Making a Comeback
I stepped away from the copy desk when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Berlin Wall was standing, and Bill Gates was fine-tuning Windows 1.0 two years after promising it. Fax machines were the buzz for sending text and images. A mouse near a computer warranted pest control. A blue cover with silver letters bound the AP Stylebook. And every colleague at The Charlotte Observer feared WWW duty: adding to our We Were Wrong column.
At 42 last summer, I resumed the newspaper career I interrupted when digits in my age were reversed. I came back as an intern.
For 18 years, my passion for journalism didn't falter. My editing skills didn't rust. The right someone just had to notice.
I didn't choose the mommy track. I didn't opt out. Re-entry simply stumped me.
I blinked at the eve of the design and pagination revolutions. In the musical chairs of the mid-1980s, I skidded from fact checker to industry misfit.
Now that priorities are returning to old-school credibility, seats are opening for traditional applicants from nontraditional paths.
Thank goodness. Print journalists must round up lost members of the flock, especially women. It takes gumption to knock on the door after any time away. Let's value that grit. Let's scout timeless traits, not nitpick resume gaps.
Let's welcome diversity of experience.
* * *
I left North Carolina in 1985 to get married in New England. My first boss didn't wish me luck landing back in the business. I'd write my ticket anywhere, he said.
He'd hired me out of Northwestern, where I finished a quarter early, in the spring of 1983. The summer before, I'd scored a Newspaper Fund internship at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, my hometown paper. I'd juggled at least two newspapers jobs nonstop since I was 16; I'd aced the Knight Ridder editing test at The Philadelphia Inquirer. The late R.E. "Buster" Haas, legendary scout for The Dallas Morning News, led the pack of recruiters.
I chose the Observer over jobs starting months later: the main copy desk of the PD, the business copy desk of the News, and the European bureau of Dow Jones.
In two and a half years at the Observer, I seldom worked only a single shift. I moonlighted macro-editing, production editing, wire editing, in layout, column writing, and enterprise reporting. I was evaluated a top performer, earning midyear merit raises. Recruiters were still calling.
I was mobile, right?
Hell no, I found out weeks after my wedding and move.
Women established in any newsroom sweat to justify marriage and motherhood and to adapt schedules for those transitions. I'd moved to an area where I knew no recruiters, and no one knew me.
When my 4'10", 102-pound frame hinted during one job interview that I was pregnant, an editor framed by baby-to-adult photos of his children asked what I was doing there in such a condition. When I asked one managing editor about dayside openings, he pitched my file. "What am I supposed to do? Go fishing and hand you my job?"
I applied to papers of all sizes, awaiting professional signposts. Not one gave me a grammar, spelling, current-events, or content-editing quiz. By the mid-1980s, pictures ruled.
Buster, my self-appointed coach, advised me to appreciate family time and to revisit newsrooms when traditional journalistic values returned. I'd be back, he promised, when grown-ups got to know me.
Pending the pendulum, rejections became the norm as I had two children and kept applying. Changes in production got recruiters talking up computer design skills. Teach me, I offered. They insisted on trained paginators. Quiz me, I begged. No buyers.
Before I threw in my pica pole, I scoured the trade journals for boot camps: galore for managers, zip for entry-level and mid-career journalists. And no support for copy editors in the late '80s and early '90s; only mentions in writers' book clubs. My spirit stayed isolated.
In 1992, seven years after my first don't-bother shrug, I spotted an Editor & Publisher ad for a copy editor. Pagination skills not listed.
"Out of this business three times as long as you were in it," the editor chuckled. "Excuse me. I have real candidates to talk to."
* * *
Months later, I went to work for myself indulging another passion. I opened a shop selling upscale needlework supplies and coaching people to use them. I clinched mommy hours and figured the only connection to a newspaper was the ad rep.
At a trade show, a supplier jolted me with "Minding the Store." Stanley Marcus compares specialty retail to newspaper editing.
Reconciling my past became a daily challenge in 1997 when, for family reasons, we moved to Dallas. Greeting us was Connie, my college roommate and a features editor at the Morning News. She had to say it: "You're in a different market now."
OK, I ended up where I got my first job offer out of college. But I'd turned that down. Buster had died.
Was I a slam-dunk? Was I disposable? I nursed my inner journalist five more years.
When my daughter got her driver's license, I was ready to try again. Connie was still prompting: "There's a copy editors' group now. And there are tests our copy editing candidates have to take." Fingers crossed.
I chose Friday the 13th for the one-hour grammar and spelling test. Finished early, did well. The night I got the 17-page take-home test, my husband was working late, and my kids remembered a neighborhood party. When they checked in on me, my son said I disappeared in reference books and newspapers. My daughter got it. "Mom, this test IS your party."
Only problem with the big test: letting it go. To keep the momentum, I found www.copydesk.org and www.poynter.org. I paid my way to last year's American Copy Editors Society conference in Chicago and attended 10 (the maximum) workshops. Then I headed to Poynter's editing and coaching conference. In between, the News offered me a summer internship.
I couldn't wait to get the stylebook CD in the mail, which my son loaded on my PDA. He patted me on the back: "You're no technophobe. You'll get pagination." My daughter compared my restyled career to the Carol Brady flip 'do: spinning awhile into other twists, bouncing back the same.
When I got to the newsroom, the desk chief trusted me in the deep end right away. Connie whisked by as I started juggling calls, text files, and usage guides. "Time's been suspended for you."
Assignment editors found me. "Great heavy lifting," one said; "I had to come over and shake your hand." Another popped by, "We just have got to keep you." Handshakes were as hearty from reporters. "Where did you come from? And why aren't we recruiting there exclusively?"
My internship was extended. And by November, the grown-ups who got to know me hired me.
I even got pagination training, which I finished in two weeks — not three. In another week, I went solo designing pages and meeting three deadlines a night. This was the huge hurdle?
As the fresh set of eyes, I see what hasn't changed. For all the more ways reporters and editors can connect, a story is best edited nose-to-nose. For all the more checking tools, when and how to fix is the key. For all the branches of journalistic specialty, happy campers share people skills.
At this year's ACES conference in Houston, in the workshop about what reporters and copy editors need, I spoke up: "It's what we all need -- respect."