I loved my job as editor of the Minot Daily News. I reported to work 20 years ago today thinking I was at the pinnacle of my career and would stay there for many years to come.
North Dakota seemed like the right place for me, even with sub-zero wind chills much of the winter and huge mosquitoes through the summer.
Mimi was a popular columnist and had a thriving freelance writing business. Our sons were doing well in school. We had a nice home on a hill with a lovely view of the city in the valley below. We had fallen in love with Teddy Roosevelt National Park, just a couple hours’ drive away.
My staff was performing good journalism. We were doing watchdog reporting for our community. We were providing a strong editorial voice. We were learning and improving together as journalists.
Other newspapers in North Dakota were noticing the rise of the smallest of the state’s “big four” newspapers (yes, “big” is relative; in most states all of those papers would be mid-sized or small). I had been elected president of the North Dakota Associated Press Managing Editors my first year in the state. My staff won more awards at the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s summer conference than anyone could remember us winning.
After tumultuous experiences when afternoon newspapers had died in Des Moines and Kansas City and I questioned decisions by top leaders, I wanted to run a newsroom myself. I had ideas about executive leadership that I wanted to try and they seemed to be working. We had smoothly managed a change earlier in the year from afternoon to morning production. I was enjoying the momentum I felt my career had.
Then I got fired. Twenty years ago today.
I never got a good explanation for the firing, and probably wouldn’t have believed it if I did. In retrospect, I can see clearly that the owners were planning to sell the paper. It was jointly owned by the Buckner News Alliance and Donrey Media, and that partnership was probably never a good idea. Unloading big salaries was part of a plan to make the newspaper more attractive financially to a buyer. In less than a year, the publisher fired the editor, advertising manager, business manager and production manager, replacing us, if at all, with people who clearly made less money. Then the owners sold the paper to Ogden Newspapers, which still owns it.
Details of the firing aren’t important here. I had endured turbulent times in the newspaper business before that day, and I have since. However personal a firing feels, I knew then and certainly know now that it’s just business.
But Minot was the only time I’ve been fired, and it was a deeply personal experience.
Lots of journalists have had that unpleasant experience recently. Most of my colleagues at TBD were dismissed last year. The firings at the New Orleans Times-Picayune have drawn the most attention recently, but Paper Cuts confirms more than 1,171 newspaper job cuts this year. As editor, I had to deliver the unpleasant news that people no longer had jobs to one colleague in Minot and many years later to 14 colleagues in Cedar Rapids.
The six months that it took me to find my next job after Minot were probably the toughest period of my career. But, having made it through, I look back on that stretch with some appreciation. I don’t ever want to go through that experience again, but I think I made the most of it. So I share the lessons I learned from six months’ unemployment 20 years ago:
Finding a job is a full-time job. You have to work your ass off to find a new job. It was a much different process then, going to the library to check ads in newspapers, poring through the ads each week when Editor & Publisher arrived, copying so many résumés that I had an account at the copy store, writing up new batches of cover letters day after day, going through the E&P yearbook to identify targets for blind applications. I had to tackle it as doggedly as any reporting or editing project I ever undertook. Someday I was going to find the source who would unlock this story, so I attacked each opportunity as though this would be the one. While the job-hunting process is entirely different now, I’m sure it’s still full-time work.
Family is more important than a job. Like many journalists, I put my family through a lot: late or missed dinners, missing some important kids’ events that happened in the evening, not to mention the move to Minot just a year before. But I was home for six months and spent a lot of time with the family. Mimi and I drew closer, needing each other for support. I was home every evening, unless I was traveling for a job interview. I played ball with the boys and helped them with homework. We took a few family trips, to the Twin Cities and Regina, Sask., as well as to visit family in Iowa and some shorter trips in North Dakota. A trip to Montana got snowed out (what are the odds?). The six months I wasn’t working were a special family time: They had more time with me and I needed the love and support they provided. However long it took and whatever came next, I knew what was most important to me, and I knew I could count on Mimi and the boys.
Get some exercise. Mimi and I had paid for a year’s membership at the Minot YMCA not long before I got whacked. So we went there for frequent racquetball games. I know that exercise was helpful for my health and a great stress-reliever. I saw the faces of the publisher or corporate execs who had fired me on the ball and I swung away with gusto. I played hard and felt tired when we were done. Too tired to wallow. Racquetball might have kept me sane then. I haven’t played it much since, but it was a lifeline 20 years ago.
