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Why furloughs aren’t all bad

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Even though I took off my Gannett-employee hat two months ago, I can’t help but looking in on my old haunt. Gannett Blog is still in my Google Reader, so I also find myself rubber-necking every once in awhile. Tonight, I came across a post speculating more furloughs may be forthcoming. Some of the comments were bitter, but they got me thinking. Although the decision has no bearing on me, I thought I’d throw my 5 cents in with reasons why I was OK with the furloughs as opposed to say, a true pay cut or another set of layoffs.

  1. A true pay cut permanently lowers your salary. So even if pay raises do happen, your raise will be based on your current salary minus 2-percent (one week is about 2 percent of the year’s salary). That means your raise and eventual salary will be less. It also cheapens your value for every hour you work at the company from then on.
  2. A direct pay cut also means you get paid less for doing the same amount of work. At least with a furlough, your work is still worth the same amount (pittance as it is) to the company. You get a week off in exchange for getting paid less. Of course, furloughs mean more work spread among those working that week, but so do layoffs.
  3. The company cannot contact you during your furlough. When was the last paid vacation you had that wasn’t intruded upon in some way by Gannett/work? I haven’t had one. But my furloughs have been blissfully work-free (if not worry-free — hello rent, I’m looking at you).
  4. You can take an entire week off work and not feel guilty. The company is screwing you, so you shouldn’t feel bad about taking an entire week off even if it means missing meetings or something you should be at. Don’t take a day furlough here and there. You lose absolutely the same amount of money whether you take every other Tuesday or a week straight. Take the full week — it’s harder to make up a full week’s work staying late the day before or the day after (yes, I’ve been there too).
  5. You’ve probably complained about how you can’t find a new job because you don’t have time to put together a resume, portfolio and find and apply. This is a great time to get cracking on that.
  6. A furlough means you have a job to come back to. Instead, they could lay you off, or they could layoff someone else in your department, which means when you’re at work you’ll have their job to do too — not just this week but forever.

One of the beautiful waterfalls I saw on a hike during my March 2010 furlough in North Carolina.

Personally, I enjoyed my furloughs. Don’t get me wrong, they crushed my already tenuous budget. I was already barely paid enough to cover bills. The first year — two weeks of furloughs following a raise that was eliminated by the first week’s furlough — I was shocked at the news. It meant lots of ramen noodles for me, but somehow I managed. I knew by the next year, my third furlough week in the first quarter of 2010, that I’d survive. Still, I ended up taking a part-time job after the third mandatory week without pay because I wasn’t sure I could survive another week without pay. It sucked, but it strengthened me. The actual furlough time off, however, I did not mind. The weeks gave me the longest breaks I had from work since starting college. The first week off, I went home to Ohio to hang out with my mother visiting parks and museums; the second week I took a road trip from Ohio to Orlando with my father for a sister’s wedding; and on the third week, my boyfriend and I traveled over the Smokey Mountains and through the Blue Ridge Mountain area, hiking, dining, touring communities, visiting friends and seeing new places. Each of those weeks was packed with fun times, and I probably wouldn’t have had done any of them without the furlough. So, for those who will be affected by this, please, try to look on the bright side.

Leaving the newspaper biz, but leaving the door open

Monday, October 4th, 2010

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) (more…)

‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

First, this post has nothing to do with my mom (whom I love and who definitely loves me). But I thought it’d be a good time to post on the topic of fact-checking since it is Mother’s Day and all.

So, raise your hand if you were told this phrase in j-school: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The basic gist, in case you missed that lesson, is no matter how much you trust someone, don’t just take their word for it. Verify the information.

About a week and a half ago, this ingrained fact-checking mantra stumbled on something that seemed incomprehensible to me. That’s where my story begins:

A local school district called a press conference in the days leading up to a tax referendum vote. The point of the event was to tout several recent awards/recognitions for their students and schools. I was already aware of most of the items announced. The only thing that seemed newsworthy to me was their pronouncement that BusinessWeek had named them, for a second year, the top academic school in the state. I sent my editor a note from the press conference telling him that was the upshot of the event. I was going to post it on Twitter as well, but I decided since it wasn’t breaking news I would wait to get back to the office to find the link online to share. So I talked to a few students, board members, superintendent, etc. and then went back to the office expecting to spit out a quick story.

