In this case, I wasn’t that close a friend, more like a friendly colleague. And I did help. But I didn’t sense his despair. And still I wonder.
In my American Press Institute days, my biggest client was Freedom Newspapers. I managed annual evaluations of their newspapers (I can’t recall how many, but it was dozens). I wrote a quarterly evaluation called the e-Tuner that cited highlights of the past three months and identified points to work on for improvement, a chore that involved reading a few samples from each of the papers and perusing their websites. (I think the e-Tuner might have been the first place I told journalists about the value I saw in Twitter.) I led three regional seminars for Freedom and was a speaker for three editors’ conferences and a webinar.
One of the best Freedom newspapers was the Appeal-Democrat in Marysville-Yuba City, Calif. I frequently praised the paper and its editor, Len La Barth, in the e-Tuner and I enjoyed meeting Len at the conferences. At my last Freedom editors conference, in San Antonio in 2008, we enjoyed a jovial dinner with a few other editors.
Len lost his job as editor of the Appeal-Democrat when the paper was sold last year. He emailed me May 30, 2012, the day after he was fired, reminding me of that dinner in San Antonio and asking about job possibilities with Digital First:
I’m new on the job market as of today, and reaching out to industry friends and colleagues. I’ve taken the liberty of attaching my resume — which, after reading one of your blog posts, I acknowledge as too lengthy — to this email.
What’s happening at Digital First Media is certainly intriguing to me. I’d be delighted to learn of any potential opportunities for an editor with my credentials.Freedom Communications, of course, is a shell of its former self, and the final death bell will toll any day now. It’s a disheartening time.
Right now, I feel like the baseball manager who is called into the general manager’s office and told, “Thank you for everything you’ve done, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction” – despite the fact the team is overachieving amid some very challenging circumstances. Essentially, the new publisher wants a different style of management. Fortunately, the A-D’s two previous publishers will provide glowing recommendations, as will others.
I scrolled through Len’s emails and tweets, looking for signs of his despair. The photo he tweeted of a young daughter wrenched my gut. I know I don’t understand, but I got angry with him for abandoning the people who care about him.
This tweet a couple days after he was fired showed the wit I remember:
Just paused for the chickens to cross the road – Nuestro Road. So I gotta ask: Why?
— Len La Barth (@lenlabarth) June 1, 2012
Our last email exchange, a few weeks before Len disappeared, showed his confidence, if only he could find the right match:
My desire is to lead a newsroom that needs a digital progress kick in the pants, or is doing average work and needs the inspiration and guidance to hit the highest level.