough to adjust to his new job as a speechwriter for a university chancellor, in which he was expected to trade skepticism for spin. For the first two months, Lasnier wondered whether he had made the right decision. With that offer secure, he already had planted one foot out the door when the buyout decisions were made. But he was denied the package--he says Goldberg told him she didn't want him to go.

Like the others, Lasnier, who had held a variety of jobs in 11 years at the Mercury News, still loved newspapers when he quit. But the father of two children, one still in high school, had started looking around earlier in 2005 when contract talks between the paper and the union on health coverage broke down, and he sensed more tension ahead. He put out feelers closer to his home in Santa Cruz, a 35-mile trek over a mountain range from San Jose. A surfer, Lasnier typically had spent several mornings a week riding the waves before arriving at the Mercury News for a later shift, avoiding rush hour.

The post he took--executive communications coordinator in the chancellor's office at the University of California, Santa Cruz--was practically in the neighborhood. What a contrast the setting was: He could bike to work and gaze out his office at redwoods. But more significant was the culture shock. Lasnier, then 51, missed the teamwork, the sense of mission and the instant gratification of the newspaper world. In his new position, it was harder to feel engaged. There were no moments of victory, no scoops, no breaking-news packages pulled together on deadline. "I was in a newsroom for 23-and-a-half years. The camaraderie. The personalities, attitudes, people who are up on things and have snarky things to say. It's fun," he told us four months after leaving.

At social gatherings, especially, he was struck by how closely his identity had been tied to his work. He also missed the cachet of his newspaper job. "Being a journalist is cool," Lasnier says. "Having that label--there's a 'wow' factor that we can't deny we get a little bit of a rush from."

Emotionally, Lasnier couldn't sever his ties; he still regularly read Romenesko and other journalism Web sites. A half-year out, he continued to envision himself back in his old job a couple of times a week. Luckily for him, and others, journalism offers many ways to stay connected. Lasnier has kept his longstanding volunteer job of producing listener commentaries for the local NPR affiliate, KUSP. When people at the university recognize his name from the radio, "that's my little bit of journalism buzz." (In fact, a year after leaving the newspaper, seven of the 10 former colleagues have kept a hand in journalism.)

When we talked to Lasnier nine months into his public affairs job, a turning point had come from unexpected misfortune. In June, UC-Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton plunged to her death in a suicide. Suddenly, Lasnier said, his work team drew together, bonding during a tragedy. After a new acting chancellor stepped in, Lasnier's job began to edge away from speechwriting toward policy matters and background research, which he expected would be more satisfying. Likening his journey to the "stages of grief," Lasnier said: "I'm at acceptance now."

A year after the buyouts, he attended a lively reunion of current and former Mercury News newsroom employees. Hundreds gathered at the Lion and Compass in Sunnyvale, a well-known Silicon Valley eatery started by Atari founder and arcade-videogame pioneer Nolan Bushnell. "It was fun to collectively remember what it had been," Lasnier says about the Mercury News. "But now I've moved on and am enjoying different things." That includes his university job.

Jim Braly: A Failed Reinvention

Braly was something of an institution at the Mercury News. Readers never saw his byline, but they probably chuckled over his clever, insightful headlines that for 22 years graced many sections of the paper. He was an anchor of competence and calm on the copy desk.

Braly, married with one stepdaughter in college, had dreamed occasionally of doing something else with his life. "After a while, the dreams became more common, and they began to come closer and closer together. Soon they were only a few minutes apart. Then the buyouts were announced," he recalled soon after leaving, "and my water broke."

Still, Braly and his wife, employed by a large high-tech company experiencing its own layoffs, worried about finances and especially health insurance. They realized a buyout could work only if they left the high-priced Bay Area, where they had owned a house for nine years. "At 54, I was unlikely to be hired by any local company," Braly wrote us. "Say I thought about a new career in technical writing. Any hiring manager could look at me and quickly realize I was in no shape to sleep under my desk and work 100 hours a week."

The favorable terms of the buyout offer (for him, 44 weeks of salary and a year of paid health care), plus the "power of the press"--incessant headlines about an imminent bursting of the housing bubble--convinced Braly to leave not just the paper, but the state.