But when I went to the BusinessWeek site, there was nothing promoted about the “recent announcement.” That seemed strange. I tried searching the site for the award and could only pull up the 2009 rankings. I tried Googling it — with all my Google-fu skills — and tried looking for it on the Great Schools site, because Great Schools had partnered with BW in 2009. Nada.

I tried to call the editors at the magazine. It was already 4:30 p.m., so I wasn’t sure I’d reach anyone. After being forwarded through several people, I ended up leaving a voicemail for an education reporter there. She called me back about an hour later and said she hadn’t heard anything about the project being repeated this year. However, she wasn’t involved the prior year, so she suggested I contact the projects editor. I left him a voicemail and e-mail.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed the superintendent to ask if he had any documentation. I also e-mailed the Education Writers Association listserv to see if anyone else had heard about the announcement. I assumed other reporters would be working on similar stories about their own local schools. But no one else on the very active list replied, which is unusual. The superintendent replied with a link to the 2009 rankings, which while not specifically dated on that story page, were linked to a story from 2009. The format of the URL also indicated to me the page was posted in January 2009. I pointed that out to him and asked how he heard about the award this year. We talked on the phone and he said he was going back to his office to try and find the e-mail he received a few weeks ago, which he would forward to me — and to the night editor because I had to leave soon.

It occurred to me maybe this was a print exclusive story or a package with a delayed online posting. I didn’t have access to a print copy of BusinessWeek at the office. And I didn’t have time to go to the library a few blocks away, but I did call their reference desk where a not-as-helpful-as-he-could-be clerk told me it wasn’t in this issue.

At this point, I needed to file something, but I couldn’t confirm the entire point of the story. I had been working since about 9 a.m. that morning, and I was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. that night at my part-time job. I wrote a story with all the information I had at that point, contact info for people I’d been reaching out to and told the night editor I’d forward the note from the superintendent when I got it on my phone. But when the note came in, it was really vague and not at all clear. My editors made the right decision to hold the story a day, even if it meant TV ran with the story and our news would be a little older than the press conference.

Long story short, it turns out this award wasn’t re-issued. The pages haven’t been updated. But between the still unexplainable e-mail the district officials received and the lack of a date stamped on the page, confusion had arisen that made them assume this was a new recognition. I found this out definitively the next day when I was able to reach the magazine projects editor. The story that ran in our paper ended up being the superintendent’s mea culpa for claiming a recognition that didn’t happen. As I pointed out, the district is still the top-ranked school in Indiana, but it hasn’t been recognized a second time.

So, here’s the lesson:

If they had just mentioned it to me and hadn’t called a press conference attended by several dozen community members, I probably would have just let it go and pointed out the mistake. It might have been mentioned on my beat blog, but just as likely not. I went into the story looking to validate not disprove the information. It hadn’t occurred to me until I was on the phone with the magazine reporter that the information could possibly be wrong. I just assumed I couldn’t find it. Instead, both I and the district got a lesson in the importance of fact checking and were able to set the record straight about what I believe was an honest mistake. (The TV station seemed to completely ignore this information, but then, their as-yet-uncorrected story was wrong to begin with because they said it was “Business Weekly” offering the honor.)

The other lesson in this is probably lost on BusinessWeek and other news entities, but I want to point it out anyway. Although there’s value in “evergreen” features, there’s also a real chance of danger in keeping something up too long and especially in not time/date-stamping it. Not everyone is as Web savvy as I am, and following the trail on this story it was very easy to see how someone would have misinterpreted the pages and information. It could get recrawled by Google and come across as fresh news, as has happened before. Or at the least, it could lead to confusion or blunders, such as the one I wrote about.

Who really loses in a News Corp./Bing deal?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

I’m not a business person. That’s obvious. But I’ve read recently about how News Corp./Rubert Murdoch are in talks with Microsoft to have the new Bing search engine be its sole way of searching for content from the Wall Street Journal etc. Here’s the most recent Business Week article for a summary.

