AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2009

When the Ax Falls Twice   

A wife and husband lose their jobs at the same paper at the same time.

By Pamela J. Podger

"Both of us?" I sputtered.

It was all I could say when the publisher of the Missoulian, the daily newspaper in Missoula, Montana, quietly told my husband and me that we were both being laid off, effective immediately. The publisher praised our performance and told us that the decision was based on seniority. No matter our combined 50 years of experience – we were the newest staff members.

It was a Wednesday morning in late August, and our biggest concern heading into work that day had been finding a way to carve out time for more in-depth stories. Now, suddenly, we were unemployed.

Layoffs have become sadly commonplace in the newspaper business. But never had I imagined this scenario.

I could envision one of us going, but editor friends who've been in management positions during other down cycles said they have never cut both members of a husband-and-wife team.

Nine months earlier, we had packed up our possessions and, with the Missoulian's help, moved to Montana from Virginia with our two newly adopted toddlers. We had researched several places in New England and the Northwest before choosing this small city.

It was a lifestyle choice. We took hefty pay cuts when we left the Roanoke Times, but we were drawn by Missoula's intellectual vibrancy, natural beauty and liberal outlook. My husband, John Cramer, was excited about reporting on the environment again in the West. He had covered the environment beat for the Bulletin in Bend, Oregon, and had been a general assignment reporter for the Fresno Bee. Within a few weeks of our arrival, the Missoulian encouraged me to apply for an opening for a business reporter. I interviewed in my best jeans because our possessions were still in boxes.

But now, after less than a year, my husband and I were jobless. Our family's finances have been shaken. We've always been frugal – we bought our little fixer-upper house on craigslist and are doing much of the work ourselves – but now we're grabbing discarded toys from the sidewalk on trash day and doing our Christmas shopping at yard sales.

We haven't been in Missoula long, but we've been heartened by the outpouring of support from former colleagues, sources and people in the community who felt we got a raw deal. One state senator sent us a $100 check, which we returned with a thank-you note. People called us with leads on new jobs in journalism and marketing. Friends and neighbors dropped off green beans from their gardens, corn from the farmers' market, eggs from their chickens and extra hamburgers from a wildlife group's fundraiser. A friend is teaching my husband to hunt – venison is the ultimate organic meat, and it's free.

As newspapers implode nationwide in this era of transformation, we find we're in good company. The American Society of Newspaper Editors noted 2,400 fewer full-time newspaper jobs in its latest census. And the Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds expected the number of jobs to decrease by another 4,000 by year's end as newspaper revenues continue to decline.

We left the Roanoke Times in a year of good-bye cakes and buyouts. The Roanoke newsroom began to look so desolate with all the empty desks that they rearranged the furniture and added a red couch. The remaining reporters, however, rarely have time to lounge on it.

In many ways, the drastic downsizing of newsrooms is a societal crisis, one that jeopardizes democracy. I worry about the larger issues of watchdog reporting, as would anyone who has spent time behind prison walls, in government buildings and poring over public documents. Print reporters do much of the persistent digging to unearth stories about corruption and abuse.

I wonder how newspapers hope to survive when they let go some of their most experienced people. How can you expect the community to believe that you're providing the same quality and quantity of coverage, whether in the paper or on the Web, with fewer and less experienced people on staff?

Soon after we were laid off, Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian, offered my husband a job at a tiny sister Montana paper, the Ravalli Republic, an hour and 15 minutes away. He took it because we need a paycheck – his salary remained the same – and health insurance for the children. The following week, that paper downsized its newsroom by 40 percent, leaving just my husband and a handful of people to cover a community of 45,000 people. But we're still very grateful that one of us has a job.

My husband and I have more than a half century of combined newspaper experience writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and a number of smaller papers. Our careers have spanned the transition from electric typewriters to multimedia. We've filed stories from different time zones, from national political conventions, from foreign countries, yet we didn't think twice about covering night meetings and weekend festivals in Missoula like everyone else.

I still love the hunt, going after the story, meeting new people, learning new issues. But like a lot of newspaper people, I've been unsettled by the industry's upheaval and had been thinking about a career shift.

I have few regrets. I've been a reporter during a period when newspapers thrived in this country. Although the time when America's morning began with the thump of the hometown paper on the doorstep is waning, news may thrive online.

I've written thousands of local stories about everyday people. I've reported on the triumphs of a multimillion dollar lottery winner and chronicled the grief of parents who've lost their children to violence. Newspapers and journalism fellowships have sent me to Mexico, Japan, Colombia and Central America.

I've had editors tell me after a long day of tracking fugitives: "Nice job. Now go order the most expensive thing you can find on the menu." I still remember my favorite one – linguine in a dried cherry and anise sauce with a glass of Chalk Hill Chardonnay at the stately Eureka Inn in Humboldt County, California.

I was the Missoulian's business reporter only briefly, but there were so many layoffs in timber, retail, manufacturing and other industries in western Montana that one editor had jokingly suggested we create a "Layoff of the Week" icon. My beat was humming, given the nation's weak economy and the demise of banking, real estate and other industries.

Now, instead of chronicling stories about people being laid off, I'm living one.

We were shocked at first – and in a way still are – but I've quickly slipped into a daily routine of checking for jobs online and in the print classifieds. Every day I've been pitching freelance articles and applying for editing, research, writing and teaching jobs. I'm looking forward to teaching journalism as an adjunct at the University of Montana this spring. We love the Missoula area and hope to stay.

I've also filed for unemployment insurance and registered with the Missoula Job Service. I've made dozens of copies of my résumé and clips, written cover letters and had a few interviews.

A few weeks after we were laid off, I returned to the Missoulian to retrieve my possessions and clear my telephone messages. The final one was from the head of the Missoula Job Service, who had heard about the newspaper's cuts but didn't know the names of those who lost their jobs.

He had a simple request: As the business reporter, would I share his office number with the people who had been laid off from the newspaper?

I already knew it by heart.

Pam Podger can be reached at pjpodger@yahoo.com.