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Archive for May, 2009

I am bad at being on furlough

Monday, May 18th, 2009

I don’t know about other people, but being on furlough is hard for me. It’s not just the “uh, how will I pay my bills this month?” difficulty you’d expect. What’s harder for me is to be excommunicated from my colleagues and my daily routine. Even leaving town isn’t enough to make cutting off communication easy. Maybe it’s because this is an insanely busy time on the education beat, but it’s hard to walk away, not look back and genuinely not care for five days. Monday was day one of my second five-day furlough this year.

See, even though I’m not in the newsroom, or even in the city, I’m still following the news. I mean, as I said on Twitter in someone’s reply to me posting about some of the education news that broke today, “I can’t like, not, read news. One of the perks of what I do is I’m interested in it — not just in getting paid to be interested.” That is to say, I would have to step away from all media and people for a week to really not “work.” And that’s beyond a furlough, it’s punishment: Reading newspapers, magazines and Web sites is something I enjoy. Education is a topic I’m interested in reading about, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing about it. Plus, I process the world in a such a way that I see story ideas everywhere. I was talking to my mom about her job, and I commented, “Wow, that would be a great basis for a story: What’s the stupidest rule your company ever instituted?” (For the record, I’m pretty sure hers, which she is planning to leave, wins: They have to get a manager to sign off on each potty break!)

So today was a test of my ability to step away. … And I fail.

If I didn’t have computer access, it might be easier. But as I did, I wanted to check in at jconline and see what’s going on. It’s my community, and I’m interested in the news about it. Although some young journalists probably don’t feel this way, I’m not paid to be interested in the news where I live, I just am. I would read the paper/Web site where I live even if I didn’t work in local media. Plus, most of the education news was stuff I wrote last week. But there was one story following up an event I previewed. I posted a link to on Twitter because to me it’s interesting a community rallied behind laid off teachers to raise $98K to save some of their jobs. I’d be interested in that whether it was local or a few states away. It’s a cool story. Then, there was an announcement from the state superintendent about graduation rate incentives I was genuinely interested in because I knew it was coming. It’s a topic I’m interested in, so I’m going to read about it.

So, I was flipping through my RSS feeds, Twitter and my daily list of sites I visit out of habit this morning. And I came across a blog posting that said one of our local school superintendents was going to be hired by another district. This created a dilemma. No one else at the J&C would be reading that site to see that blog post. So, we’d almost certainly get scooped. In a normal week, I’d post that information and link to the blog from my schools beat blog. But that blog is off-limits this week. Part of me thought when I saw the posting, “Well serves them right for not paying me for a week!” But the bigger part of me said, it’s wrong to know and withhold that information and intentionally let us get scooped. Because even though I’m not working this week, people still associate our education coverage with me.

So, I forwarded the blog post to my editors from my personal e-mail and moved on with my day. Then, I got a curt note back saying not to have any further communication while on furlough. To be honest, that annoyed me. Would it be better had I not just forwarded them the note the same way I’d have forwarded it to anyone with an interest in it? Should I have forwarded it to my contact at the paper located in that city, because I am allowed to contact that person but not my own colleagues? Should I wait a week and a half until I return and it’s old news to say, oh yeah, by the way, I knew this was going to happen last week but I didn’t tell anyone.

I understand the purpose, I guess. They can’t call me. I can’t work. They feel like they’re following the letter of the law. Blah blah blah. Whatever.

But they’re ignoring the reality of the Web and the realities of this business.

For example, I posted the link to the blog post with a message on who was reporting it from my Twitter account. Does that constitute work? I think some of my followers would be interested in it. I pass on links to interesting stories, education and otherwise, nearly daily. But what if people I work with follow me on Twitter, which they do, or are friends on Facebook, which they are, and one happens to see my updates in their news feed. Are they breaking protocol? Am I??

Which is to say, what am I supposed to do with all the lines between work and my life that just blend?

