Getting Run Out of the Newspaper Business, and Other Good News

12/10/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

I shut down the computer at my desk, stood up, and surveyed the newsroom for the last time.

It was January 18, 2011, and I was no longer the night news editor for the Kitsap Sun of Bremerton, Washington. I was involuntarily separated. Kicked to the curb. Laid off.

What did I feel? I wondered as I dumped the detritus of the past several years -- pencils, pens, pica poles, condiment packets, award plaques -- from my desk into a cardboard box.

I was forty-five years old, just old enough to be a little too old-school to fully adapt to new-school journalism, a school in which the platforms on which content was delivered had become more important than the quality of the content. My job had been sent to a corporate "copy hub" in Corpus Christi, Texas, and while I'd been offered a chance to apply for that job, I couldn't see moving two thousand miles to make significantly less money as a faceless packager of journalistic fast food, boxing flash-frozen word-burgers for readers I'd never know.

But I didn't have anything else lined up. And a search of the job search engines online showed that there was really no place for somebody with a word-first skill set in the open market. Not at anything other than an entry-level wage, anyway.

I didn't know what I was going to do. I was scared and I was angry.

But I surprised myself. But I didn't cry. I didn't kick anything. I didn't steal light bulbs or toilet paper or toner cartridges.

Instead, as I walked past the cubicles that comprised my second home, I felt the last thing I expected to feel: pity.

Not for me, but for them.

The ones left behind, the ones luckless enough to still have newspaper jobs.

I might not know what would come next for me, but at least I was free to find out.

Anything, I suddenly saw, was better being caught at the dark end of the street in a dead-end industry. Anything was better living with the stultifying certainty that the job would end -- or change into something so unrecognizable that it amounted to the same -- well before retirement. In those jobs, the comfort of still being employed seemed like the coldest possible kind. The kind where the next paycheck was the only certainty one could count on. Beyond that, nothing was in anybody's control, and nobody you knew could or would look out for you. (The editor who hired me had taken early retirement a few years before, once he realized that he had been stripped of the power to protect the newsroom from the annual demands for deeper budget cuts.)

I was free to find my own ceiling. Or my own floor. Or my own lack of a floor. I was free to be alive, to live by my wits, to dig deep and see what I could find. See if there was anything to find. I might make six figures. I might not. I might hang on by the fingernails of my fingernails. I might not.

I might find something mighty in myself amid the mights.

It was only then that I realized how complacent I had been for all those years, how I had slogged from one swing shift to the next in a barely functional fog of work, Netflix, sleep, lunch, work. How corrosive that complacency had become, how it made me morose and bitter and self-loathing, how it ate like acid into my relationships and turned me into an anal orifice at the office. (I once mocked a female editor's front-page selections during a news-budget meeting by telling her "This isn't Barbie's E-Z Bake Newspaper.")

How I numbed the terror with trivial distractions (like midnight Mod Squad and Sopranos marathons till dawn) as my thirties slipped into my forties and my forties stumbled into the downslide to fifty. For all those years, I worked nights and weekends, had Mondays and Tuesdays off, and had nothing else, and considered myself lucky to have that much. One of my colleagues called it the "never-get-laid schedule," and that assessment was uncomfortably almost accurate.

Now, all that was over.

It left me with a warming sense of goofy ebullience as I humped my box, out of the door into the cutting cold coming off Puget Sound, and into the parking lot.

I popped the trunk and prepared to put the box inside. I paused, my breath puffing out in the blue air of the buzzing lights. I poked through the plaques and gilt-edged paper certificates -- Scripps Hall of Fame, Headline Writer of the Year, Employee of the Quarter -- and ran my fingers along the polished wood and plasti-crystal and bronze and glass.

Then I carried the box to the nearest Dumpster, and drove home.

I had no job. No prospects. No particular hope of hanging onto my home. No more than a few thousand dollars in the bank.

But I had me, free to be. Free to look for something forward-looking.

*****

Nearly three years later, I'm doing OK.

At the time I left the Kitsap Sun, I had a little sideline editing book manuscripts. I had a half-assed command of the Chicago Manual of Style, and had a handful of author friends, thanks to a half-assed attempt to become an author myself.

What I didn't have -- then -- was any belief that it could be more than a sideline.

I do now. It took a while. I spent most of 2011 downsizing my life, dragging by on unemployment benefits, landing little more than the occasional dispiriting temp gig in nearby Seattle.

Out of desperation and a dearth of other ideas, I poured much of my remaining money into pumping up the editing sideline. I created promotional materials, went to writers' conferences, pounded the cyber-pavement, bought brain-picking, brain-pickling drinks and lunches for every working writer and editor I could corner.

But by Christ's birthday, I wondered how the Christ I was going to make the January rent. There were no more temp gigs for the time being, no more savings. My unemployment benefits were running out.

Then everything I had put out into the world that year came back to me.

The flood of jobs and inquiries and referrals wasn't a bit gradual.

And, a few manageable slowdowns aside, it hasn't stopped.

Part of it was because of what I put out of there. But a bigger part of it was because I was surfing a high wave of self-publishing that had come of age with the advent of the e-reader. And because, thanks to social media, more self-publishing writers were connected to more other writers than ever. They shared dreams of being taken seriously and making serious money. They shared information, and they shared names.

And, several times a week one of them seemed to be mine.

That's how it works in the forward-looking working world.

Today, I work harder than I've ever worked. And I love it. I've replaced my newspaper income and then some.

I love my clients (mostly). I might sometimes work late into the night or through an NFL Sunday, but here's the thing: when I want to get dinner or drinks with a friend (and what a wondrous thing it was to rediscover the concept of friends), it's as simple as shutting the lid on the laptop and letting myself go.

Letting go. And looking forward. It's a beautiful thing.

A version of this essay originally appeared at Work Stew.

Jim Thomsen is the owner and operator of Desolation Island Editing Services, which provides developmental and copy editing for authors of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. He lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington and can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com.