What’s so silly about this arrangement is I doubt it will hurt Google. But it’s almost certain to be bad for the WSJ.

Here’s my non-MBA-holding thought that seems to be overlooked: Most people who find news through Google are looking not for news from a certain outlet but for news on a certain event/topic. If I knew which outlet I wanted to read already, I would go to that Web site directly. Instead, I’m surveying the field of all or most possible news stories to decide which to glance at and how deeply I want to drink on that topic.

Partnering with a lesser-used search engine is only going to remove News Corp. holdings from the well of stories I might otherwise read. It’s not going to get me to switch to a new search platform just so I can read those stories. Sorry.

I think if, as the business week article mentions, more news companies formed alliances this might be harder to stand my ground. Certainly my survey would be less complete. But it would be kind of like the old XM vs. Sirius debate. (Only a Microsoft/Google merger is, um, not gonna happen.) You want to listen to something on both but you have to pick one or choose both, which would be inefficient. I don’t think I’d search for “explosion & Indiana” in both engines, for example. And I’m pretty well set in my ways using Google. Its dominance in the search marketplace tells me I’m far from alone. Therefore, I think it’d hurt the news providers switching to Bing more than it’d hurt or help either search engine. One bonus, however, is it would help other news outlets rank higher on Google with one of the biggest papers out of the way.

Awards, external praise don’t motivate me

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

So, today I have resolved to go back through all the stories (or at least the headlines of the stories) I wrote during the past year to see if any of them are worth putting up for my paper to submit to the state press association contest.

I usually don’t do this. And this year, as in the past, I had resolved to ignore such contests. But my editor sent about three reminders to local reporters, and then, before I left Friday, he made another pitch to us to get him our suggestions. I figured, whatever. If nothing else, I should pause to reflect on this past years work?

My issue with such contests goes deep. I’ve never entered my work in any, and any awards I have won have been the result of other people submitting it. I think it’s great some people use these contests as a way of setting a goal for their work. And I can see why people get a high from winning them.

I am just not motivated by external praise. Sure it’s nice to win, but I never have been that disappointed when I didn’t or overwhelmed with pride when I did. I trace this to childhood: I was always one of the top in my class, super involved in everything and a hard worker. I received a lot of certificates and awards throughout the years. I haven’t kept a single trophy or certificate. If you asked me, I would have to do a great deal of searching just to produce my high school diploma or college degree. I think they are stashed in a bin in a storage unit back in Ohio.

As far as my work today, I don’t need validation from a panel of judges sifting through hundreds or thousands of other peoples’ best work in hopes they find my gem. Besides even if they do, it’s probably one of a hundred gems they’ll award. Few prizes, especially ones a person in my spot could hope to compete for, are really that “special.” I mean, the Pulitzer is one thing, but a regional award? Think about it, there are four different circulation size contests in my state, and a dozen-plus categories for each. Multiply that by 50 states, and soon the certificate seems even less special. Besides, a community-serving story’s value is not diminished by not winning a Pulitzer or other award. Great journalism doesn’t need a gold star to be great.

I get enough positive feedback from the community I cover to know I’m doing OK. This week I received two phone calls, two e-mails and one thank-you card, each thanking or commending me for stories. I care a lot more that my community finds my stories relevant and helpful than a panel of strangers who don’t understand where my work fits in here. Maybe our community is better about contacting reporters than most, but I feel my work is appreciated by the community.

It often seems awards are a crap shoot. I often see “award-winning” stories/packages/Web sites highlighted that are not that impressive or even that good. (Maybe that’s because the definition of award-winning is so broad, see my comment on the number of awards.) I find myself wondering if all the entries were not great so they picked the best of the discard pile or if my taste is just way off. I always decide I just must not have the same vision. All the more reason to not enter contests: I hear enough from my community to know I’m on the right track, which means my vision might not line up with contest judges but it does with my readers.