Almost immediately, the couple moved to Portland. "Of course, it snowed the day I got here and then it rained for 30 of the next 31 days," Braly said after landing. "And the jobs don't pay much. But if things don't work out, Oregon lets you kill yourself."

The copy editor aspired to a new career as a sound mixer in Portland's vibrant indie film community. Between 2001 and 2005, Braly had helped set up a home-recording studio and cut four CDs of his rock-and-blues band, the Stragglyrs.

His few forays into the arts community were fun. Besides the two small on-camera roles, Braly recorded sound for three short films, including a political satire in which terrorists are hiding in every corner of an ordinary couple's house. But the ventures wouldn't pay the bills, and even though his wife was telecommuting, the couple continued to be anxious about long-term medical insurance should she lose her job.

As the months went by, Braly often recalled a column on reinventing yourself he had read regularly in the Mercury News. "I just don't think that's very easy to do," he says. He and his wife tossed around other ideas: real estate, interior design, writing a novel. But everything would involve starting near the bottom and maybe even paying for training. "It's daunting," Braly concluded a half-year after leaving San Jose.

He felt a tug back to journalism and applied for an opening as an associate producer at the local public-broadcasting affiliate. He didn't even get an interview. "I had 30 years of journalism experience... I couldn't get a job as a gofer."

Then Braly applied for a temporary, four-day-a-week job at the Oregonian "doing the same thing I've done for 30 years." He had no illusions he would get it.

But he did. He liked it right away and badly wanted it to become a permanent position. If it didn't, he'd again face a huge question mark. Three months of uncertainty later, in October, the paper did make him a permanent part-timer.

Now he feels at home again and has sent a friend at the Mercury News a dozen e-mails about how the Oregonian is much like his old haunt. The pizza on Election Night, the similarity of local stories--"a newsroom is a newsroom," he says.

Braly is the only one of the 10 Mercury News alumni we tracked who returned to permanent employment in newspapers within the first year. Though his fantasy of remaking himself fizzled, and though he thinks wistfully of the evening breaks spent kibitzing with longtime pals at the Mercury News, he and his wife are thrilled with their adopted city. With new rain boots, rain pants and fleeces, they've even accepted the dreary weather. They go for walks, rain or shine.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his first year away from the Mercury News, Braly advises others to "take the plunge..to get out of the routine you've been in..and try something new."

As these three discovered, there are practical hurdles to reinventing yourself. Moving to a new industry means starting at the bottom again--in pay as well as responsibility--or finding a way to capitalize on your skills and experience in a field related to the press.

But replacing the intellectual and emotional rewards of newsroom work is also a challenge. Several admitted they missed the prestige of being a journalist, though they sensed that, to the outside world, journalism's glamour is fading. Even those who settled happily into new jobs missed the newsroom, with all the drama and fulfillment that comes from putting out a paper each day.

"Newsrooms are like no other workplace," says Pat Lopes Harris, who at 36 left her job as a metro reporter to become a media relations officer with San Jose State University. "You have a lot of wiggle room to steer things between the required assignments. In most environments, your course is set for you."

Still, Harris found gratification working for a public university that prides itself on providing broad access to education for those who want to learn. "I don't know if there's a better mission to be had than helping people like that," she says.

Others echoed that sentiment. One alum who turned to real estate derives great satisfaction from helping people find the right homes and loans; another who trained as a drug and alcohol counselor found that career "multiple times more rewarding" than journalism. And the Mercury News' former Sacramento bureau chief, who joined the California State Senate Office of Research, enjoys "putting my skills to use for public service," including advocating on behalf of a newly released prisoner who needed a place to go on Christmas. "There is life after the newspaper business," Mark Gladstone has concluded.

For this group, that life includes more time for family, hobbies and new endeavors such as guitar lessons and foreign language study. It involves fewer evening phone calls and working holidays. In the end, the added flexibility and the satisfaction of taking on new challenges compensated for the losses--the absence of the newsroom camaraderie, the adrenaline rush and a career that, for all its demands, was something most cherished.

A year after walking out of the paper for the last time, several of these Mercury News alumni were still wrestling with building a solid professional future--finding careers, not just jobs. Still, all 10 declared themselves at least as content--or in most cases, more content--than before they left.

Says Louie: "Once you can let go of the fact that you don't have a cool media affiliation, you can appreciate yourself for who you are."