Get some help. This isn’t advice based on what I did, but on what I can see in retrospect that I should have done. Getting fired can be a life-changing event that causes stress, anxiety and internal issues. You need to be strong, but getting help isn’t weakness. I might have handled things better with some counseling.
Talk about what you’re feeling. I did talk with some friends and with Mimi, but usually we discussed what happened or my job search. I did not talk enough about the blow to my hopes and my ego, about my anger. Especially since I didn’t get counseling, I should have worked through these issues better with Mimi and some friends. Don’t let your focus on moving ahead keep you from dealing with what’s going on inside.
Talk to a lawyer. I didn’t have a strong legal case and decided not to sue. But talking to a lawyer was still a good idea. The lawyer was a friend and provided good advice that helped me move on and focus on my job search. While I should have dealt with a few more issues, at least I set that one aside.
Self-assessment is difficult but necessary. I spent a lot of that six months examining who I was, what I wanted to do and why anyone should hire me. I considered and decided whether I wanted to stay in the newspaper business (yes, but I was ready to leave if I had to). I pondered whether any of my actions or decisions could have contributed to or prevented my firing. I considered, practiced and delivered how to address my firing in cover letters and job interviews. I know I’m a better journalist today because of the time I spent bluntly assessing my career while I was unemployed.
Be open and honest. I didn’t duck the tough issues in cover letters or interviews. I had been fired. Sometimes I would address the issue openly in a cover letter, if I thought it would help. Sometimes I would bring it up myself in an interview, if it seemed relevant to a discussion point. I’d always address my firing candidly if someone asked about it. I had nothing to hide. I had led my staff in producing outstanding journalism. I had acted honorably. I had strong support in the community. I knew prospective employers were wondering, so I had to address the firing, even when it made me uncomfortable.
Keep the focus on you. Prospective employers aren’t asking for a reference on the previous employers. They’re trying to decide whether to hire you. While I had to address what had happened, trashing my former publisher wouldn’t hurt her a bit, and it would make me appear bitter and defensive, which is no way to get your next job. (They’ll be wondering how you might talk about them someday.) I discussed my actions and how I handled things. Where context was necessary, I kept it brief and impersonal. I said, for instance, that the publisher in Minot had some budget issues I didn’t know the full extent of, which was true. I steered the topic back to my performance, saying that less than two months before I was fired, the publisher had paid six of my seven bonuses for 1992, three of them ahead of schedule, because I had already achieved the goals.
Anger doesn’t help. It would have been easy to become angry. The Minot publisher had wronged me and sidetracked my career. Anger would be understandable but counterproductive. I had to keep that anger on the racquetball court. Anger in an interview would destroy my chances for the next job. Anger at home would alienate the people who were carrying me through that difficult time.
Decide what you want to do. I had spent most of my career to that point climbing the ladder of editing ranks. I held mid-level editing positions at the Des Moines Register and the Kansas City Star and Times and ran the newsroom in Minot. I’d had a good taste of editing stories and managing journalists. I was ready to spend my time talking to people outside the newsroom and telling stories. When I finally got some job offers, my best-paying opportunity was for an editing job. But it was an easy call to take a reporting job that paid a little less. At that point, I enjoyed writing more than managing or editing. The next 12 years that I spent as a reporter brought some of the happiest times of my career. While I returned later to management, leaving it was the right move for that time in my career.
Don’t give in to discouragement. Please note that I didn’t say “don’t get discouraged.” If you don’t feel discouraged, you’re probably repressing or denying, and you may have bigger problems than discouragement. Every long delay frustrated and every flush letter hurt (but not as much as those I never heard from). Allow yourself some disappointment, then get back to work. No time to wallow. And you can’t afford to let discouragement defeat the confidence you need to bring to interviews.
Persevere. I had interviews in Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Nebraska (two of those interviews were actually for jobs in other states, California and South Dakota) before finally landing a job. And I got to the phone-interview or evaluating-newspapers stage with several more (I specifically remember jobs in New Mexico and Michigan that I felt optimistic about). At times it felt like I was on a world failure tour and wouldn’t stop till I’d been rejected in all 50 states. But I picked myself up again and again to make my best pitch on the next trip. The success of a job hunt isn’t measured by how many times someone says no, but by eventually getting the right employer to say yes. You endure a lot of rejection to make it a successful search.
