All posts by killingernest

Journalist/Digital Strategist – Father of 3, married to their mother. A writer and traveler looking for new ways to tell old stories.

Unemployment by the numbers, or my beef with business reporting

Numbers don’t mean a lot when you’re not particularly affected by them. One key to great journalism is to be able to connect people to numbers by making it about their audience. Investors read business reports, because the numbers speak a personal language to them that others cannot necessarily follow. But a good business reporter can connect their readers to the numbers in ways that can make a deep impact on a community.

Knowing that the number of people drawing unemployment aid dipped by 27,000 to just under 4.5 million, the lowest number since late June, is pretty meaningless until you become a statistic. And I wonder how many Americans actually understand the significance.

I certainly didn’t until I read an interesting caveat at the end of this AP story titled:

Hopes rise as jobless claims fall, trade gap eases.

Yes, the numbers dropped significantly, and the reporter actually states that this could indicate that employers are unwilling to make deeper cuts in their workforce.

Yes, hope springs eternal!

But at the end of the article, we find that these numbers do not count millions of Americans receiving extended benefits from emergency programs put in place during the recession. More than five million Americans are listed on these extended benefit rolls.

That’s a meaningful number for me. Not only am I up against a lot of unemployed journalists for rare job openings in the media, but I’m up against a lot of Americans in the general job market as well.

As numbers go, statistics like these can be soul crushing.

And yet these numbers tell a story about where we’re at as an economy and a country. They tell me that I have my work cut out for me, and that I might have to look outside traditional job sources.

I always argued with editors that attracting younger readers to newspapers would mean reaching them through other means than a print paper and by making traditional news coverage more meaningful by putting them into the coverage and showing them how various issues do or will impact their lives.

The problem is that most traditional newspaper coverage is written for and to a mature audience. Most publishers are loathe to disturb the 50+ set for whom number reporting has remained unchanged since they purchased their first houses many years ago.

Two of the best show-don’t-tell journalism examples I can think of in the last two years happened on the radio. This American Life’s “Giant Pools of Money,” and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy” made for some of the most informative journalism I’ve seen, read or listened to ever. Period.

Yes, I’m a thirty something, and yes, This American Life appeals to my news delivery preferences. (I like to download episodes to my iPod Touch and listen in transit or during workouts or first thing in the morning while checking E-mail and the social networks) Still, the way the economic situation was simplified and brought to life in a full-hour show opened my eyes to the greater potential in number-related storytelling. Namely that numbers are a backdrop until you connect the impacted with the actual cause or causes. Once you’ve made this connection, the audience can follow the numbered pathway to its conclusion. Or lack thereof, as this continuing economic nightmare continues to show.

And if radio can do great show-don’t-tell journalism, newspapers ought to be able to take it to a whole new level.

Tim

A little righteous indignation goes a long way, and I don’t want a new career

Went for a run with my buddy Jon in the beautiful North Hills of Missoula this morning. It’s a great dumping ground for a lot of life’s problems. They just don’t seem to stand up against the early morning beauty of the trails, the cool air and the mountain vistas.

Jon is a good filter too. Letting the frivolous stuff fall through and managing to retain the nuggets that he often relays back to me in technicolor through his own rich perspective.

Today’s run topics were anger and how not to let go of a dream.

Anger because there is a sense of righteous indignation one feels when their livelihood is taken away, and it’s tricky to balance that anger and focus it into something positive as opposed to the naked anger of a bruised ego that might turn into a hatred of those individuals one perceives to be responsible for taking away one’s livelihood.

Executioners no longer wear masks, but it doesn’t mean we’re permitted to blame them for pulling the trigger. However, a righteous anger at a rotten situation can serve to build a fire of purpose under one’s rear end.

My complaint to Jon was that I want to make sure I’m a practitioner of a good and healthy anger rather than a hateful and vengeful anger. As in there is already enough destruction here, so let’s be a builder rather than a wrecking ball.

The second portion of our run, conveniently when I’m most out of breath, centered on the topic of how not to let a dream go, or more pointedly, how to politely tell people that while you appreciate their offer to go to work as a receptionist at their dog-grooming clinic, your dream remains intact.

This is a bigger issue than I imagined. From initial texts encouraging me to look at the bright side and all the new options that are available to “It’s a brand-new day for you!” I was a bit overwhelmed by the offers of employment from almost every vocational possibility.

My problem is that I don’t like to make people feel bad, and I find it difficult to explain to people that I didn’t study journalism in school for four years to take a sales job. That just sounds mean to me, especially in a climate where good jobs are so difficult to find.

As my resume has at times shown, I’ve worked a lot of jobs. From bus driver to barista and oil change expert to contractor, I hold dozens of certificates and a lot of forgotten experience.

But I view most of that as the proving grounds on which my writing career would rise or fail.

Journalism, aside from being the perfect solution to my life-long desire to watch people and catalog human behavior, was a great way to write every day and to learn to pay attention to details and grammar and spelling.

While only one of many writing disciplines, journalism fulfilled many of my desires in a creative and fun career.

This blog can’t possibly convey all my feelings about journalism, but I wanted to point out that all the job offers and promises of keeping an eye open for me are completely meaningful and appreciated.

And many careers are honorable and even desirable, but I’m just not ready to give up the dream yet.

Tim

The first day of the rest of your life

Getting laid off brings out the well wishers in droves. It also seems to be an automatic funnel for advice of every imaginable kind, including those appropriate yet cliche words, “welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.”

