Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Why I keep doing journalism

They keep laying me off, and I keep on coming back.

Maybe I’m nuts, or maybe I just love being a part of things, but I keep trying to rebuild a career in newspapers/websites. Maybe it’s the best job I can ever imagine having, the one I dreamed of having on those nights in the big postal facility, where I was just another number whose life didn’t matter to the top brass.

I’d dream of working somewhere in which my work actually had an effect. You don’t know what that’s like until you read a letter to the editor, and know a story you laid out and wrote a headline for inspired someone to write to the paper or to take some other action. If you are good enough to have a column, as I was, and could comment on things, you get such a kick when people wrote in about something you wrote, either in approval or in disapproval.

To me, it showed that they were paying attention and had read what I had written, and that’s what really mattered to me.

There have been such good days, when it all came together and the next day we on the news staff did a paper we could be proud of. Like the night Osama bin Laden was killed. Now, the death of nearly any other person is a tragedy, but the man who did so much to ruin the 2000s for so many people got his just deserts. And I was in the newsroom that night and helped make it real for the readers.

On the most terrible day I have ever lived through, I was working at a newspaper. Sept. 11, 2001. It was horrible watching the events unfold on TV, and then have to present them in the newspaper. I wanted to cry, I wanted to walk around and rage against it all. All those people, those planes, those children, those widows, those losses.

But while Americans may have lost those moments of unity, I was amazed at how our society pulled together. We didn’t overthrow the government; we didn’t descend into chaos. We went to work, and restored as best we could the society we lived in. At the newspaper, we kept the editions coming, day after day, amid our worries about friends, family and colleagues. We kept people informed. We were journalists. We are journalists.

And I am proud to be one of them.

Today, I labor as a freelancer. I am still learning about bridges and bayous and road construction and projects that were first started back when I was still working for the post office, but are now finally coming to fruition. During research for a story, I’ll go through county commission minutes from the 1990s and read sometimes about the subdivision I live in, which back then was little more than a land use request on the agenda, and which someone said would destroy the region. Today, lots of people live there, and it’s doing OK. And Florida is still here.

I was writing about a project to remove and replace a bridge recently, and found mention back in the early 1990s of the need to replace the bridge. Twenty years later, the work is finally about to start happening. The story appeared in the newspaper recently.

The thrill of the byline is still a bit fun for me. Seeing my name in print, and not before the words “wanted in bank robbery,” means that I’m someone. Maybe a small someone, but still a person who matters in his own small way.

Some years ago, a reporter was substitute teaching at a middle school, and told the kids that he worked for a newspaper. He was amazed. The kids thought that was so cool, he wrote. They wanted to know how it happened.

A couple of years ago, I was working for a startup news site and following some kids who were working on a project. A boy asked me, “Are you an interview guy?” Another asked, “Am I going to be on TV?” Kids today are so media-savvy, and I remember one little girl who was so eager to get her picture on the site, she was edging into every picture I took.

As for me, sometimes I’m amazed that I can apply for jobs at newspapers and get seriously considered. There was a time when people would tell me no one would even look at my resume. Today, I am usually a finalist; maybe someday I’ll get that wonderful call again: “How’d you like to join our team?”

They say journalists are the least-liked people out there. Every day, I go out and try to get the information. Some folks are friendly and open with me; a very, very few refuse to talk to me. I remember those who say, “Sure, what do you want to know?” They make the job easier.

Back when I was in the post office, people laughed at my ambitions and hopes for the future. My dream of doing something different, something that mattered, making a living at it and feeling fulfilled at the end of the day sounded like more “swing-room bravery,” like the people who’d whine and gripe about their supervisors, but bow and scrape when they were back at work.

When I saw my path, I stopped caring about my bosses. I remember that to build some experience, have some fun and beard the lion in his den I developed and published my own underground employee newsletter at the postal facility I worked at. Called “Samizdat,” It was a way to let off some steam, show off my skills and say the things I always wanted to say to the brass in the facility and in the larger Postal Service.

Samizdat publications were underground news outlets circulated in the old Soviet Union on mimeograph machines or retyped. The idea was to get around the government restrictions to tell the people what was really going on. I felt that I was a poor inheritor of that mantle, but it was a more catchy name than something like “GMF Gazette.”

I probably violated a few copyrights along the way, though I refused to plagiarize; I’d summarize stories I read elsewhere and include a healthy dose of my opinions on the issues in the facility. Then I’d drop off the copies in the break room, sit back and watch.

People would grab my newsletter, which was a darn sight better than the pitiful effort put out by postal management. I even ginned up a “newsletter war” in the GMF, touting my superior contacts and skills. Even members of management approached me and complimented me on a great newsletter. I was doing it. I was doing journalism and having an impact.

I was so proud of my work, I even sent copies of my newsletters to the postmaster general, but he didn’t seem impressed. Still, I bet he knew my name by this time.

In June 1994, I decided it was time to move on in my life and career. The saddest thing was giving up Samizdat. It was my baby, a labor of love, but it was time to move on.

At the time, I told my parents, “It’s time to achieve.” I was 33 years old, and I wanted to embark on a new career while I was still “young and brilliant” (my words) and able to land new positions.

It wasn’t an auspicious time to enter the news business. I had been told repeatedly during my college years that journalism was “dying” and that the few jobs remaining would be parceled out to women and minorities, and that white males had little chance of getting into the newsroom. My career proved the danger of believing what uninformed people say.

I began to land jobs in the news business, moving up the food chain and gaining skills and experience, as well as a love of working for a newspaper. Until the day I was laid off in August 2008, it seemed like I was going to grow old at the newspaper.

Well, today it seems that I may grow old in journalism. Call me crazy, but when the game’s afoot, I want to be there.


April 28, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , , , , , ,

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