I don’t consider my personal Twitter account work-related. I don’t want them to either. I was on Twitter before they’d heard about it. Any benefit the company gains from links I post or community interaction or sourcing or anything is purely tangential to my being there because I enjoy the conversations and community. Am I not supposed to post anything from the J&C this week because it might be construed as “work”?

And what about Facebook? Just today, I got a friend request from a colleague. Whether or not that person knew I was on furlough is irrelevant. Should I ignore it until I return next week? Should I accept it because, well, again, my Facebook persona is mine. But what if we happen to mention something related to work? Will I or they be in trouble?

And in reverse, what if someone I know to be on furlough contacts me through one of those channels, as has happened. Do I ignore their chat window? Do I block them on gmail from seeing my status? Do I not read their tweets? Do I skip over their facebook updates?

And what about my colleagues who are also my friends. My new roommate is a co-worker. My best friends in this city are, too. Is talking about work taboo? If I wasn’t out of town, would lunch or dinner together be off-limits? How far do you take this?

Also, I can’t, or rather don’t want to, shut off each of my dozens of google alerts that come to my personal e-mail account about the districts/cities/people I cover. It’s inconvenient. Plus, as I said above, I am interested in what’s happening here and in the topic I cover. Beyond work, It’s something I’m interested in following. I can, and did, put on an e-mail responder on my work e-mail and temporarily stop forwarding it to my blackberry. That was easy. But turning off everything else is more complicated and cumbersome to turn back on later.

And should I block jconline from my phone or any computer? It’s my natural compulsion when I am idle waiting on someone to check out the mobile site for news. It’s the natural site I start typing in the address bar when I sit at a computer. It just is.

All of this doesn’t even hit on the fact that, let’s be honest, if I came back from an 11-day absence without a clue as to what happened while I was gone, my boss would probably be pretty annoyed with me. (The furlough is just this week. But I’m off through next Tuesday because Memorial Day and then I’m working the following Saturday.)

I get the point of the furlough. Keep jobs, save money, blah blah. But it’s bad for the people left behind and it’s bad for those doing the leaving. I’m in Ohio now, then going to Florida for a week. But even that doesn’t make up for the guilt that I feel leaving behind all my work for colleagues to pick up. It sucks. I know it sucks because like all my co-workers, I’ve been helping pick up the slack since the first furloughs were announced earlier this year. I am glad to have job, which is what I tell everyone who asks how much it sucks (which is a surprisingly large number of people). Compared to the alternative, it’s great. But it’s hard to just really step away and not care. I do care. If I didn’t care, I would quit. Because, as I’ve said before, I don’t get paid enough to not believe in and enjoy what I do. And since I’m getting paid even less these days, the fact that I do — on most days — like what I do is one of the top incentives to stick with this and see this business through the rough days.

I’m going to try to be a better furloughed employee. I feel like Bart Simpson writing, “I will not have contact with co-workers while I am on furlough. I will not have contact with co-workers while I am on furlough. I will not…” But as such, I am wondering who will tell the features editor that I ran out of time last week to do the column that’s due this Friday and is supposed to run next Monday? All the news I had to chase last Friday, which kept me hours over when I wanted to leave, made me forgot to send her a note. So she’s going to be pretty upset when she looks for it Friday and it’s not there. But, I guess the right response, given my experience earlier today is just to say, even though it feels — and is — completely irresponsible, “oh well, it’s not my problem.” At least until next Wednesday when I get back. But, that’s the problem with a furlough. You can’t just dip in and dip out of this business. It doesn’t work that way, especially when your job and your life are all tangled up in the Web. I don’t make the rules. I’m just trying to get the hang of following them.

Newspapers report their woes because it is a story

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

I read a story in the New York Times this week that piqued my interest. The basic gist: Even though TV news also is losing audience at a rapid pace, you’re not likely to hear about it. But newspapers? There isn’t a person who pays attention to the news, whether from TV or print or online exclusively, who doesn’t know newspapers are in trouble.

