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Leaving the newspaper biz, but leaving the door open

I no longer work for a newspaper. That’s actually old news by now. But I continue to be asked about it because, well, I haven’t made it official or explained myself here. So here’s the short and long (sorry) of it.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, was my last day as education reporter at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, and potentially at a newspaper. I started Aug. 18 at a new job at Angie’s List Magazine as an associate editor. Before we commence the tar-and-feather “how could you leave journalism??” bit… I didn’t leave journalism at all. I found another niche within it at a magazine that is part of a growing company doing work I think serves a good purpose; it’s actually an award-winning magazine with solid original reporting, so a company newsletter it’s not. I’m still writing and reporting, just about more consumer affairs issues and less (or rather not-at-all) about school boards. I’m also honing a different set of writing and editing skills for a different type of audience, and I’m working in a very different type of setting and keeping regular office hours.

Why change? (Here comes the long part, full of very honest self-reflection)

I started at the J&C less than a month after college graduation, a lucky land when you consider the market I graduated into. I honestly expected to stay there a year or two at most and move on to a bigger place or a different type of job online. But there were things I liked and opportunities that I had to tell some compelling stories that kept me here. Also, there wasn’t exactly a glut of jobs to move into it, as companies —- my own included —- froze wages and positions and tossed aside thousands of more talented people. Although my performance reviews have always been positive, I earned a combined total of about a 5-percent raise in the 3.5 years I worked there, and it’s way less if you subtract out the combined three weeks of furloughs this year and last. I was underpaid when I was hired, and although I felt fortunate to be employed in this industry, and for a long time I loved what I did, I felt like I was working more and feeling less appreciated. I would occasionally troll the job boards and throw my hat in the ring for jobs I wasn’t qualified for, many of which never got filled. I had a few legitimate bites, but not at times I was ready to go or places I wanted to go to. But at my third annual review, I told my editor I’d be looking this summer. I remember my eyes got teary-eyed when I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in journalism. Why? See all those reasons above, and the rest of this way-too-long blog entry on why I considered leaving — and why I chose to stay.

There absolutely are many things I’m proud of from my time at the J&C. I’m most proud, understandably, of completing the “Miller: A Change in Course” series, which traced the underlying issues and followed a failing elementary school through a year of major changes in an effort to cast off that “failing” label bestowed by the state and federal government. I spent a year working with a photographer at my paper (who incidentally also just left the paper) to chronicle daily life in the school and how everything from the accountability laws to parental involvement affected their outcomes. To be honest, if I hadn’t been granted the access from sources and buy-in from editors, I probably would have been penning this farewell to my job post last summer. But this was a once-in-a-career opportunity to tell an untold story, and I know it helped inform my community and helped change the tenor of conversation about what it means to be a failing school these days. If nothing else, I hope I accomplished my goal of putting the issue in perspective and putting faces on the label. If I never write another newspaper story again, I’ll always be proud of this series.

But I’m also proud of the lesser stories I told.

My 15-year-old nephew asked me recently about the crazy things I’ve seen in my job. I told him about seeing a dead body beside a burned out vehicle while standing on a grid-locked interstate as police officers chased dollar bills sailing in the wind. I told him about covering fires when it was so cold the water shot out of the aerial only to descend like snowflakes and gloss the road below. I told him about some the same stories I’ve told scores of high school and middle school classes as a career day speaker: the teacher who had duct-taped a student’s mouth shut, a superintendent who had furnished his home with electronics and tools bought on the school’s dime, and the time I stood just below an overflowing dam with water gushing against the side of the bridge where I stood and how the Department of Natural Resources guys let me go out on the rescue boat as they took in people off roof tops on the flooded river. I told him about getting to cover speeches by all three Clintons — Bill, Hillary and Chelsea — and about the other extreme, the interviews with parents who recently lost their children to bus crashes or murder or many things in between.

The truth is those are the stories that stand out. Most of the thousands of stories I wrote in my three-plus years were far less exciting and make far poorer anecdotes. They came out of or led into the hundreds of school board meetings. (By my estimates, I attended about 325 school board meetings and spent 20+ full days — 24-hour days! — in board meetings.) These pieces were about budgets, policies, building projects, property taxes and funding (or increasingly, lack of funding). They were about innovative classroom projects, gifted educators or motivated students and sometimes the cross section of all three. My beat was education, after all; though, I thought it was appropriate when the job listing to replace me came with the caveat they were hiring a K-12 education/general assignment reporter. Read my previous paragraphs and you’ll quickly see although I specialized in education, it was hardly what I was confined to in my work. At a community newspaper, every reporter comes with a “/General Assignment” job description.

I don’t know if I can say I changed lives with my work, but I do know that the job changed mine. I’m a much humbler person now that I’ve seen all the amazing things other people have accomplished. I’m a much more thankful one after writing about the horrific things that other people have suffered through. I’m also more confident: I know who to ask when I want to know something, and I know what I’m entitled to know and how to politely press for it.