Finally, I’m my own biggest critic. When I read old stories, and often when I read stories in that day’s paper, instead of thinking about the Sunday enterprise I worked very hard on, “I love this story,” I think, “I should have…” I don’t know if others feel that way. But it’s always been a challenge for me. When I was job hunting, I struggled picking clips to send. I knew I was at least as good as other kids at my school, but when I looked at what I’d written I couldn’t find seven stories I loved. Even today, when I have a far greater stack of stories to choose from, I don’t know if I could find seven I loved. It’s not that I’m a bad journalist. I have room to grow. But I think I’m good, especially given my age, my resources and my amount of output. But I am hypercritical. I can always find some quote I wish I’d left out, some angle I wish I’d over- or underplayed or some paragraph break I’d reconsider (this is especially true if bad editing ruined it for me). So it’s hard for me to even find stories I think are good enough — even if judged against a stack of similar also-rans — to bother entering in contests.

As I said before, I don’t object to people who thrive on such competition. Sure, it’s nice to earn some cash or even some solicited praise. Removing myself from the competition probably does those who thrive a favor. Fewer entries means better odds. They should thank me. ;) The bottom line, for me, though, is I get enough of a high out of knowing I worked hard and did a service to my community. I guess I’m one of the lucky folks who doesn’t need much more.

But I realize it’s not about me. So I’m going through the 534 stories that carried my byline or tagline over the past 12 months to see if any of them are worth considering. Whether I find awards validating or not, they reflect well on my bosses and my paper. Even if I don’t care, they do.

Indy Star’s ‘info stream’ like friendfeed for its reporters

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I just came across an interesting feature that I think is new, or at least new to me, on the Indy Star site.

Scanning the education section of the site, I noticed under the refers to education reporter Andy Gammill’s blog and twitter there was a new link: “Andy’s info stream.” I think it’s new because I look at this page almost daily (Indy is the largest paper in the state and the J&C’s sister paper), and I have never noticed it before.

This is what I found when I clicked the link:
indystar reporter info stream

Pretty cool if you’re interested in what the reporter is writing, reading, working on, blogging about, twittering about, etc.

I tried to find similar pages for other reporters on the site, but I didn’t see any even for other blogging & twittering reporters, like their politics columnist Matthew Tully. A quick Google search turned up a page for racing reporter Curt Cavin and music reporter David Lindquist. Lindquist’s list even includes recently played tracks from last.fm, which seems like a neat addition for his beat.

Other papers have pages set up about the reporter, with links to recent bylines, etc. But this is the first I’ve come across that compiles essentially everything that reporter is already doing and puts it together on one page. You can even subscribe to that reporter’s info stream. It reminds me a lot of friendfeed, where the reporters could pick what they want added (i.e. their blog, twitter, bookmarks, music, etc.). Except it’s sleeker and it’s hosted on the news organization’s site.

As a reader, I find this information fascinating. At least for Andy’s stream because he covers the same topic as me and often writes about things I’m also writing about. I already subscribe to his blog and follow him on Twitter, but for readers who don’t want the hassle of subscribing and belonging to tons of services or who just want a clean interface to quickly see what the local reporter is doing, this could be a cool tool. And once the widget (as this appears to be) is set up, it’s not like it takes a lot of work to keep fresh. The reporter is already producing the content to go there daily.

On the other hand, I can see how some reporters would be apprehensive about a feature like this. Most print reporters I know (columnists excluded) didn’t get into this business to be a personality, which is what this feature kind of creates. And even if all the feed pulls in is information you’re already posting, I could see their unease at their online life being aggregated like this for every reader. However, because I think the news train is headed in the opposite direction of such reporters — who are also the hold outs refusing to see the utility of blogging and twittering or trying such tools for their beats — I don’t feel bad for them.

In my case, all this information is already out there. It’s already mostly streamed on friendfeed, Facebook and Twitter. So I think this feature is pretty cool. It will be even cooler when they get a list of all the reporters posted. It also would be great if you could pick which of those reporters streams you wanted to have all appear in one mega info stream (like the people you follow on Twitter — I could pick the education and politics people but leave the sports folks behind), or if you could see what everyone at the Star is saying/reading/blogging all in one time line (like the public time line on Twitter). It might be pretty telling about the organization en masse.

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.