RIP, our jobs: Here’s one way to grieve journalism layoffs and departures

May 16, 2019

I remember the first time I realized that you could grieve a job loss like a death.

I can thank Granger E. Westberg for that discovery. He wrote about various types of grieving — death, job loss, divorce, moving to new places — in his book “Good Grief,” first published in 1962.

Just 64 pages long, “Good Grief” is simple, and I read it in one sitting. I was a few months out from my husband’s death in February 2017, and desperate for anything that would help me make sense of such a tragic and unexpected loss. Westberg’s manual was one of many books on grief that I read during that time, but he was one of the few authors to also touch on the heavy emotions we experience when we lose or leave a job.

In the decade from 2008 to 2017, the number of newsroom jobs in the United States dropped by 23%. According to the Pew Research Center, that decline was driven primarily by newspapers — with some 71,000 workers in 2008 diminishing to 39,000 in 2017. But that doesn’t mean digital media is immune. Just this year, Vice Media cut 250 jobs, BuzzFeed laid off approximately 220 employees, and there were widespread job cuts in between.

If it seems like news about journalism layoffs and people leaving the industry is near-constant, that’s because it is. And I’m worried that we’re not giving ourselves enough time to grieve it all.

I wound up leaving my full-time job at Poynter in December 2017 — 10 months after becoming a widow. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was made easier by the fact that I was able to stay connected to Poynter through contract work and freelance writing like this. It also wasn’t the first time I’d left a job in journalism after a close death. My dad passed away in November 2013. By January 2015, I left my rewarding but demanding job at CNN.

In both of those cases, I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the grief surrounding my job losses as I did to the grief of losing two men I love dearly. But there would be moments — usually in a quiet period of acceptance over their deaths — that the sadness surrounding my past employment would rise up out of nowhere. I wasn’t paying attention to, nor processing, my loss of identity as a worker like I did with my losses of identity as a daughter and wife.

As Westberg points out, we work hard to acquire “things that make things that make life rich and meaningful.” But what happens when we lose those things?

“Sometimes, if the loss is great, the very foundations of our life are shaken, and we are thrown into deep despair,” Westberg wrote. “Because we know so little about the nature of grief, we become panicky when it strikes us, and this serves to throw us deeper into despondency.”

Layoffs were a recurring topic at Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media earlier this year. We discussed how to care for yourself and your team when job cuts are looming, how to succeed in an unstable industry, and how to pick yourself back up after getting laid off. Several of the women in the room talked about how hard it is to process all of the feelings surrounding layoffs. There’s no guidebook, nor many public examples of how to mourn a job loss.

“Why don’t we write obituaries for our past jobs?” asked Malia Griggs, an academy participant and director of social media at The Daily Beast. Griggs was laid off from her first job as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan in 2013 and knows the gauntlet of emotions that come with such an experience. It was an offhand suggestion, but it stuck with me.

Psychologists often tout the benefits of creativity in processing grief, and Griggs’ idea seemed like a smart way to make sense of widespread journalism job losses. For most non-visual journalists, writing is their creative outlet of choice. Writing obituaries, a longtime staple of our tumultuous industry, made sense.

So I took a stab at it. I bid farewell to CNN, something I never gave myself time to do in the moment. Here’s what I came up with:

Katie Hawkins-Gaar’s career at CNN ended in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 16, 2015. While some coworkers anticipated Hawkins-Gaar’s exit due to complications from new leadership, most were surprised to learn of her passing.

Those closest to Hawkins-Gaar report that her departure was prompted by an incurable case of burnout and the promise of a fresh start in the Sunshine State. Hawkins-Gaar’s seven-year career encompassed two presidential elections, one Great Recession, and numerous natural disasters. Her responsibilities shifted as rapidly as the social media-driven world that her job was tied to, and her team was apt to experiment with new approaches in workflows and storytelling.

Hawkins-Gaar’s tenure at CNN included editor of iReport and manager of a seven-person team. She collaborated with colleagues, sat in on endless meetings, wrote several articles, made a few TV appearances, and grew to love the wonderfully creative and dedicated core iReport community.

Hawkins-Gaar’s final days at CNN were spent trying to boost employee morale and foster a wider dialogue around burnout — efforts that were admirable but largely unsuccessful. Her career is survived by the remainder of the small but mighty iReport team, who have promised to keep fighting the good fight. In lieu of flowers, you can send them money for post-work beers.

It’s been years since I worked at CNN, and since then, the iReport brand was retired. Writing that obituary, even all these years later, helped surface some complicated emotions I was still holding onto. It was cathartic and surprisingly fun, which is why I’m inviting other journalists — including you! — to do the same.

“Thinking through writing [my journalism obituary] really made me realize how many unresolved feelings I have about leaving my previous job, which was deeply intertwined with my personal identity,” shared Ariel Zirulnik, fund director of the Membership Puzzle Project.

Lauren Loftus, who now works as the assistant director of storytelling at Santa Clara University, agreed. “Writing my own [obituary] has been a rare, cathartic experience in the last several months of doubt, confusion, and grief over the state of my career in journalism,” Loftus said.

If you’d like to write your own journalism job obituary, you can share it on social with #myjournalismobit. Or you take a stab at writing one and keep it to yourself. There are no expectations or rules, just an invitation to say goodbye to the jobs we (mostly) loved.

I know firsthand how hard grieving can be. I also know how important it is. If you’ve left the journalism industry, were laid off, or have a past work experience that still nags at you, I encourage you to try writing your own journalism job obituary — regardless of whether or not you decide to share it publicly. It just might help.


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lauren Loftus’ last name. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.