But it wasn’t all change for the better. If it had been, my new job wouldn’t be so different from my old one.

I don’t want my co-workers to read this and get offended. You all will know more than anyone else how much work went into getting our information out. I appreciate your friendship and humor and the way we all pushed ourselves insanely hard to do good work, which we did. This truly is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I changed, personally, and this job was no longer as good of a fit as it was when I was 21 and fresh out of college. For starters, I simply wasn’t growing any more. I had peaked in the position, and there wasn’t any other beat or job available at the newspaper that I’d have any interest in at this time. Had they added a social media coordinator, I might have stuck around. (I was already pretty much leading that charge on top of my day job, and in my poor timing left just as they started taking it seriously.) But just as likely, I probably would not have stayed. Because it was time to move on.

You see, working three years and eight months at a daily newspaper, especially the size of the one where I was employed, stressed me out. I’m not burned out — yet — but the go-go-go pace and inability to feel accomplished or appreciated was burning me out. I watched my mother go through that grind as management in corporate America; she’s still paying the health consequences today, a decade after she quit to spend more time with her family — and she made a heck of a lot more money than I did. As a perfectionist, the pressure was intense not just from my bosses or sources but also from myself. As much I wanted to keep offering to pick up more stories, stay later and cover odd shifts to help out, it grates on you after awhile. It felt like no matter how many good stories I landed or projects I completed, no matter how many ways I jumped in beyond my job description or how many times I offered to “make a call on that” or “get something for online” so someone else didn’t have to, it was never enough. The news business has an insatiable appetite. I couldn’t live up to my own expectations, and every unreturned phone call or art assignment that fell through had started to make me feel like I was letting down my bosses and, more than that, myself. My heart wasn’t in it the way it once had been, so to be fair, I probably wasn’t at the top of my game anymore. I think the best way to describe the feeling is what I told one of my professors when she congratulated me on my new job: It had begun to feel like an abusive relationship. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but I kept coming back because I didn’t know what else to do, and I believed somewhere in there was something I once loved and thought I might still. I still do love the meaningfulness of newspaper work. After all the things I said in this graph, it’s worth noting I at least knew every day that what I did mattered. That was the thing that kept me coming back and could have kept me, except…

Speaking of relationships, that’s the other thing that changed for me. I’m in one. A great one. For more than a year now. And he’s not a journalist. He has a good job, and it’s a mostly 8-5, so our schedules were often opposites when I had meetings or had to stay late to finish a story, which meant I kept him up past his bedtime way too often (although he never complained). He also lived an hour away from me, which meant that I usually could only be with him on weekends. So when I also took a part-time job on nights and weekends earlier this year (to recover the earnings I lost to company-wide furloughs), it really cut into how much I got to spend with him. I remember one weeknight he drove up to visit, and I had expected to get off around 7, and instead I came home around 10:30 because I was finishing a story; I remember crying because I felt so bad that he had waited for me and missed out on doing something else. I felt guilty every time I had to stay late or go in on a weekend to finish something up. Similar scenes played out, minus the tears, dozens of times. He’s an amazing guy, and though he’s totally gracious and never actually complained about it, he doesn’t deserve that. I didn’t either, even though I knew that was the expectation when I chose this business. So this move put me closer to him in proximity and scheduling, which means a much healthier work-life balance than I’ve ever enjoyed.

So the new job, eh? Well, my health insurance kicked in this week, so I guess that means I’m official. I also put in my request for the paid time off I’ll earn this year, and for the first time since college, I’ll be home for Christmas. (I worked Christmas day two of my three winters at the newspaper.) In fact, because of the days the company gives everyone off and the PTO I’ll be able to take that week, I will be off from Dec. 23 until Jan. 3. Beyond not working holidays, my magazine work is normal business hours, and despite adding a 40-minute commute to my routine, I still come out ahead in personal time because I truly work 8-5. Besides, I like NPR, so I don’t mind the drive. Aside from that, the company is laid back and encourages socializing. It’s also pretty health-conscious, with an on-site gym and personal trainer, as well as a slew of exercise classes which I haven’t quite investigated yet because I’m still getting used to my actual day job.

As for the work, I’m doing well so far. The magazine is localized for each major market around the U.S., so each of the associate editors has a handful of markets we “cover.” That means I’m responsible for producing all the localized content that goes into these magazines along with national stories and health stories. About half of my work requires tracking down people to interview to help answer reader questions and half requires trudging through data and reports to find interesting things people have submitted and highlighting them. My Access skills are growing daily as I spend a lot of time “questioning the data” looking for patterns or stories. We also do articles relevant to homeowners in each local market. For November, I wrote a story about installing home urinals, which was a surprisingly interesting and random topic. This month, we’re at work on the annual Best/Worst issue, which requires finding the worst home contractors who scammed or shammed customers in 2010. The hard part isn’t finding examples in each market, sadly; the hard part is tracking down the victims and the villains and vetting them with court documents and mug shots wrangled from agencies I’ve never dealt with, in states I’ve never visited and in courthouses I can’t just go to in person. It’s been an exercise in patience and appreciation for helpful people. Beyond producing content, I also do some editing. We swap local stories, and we help proof the final pages. It’s not a lot of editing, but it does remind me of the things I really liked about my student newspaper days: truly helping improve a story with suggestions and proofreading the laid out page. I worried, a little, I might get bored in my new job without the daily running-around-like-a-headless-chicken dance, but I haven’t yet. I’m learning to write tighter, shorter, more lively prose than newspapers allow or demand. In fact, it keeps me more than busy but not burdened, which is how I like it.

