Former Christian Science Monitor Editor Becomes Foreign Service Officer

While the news industry is frantically searching for solutions and new directions, journalists’ lives have been disrupted by cutbacks and job changes. Poynter Online wants to help by sharing how-they-did-it snapshots from people who overcame employment challenges.

JAMES HAGENGRUBER

Age: 35

New job: Foreign service officer, U.S. Department of State. Studying Serbo-Croatian language in advance of my first assignment to Embassy Sarajevo as assistant cultural affairs officer. My wife and I will be moving to Sarajevo in July and we’ll spend the next two years there before our next assignment to who knows where.  
Old job: I spent 12 years as a newspaper journalist, most recently as Europe editor of The Christian Science Monitor. This job entailed overseeing coverage of Europe, Canada and Russia. Previously, I was the environmental reporter for The Spokesman-Review. 
Biggest change so far: It’s been a total career change and I’ve had to adjust my perspective significantly. The State Department encourages intellectual independence — the Foreign Service truly places a high value on constructive dissent — but in the end, my job entails defending and supporting the policies of the United States 24/7.

Am I sleeping better? Well, I no longer worry about getting laid off. Gaining or losing weight? I’m on a government per-diem now and the restaurants around here are pretty decent. I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve also had to learn to be diplomatic in and out of work. F-bombs and extreme cynicism aren’t as common in my new work place.  

I left because: I wanted to travel more, I wanted more job stability, I wanted to get paid to learn relatively obscure languages, and, frankly, I was increasingly disheartened with the state of newspaper journalism. I was getting tired of being told to make do with less. After surviving roughly 10 rounds of layoffs at papers in Montana and Washington State, I was laid off in October, 2007.

I ended up landing a great job at The Christian Science Monitor, but between the time when I was laid off and before I was offered a job at The Monitor, I had taken the Foreign Service exam. The State Department’s hiring process is pretty long, so it wasn’t until I had been working at The Monitor for nearly a year that I received an offer to become a Foreign Service officer. As much as I wanted to stay at The Monitor, I thought this new opportunity was too good to pass up. 

I was out of work for: After being laid off in October, 2007, I was without a regular job for 13 months. During that time, my wife and I traveled around the world and I took three reporting trips to Iraq to work on a variety of journalism projects, including a long-term story about twin brothers in the Marines.

I began following the twins a year before I was laid off. A week after I was cut, the second brother deployed to Iraq. The photographer, Brian Plonka, and I decided to complete the project on our own dime. A newspaper that I had worked with in Germany while on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship in 2002 came to my rescue and bought a bunch of stories from me. The Spokesman-Review also picked up the remaining stories in my project on the twins. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to finish this work. 

I relied on: A small severance package from The Spokesman-Review paid my way to Indonesia and put us up in a decent hut on a quiet beach for a while. After that, I hustled stories wherever I could. After returning home from overseas, my wife’s job as a nurse paid the bills while I finished building a small cabin in Idaho (I wasn’t making any money freelancing, so I decided to do something fun). 
This new gig: It has a slightly higher salary, but Foreign Service officers not permanently stationed in Washington receive free housing, so that’s been a huge financial benefit. My wife and I are now able to make it on my income, which is great because we have a baby on the way, and my wife is able to study language with me full-time at State’s language school.

But, like journalism, this job isn’t about money. I was thrilled to learn during my initial training that my journalism skills will be handy down the road in my career as a diplomat. The State Department is doing some really interesting new work in the area of public diplomacy and I’m excited to be a part of it.  

One thing I miss about my old job is: Dark humor and the smell of bad coffee and stale cigarettes from grizzled newsroom vets. That and being able to ask crooked politicians extremely uncomfortable questions in public.
One thing I don’t miss is: Publishers trying to sell the newsroom on the latest leadership trend. While working for The Billings Gazette, for example, I recall one elaborate scheme that involved managers honking horns like geese. It was something about flying in formation and teamwork, etc., etc. It was so awful it was funny. 
One surprise about my new job is: Snow days. 
I’m lucky that: I was able to work for newspapers before the era of Google News, back when reporters were actually encouraged to pursue stories that nobody else was doing. 
The hardest part was: I have two answers for this: getting over being laid off from a job that I loved at The Spokesman-Review and deciding to leave a great job at The Monitor. Walking away from journalism, especially after having resurrected my career after a layoff, was really tough. 
I learned that: The sun did, in fact, rise the day after I left the newsroom. It’s been a tough transition, but I feel lucky to have landed where I did. 

My advice: Even if you are really happy in your job, have Plans B and C in the works. It can be incredibly frustrating to be laid off, so start thinking about career alternatives and realize that it can take a while to make these come together. I also recommend swinging for the fence. Life’s too short to be stuck doing something that you don’t enjoy.

If you know of a journalism transition story that might help other Poynter Online readers, please e-mail Grimm at joe.grimm@gmail.com.

Coming Tuesday: A journalist leaves a job because of a verbally abusive boss and a university study says that some people will excuse that behavior by the CEO — if financial goals are met.

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