Network. I reached out to friends in journalism around the country. One friend (the late Rich Somerville) was instrumental in lining up an interview. A brother-in-law (Mike McNamara) helped line up another. Others sent leads my way and served as references. Others gave encouragement. This was in the early days of digital communication. I didn’t have social media or email, which make staying in touch so much easier today. But my friends and family helped keep me going with phone calls and letters and occasionally when our paths crossed in person. I cherish their support to this day and try to pay it forward when other friends and family lose their jobs. It’s why I blog frequently with career advice, often focused on job-hunting (I share some of those links at the end of this post).
Conduct your own interview. When you’re unemployed, you feel as though you’re bringing the stench of desperation into the job interview. Confidence is the best deodorant for desperation. In my hotel room before the interview I was nervous, wondering what would happen to my family if I didn’t get a job, fearing that I would never work in journalism again. I fought past the desperation by rehearsing the interview, by convincing myself anew that this person would be lucky to hire me. By the time the interview came, it was a two-way interview. Sure, I needed to answer their questions about why they should hire me. But I also needed to ask questions about why I should come to work there. You don’t want to appear arrogant or over-confident and you don’t want to take over the interview. But ask enough questions that you make them make their case as well. If they’re making their case, you have them at least in a role-play of wanting to hire you. That’s a great antidote for desperation.
Keep working. I wrote at least one freelance story (I sold it to the Grand Forks Herald and a couple of smaller newspapers) and wrote up at least one book proposal (I couldn’t find a publisher). I loved writing and wanted to remain active. The writing was enjoyable work and boosted my spirits. It brought in a trickle of money, but when you’re worried about your severance running out, every drip counts. Even work that doesn’t generate money keeps your skills and your mind fresh. I would certainly be blogging if unemployed today, as Ted Schnell did between jobs.
Stand up for yourself. In a small way, the publisher didn’t honor our agreement. The dollars involved were small, hardly worth fighting for, but I fought. For my own pride, I was not going to accept less than I was owed. The top boss honored the agreement, an important and rare victory in a stretch of too many defeats.
Don’t BS. After she fired me, the publisher announced my departure in the newspaper as though it were a mutual decision, saying I had left over “philosophical differences.” When an Associated Press reporter called to do a story, I answered candidly that I had been fired. There’s no way to make a firing look good. But I thought I looked better answering honestly than I would by being evasive. Besides, I had only been on the job 364 days. I would not have walked out on the community or the staff that quickly or at that time. The truth was better for me in all ways than the publisher’s lie. I don’t know whether she was trying to soften the blow for me or just didn’t want to take the heat for firing me (and also dropping Mimi’s column, a much more unpopular decision). And I didn’t care. When she called me to complain about the AP story (that might have been our last phone call), I told her I could handle the truth, and if she had a problem with the f-word, she should stop firing people.
Take initiative. I scheduled my interview with the Omaha World-Herald before they had a job opening. I was going to be in Essex, Iowa, an hour away, over Christmas and New Year’s. I wrote the top editors, suggesting that I drop by for an interview. They didn’t have a job opening yet, but they hoped to add a reporting position after the first of the year. The executive editor, Mike Finney, was on vacation, but Managing Editor George Edmonson agreed to see me. The senior reporting position they wanted to fill got approved in January. Less than a month after an interview that seemed a long shot at the time, I was back in Omaha for a formal interview. By the end of January, I had the job. I was unsuccessful using the same approach to set up an interview with the Des Moines Register on the same holiday trip, but my self-initiated interview in Omaha might have saved my career.
Relish the work when you get it. I was the happiest staff member in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom for the next five years. I was grateful for my job. I remember going out to lunch with colleagues who spent much of the time whining about this or that issue at work — usually valid complaints but matters that I considered trivial. For the first few months, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to crack something like, “They don’t tell you these things during the interview,” as though I wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d known it wasn’t perfect. I smiled and told them it was going to be a long time before I let the little things bother me about a job. I won’t say the little things have never bothered me since. But I still relish the opportunity to work. Journalism is exciting, fulfilling work and even on a bad day I remain grateful to be back in this game.
You can recover. Six months’ unemployment were tremendously discouraging. I wondered if that stain would stay with me forever. But five years later, an editor from the Des Moines Register called, actually recruiting me (I took the job). The Minot experience hasn’t been a factor in any job changes since then.
Move on. Unemployment can be consuming. The anger of the firing, the introspection of idleness and the focus of the job hunt are intense. Leave them all behind when you finally get your next gig. I probably think and talk less about Minot than the other places I’ve worked. Not out of bitterness, just because I needed to move on. It’s OK to reflect on the experience after 20 years and it’s OK to learn some lessons, but don’t spend too much time looking back.