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On Friday a friend and former colleague posted these warm but ironic words on his Facebook page:
“Happy Labor Day weekend everyone. Let’s hope we still have jobs on Monday.”
His twist, you should know, comes from having been through the start-up, layoff pattern that so besets journalism in the digital age. You hear the bulletins of print operations lopping jobs, but so many of those we know and love years ago leaped to new ventures on the Web only to find themselves unwanted before the ink was dry on their paychecks.
America Online, The Sporting News, Yahoo/Rivals…I have seen people for whom I have immense respect be told their admirable services no longer were needed. And that’s just the headline of a story with many, many paragraphs.
As bad as many of you have found the labor market on a general basis, those of us in this business have found it to be incomprehensibly awful, because many employers trying to protect stockholders or portfolios find it necessary to jettison workers, force unpaid time off and reduce salaries and benefits. The older and more experienced you are, often the less you have mattered.
These are not meant to be pleas for pity or lament of the world as we know it. But I have soaring compassion for people whose industries have diminished or died in the face of the unyielding serendipity of the marketplace. We still supply, but not so many of you demand.
I choose Labor Day – an amorphous time on the calendar when our employers bless many of us with paid time off – for these points because this holiday seems both appropriate by definition and contradictory in practice.
Don’t you get the feeling these days that most of us celebrate just having a job and not necessarily building a career? Aren’t we modern-day Damocles when it comes to employment? We never know when someone is going to snip the hair holding the sword that can send us into our own version of hell.
Here’s another irony for me: This summer I celebrated 40 years of full-time employment in this business, beginning the summer after my sophomore year in college, when I elbowed my way into a 60-hour-a-week stint at the Hattiesburg American, a daily evening paper in Mississippi that had started to use new color presses and was about to launch a Sunday paper. The American’s sports staff needed help. I volunteered. But that was the story of how I was lured to this industry in the first place, raising my hand to do a job that had no one else particularly queuing up.
Maybe you’ve heard the story that I began my long association with ink, images and information during my junior year in high school, sitting at our kitchen table and in longhand pencil-on-paper – I had little confidence in my typing speed – writing stories on Shelby County High School sports events for The Shelby Sentinel.
Even then it wasn’t so much as I applied and was hired – unpaid, it should be noted – I simply started providing coverage, and the newspaper apparently liked what I gave them – desperation, we should presume – and printed my ham-handed and hackneyed prose with astonishingly little editing.
The next year, former Judge Fred Bond asked me to join him broadcasting high school games on WCND-AM, a job I lovingly pursued with the misconception that I soon would replace Cawood Ledford, albeit keeping my hair.
In view of that pursuit, I took to Southern Mississippi for a degree, and the confidence I had in my ability to write a story for the ink-on-paper medium led me back to the path that was intended. That decision has opened doors for me at every turn during parts of five decades.
I see my story as a “God thing” because so many with even more experience and capability have walked away and not returned to doing something they both loved and were darned good at doing, most during the prime years of their lives.
A few weeks ago, my old newspaper in Orlando told its editor that his services no longer were needed and eliminated his job. Before that, he had been the managing editor, and when he was promoted, that job was eliminated.
The Courier-Journal’s longtime editor, Benny Ivory, abruptly retired earlier this summer. His position has not been filled on a permanent basis. Dozens of others like him made similar decisions.
So you can understand why I look at Labor Day with some antipathy. A holiday designed to celebrate the American workforce and allow appreciation for commitment and contribution is now, as my former colleague simply stated, a time to celebrate job retention.
I’ve been blessed to do something for which I have had passion and affinity. I only wish the wide-eyed folks who follow would be equally rewarded.