I got a text within an hour of walking out of my old office that said just that.

Nevermind.

No advice can prepare you for the issue of how to tell your kids that life just turned upside down.

After calling my wife and inviting her to the next great adventure in our already adventure-full marriage, my thoughts turned to how my kids might handle this news.

We decided to meet at a brewery about a mile from our house. The thought being that an hour or so prep over a beer or two would provide all the answers we needed in this new and untried parenting situation.

Unfortunately beer is a depressant and doesn’t always provide the inspiration one might hope.

Just to note, my wife is absolutely amazing. She might be cooler under fire than anyone I’ve ever seen. Not much surprises her, but when you’re married to me, nothing should surprise you. It helps that we’ve known each other since third grade. Something about the consistency of years has tempered us into best friends able to handle some crazy turns. I don’t like to test those boundaries, but I have to say that Cheryl has withstood more challenging situations in her life than anyone should have to. She is my hero.

Still, we stood around a standing table at the brewery and sipped half-heartedly on a couple of Imperial Pilsners trying to float some ideas on how to approach the kids.

Straight up: Dad got laid off today kids, we’re up shit creek without a paddle.
Downplayed: Dad’s job is changing, and he’ll be spending more time at home, yay!
Around the Bush: Dad got laid off, but we were really looking for a change anyway, right?
Soften the Blow: Hey, dad won’t be working at the newspaper anymore, but that means you can run track, because now dad can pick you up after practice.

In the end, we sat the kids on the couch and invoked a practice my family has done since my grandparents escaped the Soviet Union some 60-years-ago. Something that could easily smell of desperation if it wasn’t so consistently fruitful in our lives. We prayed together.

Then we talked together and tried to assure each other that all would be all right, but we were pretty straight about all the uncertainty, and we committed to being understanding even if we have to cut privileges in our lives for a while like cable television and eating out at restaurants.

The kids, like their mother, are resilient, and perhaps more important, they believe in me absolutely. It’s enough to bring a dad on the brink of some kind of new day to tears, but I figured we had enough drama for one day.

Tim

Are you ready for the next adventure?

The phone call came at a little after 2 p.m. on the Monday before Labor Day. I glanced down from my computer screen to see my boss’s name flashing across my phone’s small display in large digital type.

It was at that instant I realized something was wrong. My boss often had meetings on Mondays and rarely came in. In fact, I realized she was in the office before I was that day. Like puzzle pieces falling into place or a mystery about to be revealed, I watched something flash before my eyes.

I picked up the receiver, and she said, “Can you come to my office, we want to talk to you.”

Sheer dread as I laid the receiver down.

I grabbed my notebook and a pen just for appearances, then everything went numb, the lights dimmed a little, and a sort of low-grade buzz developed in my ears. Probably high blood pressure, or so I’m told.

I didn’t hear much of the actual layoff. A few words. Your position, luxury, cutbacks, budget, sorry. Whatever.

Just tried to hold still and breathe through it like you do on the first drop on a big roller coaster.

It’s strange to just let go of everything you were working on, a load that is almost unbearable at times is now a pile of useless rubble, as there is no one else in the world who could possibly pick up where you left off. Or so you tell yourself.

Cleaned out a few things I wanted on my computer, handed over my key card and my company credit card and walked out.

A brief conversation with a former co worker in the parking lot got me thinking about this job as my past for the first time, and by the time I started the car and dialed in my wife’s phone number on the cell phone, I had a handle on the fact that I was just laid off.

Thanks God for kids, a wife and a mortgage. When you are forced out of a career that is so much more than a career, it’s good therapy to have to consider others over yourself.

My mind raced as I waited for my wife to pick up the phone. In those split seconds I was analyzing my reaction, the few questions my former employers asked and the future all at once. I saw it all go down again, but this time I was sitting on the window sill watching the boss and her layoff assistant struggle between pity and remorse. Or maybe I just thought that.

I found myself thinking about opportunities and excuses all at once. Some sort of apology I could give my wife for my failure before she would have a chance to think it.

I was beyond feeling sorry for myself and not once did I feel the embarrassment some thought I should feel. Bewildered but not surprised, I reached a conclusion that I had known this all along and that I had not planned accordingly. Whatever one needs to tell one’s self, I guess.

“Hello.”
– Hi babe, how are you?
“Fine.”
-Are you ready for the next adventure?

The Left and Leaving

“All this time lingers, undefined. Someone choose who’s left and who’s leaving. Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me: some matches, a blanket, this pain in my chest, the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away. I wait in 4/4 time. Count yellow highway lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” ~ Jon K. Sampson of the Weakerthans

This song sums up journalism so much for me. Of course for Mr. Sampson it seems to sum up his experience playing a hometown venue or some such meaningful place. Songs are beautiful for the fact that they can produce so many different meanings and emotions for different people.

If I had to make a list of all that journalism gave me, it would look and sound an awful lot like what the soldiers had in Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried.” Journalism, like few other jobs, packs an emotional wallop and leaves you both humbled and under the burden of a weight most would not choose to carry.

For the last five years I’ve watched those who left, those who are leaving and those who were given the boot reach blessed obscurity, though I know no one who’d actually call it that.

They were the best and the brightest, the innovators and the ones who would not, could not toe the line. Today they are blessing others with their prowess, their imagination and limitless ideas. I miss them.

Today I’m counting yellow highway lines and relying on them to help me find a home.

Tim