The article is based on a University of Pennsylvania study that looked at the issue in some of the top papers and TV news shows. The study found: Looking at print, broadcast and cable news stories over a nine-year span, there were 900 stories on declining readership that appeared in newspapers, but only 22 stories on declining news viewing that appeared on television. You can read the whole study (I haven’t yet) in this PDF.

“While television ignored its own drop in viewership, it did report on loss of print readers. There were 38 national television news broadcast devoted to declines in newspaper readership, mostly on CNBC and FOX News. Newspapers, in comparison, ran 95 stories on the decline of television news viewing; over half of these coming from three sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.”

You could argue that all this reporting our own woes is contributing to the demise. Or that it’s narcissistic: Woe is me, the newspaperman whose newspaper may not exist next decade. Really, both of those are probably fair points to an extent. But that doesn’t make it any less of an important story. Plus, the real story is that as a whole fewer people are paying attention to the news. And what does that mean for our country and our communities?

What made me realize this is the number of people on my beat in the past month who have stopped to ask me how our paper is doing. Questions range from, “What’s the deal with newspapers?” to “How many stories a day do you write these days?” to “When is your furlough?” to “I bet you’ve been hit hard with layoffs.” to “How closely are you tied in to the fortunes of Gannett?” It’s not just idle curiosity, however, on the part of rubber necking community members. Many of these questions come from leaders who are concerned that what we do will not get done. That’s why they’re watching with interest and concern.

One person even told me his son wants to be a sports columnist. I didn’t know what advice to give him. Do I, for the sake of the kid’s financial security, tell him now might be a good time to reconsider? Or do I, for the sake of the need for someone to do this job in the future, whatever format it takes, tell him “Awesome! Talk to our sports editor about an internship.” (For what it’s worth, I’m still optimistic enough that I chose the latter.)

I was stopped Monday after a school board meeting by one of the district administrators. He and I work together a lot, and I had just explained to him I would be off next week for my furlough so if anything happened to please contact my editor. (I also wanted to check and make sure he wasn’t planning anything crazy like announcing his retirement. Not that he would but one of my good friends, an education reporter at another paper, had just that happen while he was on furlough last week!)

The administrator said he was really concerned about who will do what newspapers do if newspapers do not exist. “I worry about what it will mean for democracy to lose the thoughtful, analytical reporting,” he told me.

Me too.

Even though it’s painful to read about another newspaper closing, another round of layoffs, a second or more furlough, the public should know. It is a story. As much as the county commissioners doing something, or the Mayor deciding something, or the school board cutting something, newspapers have the potential to affect, in a very real way, our communities.

I think that is part of why we hear more about newspaper concerns than TV. Not to discount the work of TV journalists, because some do great work and service. But to be honest, in my experience and your market may be different, local TV doesn’t hold a candle to the local paper. (I would put both the national news shows and bigger newspapers, which the study above looked at, on a different plane altogether.) You can’t tell the same thing in a 30-second story that you can in 30 or even 10 inches. Although there are multiple broadcasts, they’re not reporting more news, and what gets reported is shallower. I can give you examples of important stories that affect hundreds or thousands of children and families that I have written within the past month that our TV station has yet to report.

Even beyond the local reporters writing the news, there are other things newspapers do that no one else, at least for now, is doing. A TV broadcast isn’t going to run a legal ad detailing the planned building next your home. Nor is it going to tell you who among your regular neighbors died or was born today. They might highlight the worst restaurant atrocities once a year during sweeps, but we run the inspections and violations every week. There are other everyday things, even beyond our No. 1 government watch dog role that takes us to meetings and stake outs and court houses, that communities will miss if not for a newspaper. Making sure the reporting needed to produce this journalism gets done, in whatever format it lands, is important. That’s why I’m not concerned about TV’s demise the way I am about newspapers. That’s why it is a bigger story, even if, truthfully, it’s a shared problem.