So they bought you out, and now you’re out of work. Wrong. You’re not unemployed; you have a new job: reinventing yourself.
First of all, it’s not your fault that your newspaper’s owners did not figure out early enough that when readers change their reading habits, the paper has to change with them. And then they failed to figure out that cutting the newsroom staff lowers the quality of the product they’re trying to sell.
Next, convince yourself that the buyout probably had nothing to do with deficiencies in your skills or performance. Newspaper managers generally buy out people with high salaries. You probably earned that salary by years of solid work. Ironically, a buyout may be a compliment.
Now inventory your skills. Never say things like, “I’m just a journalist.” Your skills are not confined to your former beats, such as writing game stories and occasional columns about the Tampa Bay Bucs. You can read, write, think, talk, sort out what’s important, remain ethical without crippling yourself, train people, inspire beginners and detect liars. Good list, and that’s just the top of it. The world needs all those skills, and business leaders constantly pressure universities to turn out people who can do all that.
Next question: What business were you in? You were not in the printing business, or filling space between the ads, or feeding the beast, all the cynical, self-destructive clichés of your former profession. You were in the business of explaining things, the most valuable thing in the world. People who can help ordinary citizens understand their world are rare, and you’re one of them.
The next set of question works better if someone else asks them and then uses tough interview techniques to help you arrive at honest answers. What do you want to do now? Get another newspaper job? Forget it, ancient history. Work online? Better, that’s the future of journalism.
New question: What have you always wanted to do? Write a thriller. Teach investigative reporting. Open a snazzy restaurant. Build teak furniture. Paint San Diego seascapes. The question is what do you want to do, not what can you do.
New question, and the hardest and best one: What do you really want to do? Your interrogator should take no prisoners on the follow-up questions. This magic question moved me from working as a writing coach to becoming a sculptor, my lifelong dream.
You may already have the skills and training and credentials to achieve your new ambition, but you may not. If you want to work as an online magazine editor, for example, you may not know how to handle video and sound. Almost any new career involving information will require abilities in digital gathering and presentation. So get yourself some training. Graduate degree programs are slow — useful mostly if you need credentials. Reading, short courses and apprenticeships may get you there faster. Work for free if necessary to gain the skills and contacts you need.
Some changes, such as becoming a novelist, require a transition period without pay. Rather than delay your real future with interim work, award yourself a development grant. Depending on the settlement, your buyout may sustain you for as long as a year. Your savings might keep you afloat for a while longer. If you have a working spouse, preferably with health insurance, you can regard his or her salary and benefits as a grant for your retraining and getting up to speed. Warning: approach this topic gingerly, perhaps offering to return the favor.
All this will prove easier with a support circle, such as the “Orphans’ Group” founded by staffers who were bought out by the San Diego Union-Tribune, meeting monthly in upbeat and positive sessions. Such groups must not turn into organized mourning for a lost past.
Now what? Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and go invent the new you.
Don Fry, an independent writing coach affiliated with The Poynter Institute, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.