No, it’s not my fairy tale dream job. But it’s a larger audience for my work, and it’s something new and interesting. I’m also learning a whole lot about what goes into keeping a home in tip-top shape, since so much of our magazine is focused on home ownership and consumer affairs. (This is nice because without the newspaper-to-newspaper, city-to-city job growth chart I once saw for myself, I’m now thinking home ownership isn’t a bad idea.) One of the things that attracted me to apply for the job — aside from it being a journalism job in the city I wanted to be in — was that I’ve always been interested in business and consumer affairs reporting. I’d love to have the consumer beat at a newspaper or at a news magazine. Perhaps someday I will come full circle and get that. I’m not sure if I will, which is to say, I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to a newspaper. But here’s the thing: I’m not saying I won’t. That’s a big deal. Even though I felt a bit mistreated by the jostling in the newspaper industry, there are still thousands of awesome people doing awesome work I wouldn’t turn down the chance to be part of.

I put off writing this blog post for a month because I didn’t want it to come off as bitter but reflective. I’m not bitter about my newspaper experience. OK, a little about some aspects. If I didn’t admit that, I’d be lying, and I think newspaper execs should keep in mind all the things that drove me — by most accounts a talented and ambitious young journalist — away. There are things I would do differently, but I wouldn’t give up the experiences, lessons or doors it opened. I told the editors I interviewed with from day one that my newspaper reporting job was meant as a foundation for a career I couldn’t define yet. My second job is continuing to build on that foundation in a very different sort of role. I expected my next job to be in online media, honestly, but this opportunity opened at the right time and right place. That’s 95-percent of the battle. I’m continuing to grow and add to my skills, which is after all, how you build a career. And at 25, I’ve got plenty of years left to add clarity to the career, and the only way to do so, is to keep adding experiences.

This blog will continue to chronicle my experiments and thoughts on journalism, and as always, it will continue to represent my — not my employer’s — opinions and ideas.

11 Responses to “Leaving the newspaper biz, but leaving the door open”

  1. Meg Says:

    Hi Meranda –

    This is really lovely and heartfelt. I think I can relate to a lot of what you said. Best of luck with Angie’s List, and congratulations! Remember, too, your job does not define you, though it undoubtedly shapes you.

    – Meg

  2. Sarah Says:


    Thanks for this post. I too have been feeling the same way about my career — where I am and where it’s going. I don’t know if I could ever really say goodbye to newspapers, but I also know the industry is at a turning point right now. Who knows what lays ahead?

    Thanks for expressing all of your thoughts and difficulties with walking away. I’m sure you made the right decision and will be happier in the long run for it. All the best.

  3. Paul Guinnessy Says:

    I’ve been wondering what you’ve been up to. Congratulations on the new job! It sounds like a fun gig! The ability to know when its best to walk away is a skill some of your older peers are still learning.Good luck with your future endeavors …

  4. grace Says:

    A lot of what you said rung really true for me even though I was a copy editor at a newspaper rather than a on-call-all-the-time reporter. I left the newspaper industry a little more than three years ago for magazine publishing, and the difference is astounding. Not only because of the better work-life balance, but I feel like people are much more likely to stagnate in their positions at a newspaper. In the three years I’ve worked for my current company, I’ve had two promotions, the most recent of which made me an online editor, which is a perfect gig for me. There were people on my old copy desk who’d been in their same positions out of college for five years with no promotion/movement in sight. I’m sure you’re much happier now, and I’m happy too!

  5. Meranda Says:

    Thanks for the replies, everyone. :) It’s good to know I’m not alone. Though, I knew it wasn’t just me because I knew what the other young journos at my paper and around the country expressed similar sentiments. A lot of them have started new jobs in recent months as well. I guess that’s the encouraging part: We’re not satisfied with status quo, and there are options out there for the open-minded.

  6. Abbey Says:

    Mer — Great post. Very ‘your voice.’ You’ve always been an inspiration for me, from my very earliest days in J-school, and it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be where I am today — in a reporting job I feel is a great fit for me — because of you. As high school yearbook-y as it sounds: “I know you’ll go far.” — Abs

  7. Carl Says:


    The newspaper business is worse off without you. But you sound happy. And that’s the most important thing.

  8. barb Says:

    Meranda – as I said in August…it’s the right move at the right time…and we’re happy you are happy! b

  9. Bryan Murley Says:

    Congrats on the new job, Miranda. And good luck. And, as usual, great post.

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