New Orleans, like everywhere, is not the same city it was a year ago.
Few things have had the ability over our 300 years of history to quiet this place, but the coronavirus has proved itself an able muffler.
In a typical spring, you’d find us somewhere between one festival and the next. This short window is one in which being outside in this swamp is actually bearable, and so we make the annual endeavor to spend as much of March, April and May outdoors as possible, grooving, buckjumping and eating our way from the Mardi Gras Indians’ Super Sunday to Easter crawfish boils, from French Quarter Fest to second-lines.
In recent days, our social media feeds have filled with photos of visits to past years of Jazz Fest, a massive, two weekend-long cultural smorgasbord that takes over one heart of the city. A local public radio station is even playing old recordings of previous musical performances there, giving New Orleanians near and far a chance to snub their noses at the idea that we won’t hear the music that makes us feel most at ease during these long days of infection-induced lockdown.
I, too, was looking forward to a heady few days in the sun, hoping to work away the memories of my last visit when, as the metro columnist of The Times-Picayune, I and the rest of the staff got recalled from the festival grounds to be told our newsroom had been bought by local competition and shut down.
There were 161 of us, and we had two months. It was over.
If local news was in a tailspin toward an unknown future before, the pandemic has made it feel like the runway’s on fire, too.
In the year since The Times-Picayune that I knew ceased to be, I’ve made decisions I’ve second-guessed a thousand times. I’ve compared myself and re-compared myself to the people who I once shared jokes with over scanner chatter. I’ve found myself ashamed of having been laid off in the first place, and I’ve chastised myself for the futility of that shame, too.
Several things about our layoff were pulled directly from the local news crisis playbook: We’d be able to reapply for jobs in the new owner’s newsroom; we’d have to turn over our press badges and get shut out of our email accounts; we drank our sorrows away at local bars on the dimes of untold other local journalists who called in with credit card numbers and Venmo accounts.
What set our circumstance apart was how it marked the end of a yearslong “newspaper war,” sparked by our owners’ choice in 2012 to cut print delivery, announce layoffs and focus on digital first. It was a competition salivated over by some media watchdogs in a way that made it feel from the inside as though many of our fellow journalists, and even fellow New Orleanians, hoped we would fail. While we came to prove ourselves by nabbing regional and national awards for the journalism we produced in my nearly seven years there, in my first year on staff, the Columbia Journalism Review called the bureau I started in “an embarrassment.”
It also was unique in that local competition — not a national chain, not a hedge fund — bought our newspaper. In the final weeks, I toasted often to having at least worked for one worth buying.
Still, what followed the initial announcement were eight of the strangest weeks I’ve ever worked. Many of us took up the offer to interview for whatever jobs would be made available to our staffers in the new version of the newspaper. Ultimately, just about a dozen of our staffers landed there. It meant our current colleagues were also current competition as we all sought to nab the few journalism jobs in town.
We’d literally walk past each other on the way to and from our interviews, shuffling along on the few blocks between each newsroom in downtown New Orleans.
We’d offer the little bits of advice we could between those interviews, sharing at once a unique humiliation and insight into the questions we faced.
We critiqued each other’s resumes, shook our heads when another lead on a job vanished and cheered each other when something did work out, but quietly, lest we make it plain how many still hadn’t figured out their next move.
At the end of it, I was the last newsroom staffer on duty, posting the final bits of wire copy and editing the last Sunday night crime briefs from reporter Hanna Krueger, who later landed at The Boston Globe, before the site changed hands.
In the year since that final night when I walked out of our little newsroom — it had grown physically smaller and smaller in my seven years there as we moved to cheaper and cheaper real estate — I’ve grown.
I decided early on that I wouldn’t be angry. I’m not quite there yet, but hell if I let the decisions of some people I’ve never met define me or what I do next.
As my husband, who at the time of the layoffs was a recent addition to our newsroom, and I faced the idea of a new mortgage coming due and neither of us getting paychecks, I took a job outside journalism. I learned how being a reporter teaches you some skills that end up rather marketable in other industries. The trouble is being OK with that.
Last summer, I pushed myself to start a freelance career, a freedom I’m frankly lucky to have time to pursue because I don’t have kids. I’ve spent my nights and weekends working to see my byline in national publications I wouldn’t have thought within my reach that day I left the Jazz Fest fairgrounds, shaking at the uncertainty of what waited for us on the other side.
That unknowing was then and still is the hardest part.
After the turn of the new year, my husband and I slowly, cautiously started making new plans. We’d go on vacation together for the first time in a couple years. We’d finally get the backyard redone. We’d get to start to think about what was next.
But then, well, you know what happened.
The coronavirus slammed the brakes on all those what-ifs and gave us an entirely new set. It’s the one part of this pandemic it feels as though the layoff actually prepared me for, a lesson I didn’t see coming out of that newsroom meeting last May.
It’s a new skill, like talking to strangers or reworking a lede, but one I didn’t know I’d need: The ability to quietly shake my head, turn off the flashlight that lets me see bits of what lies ahead in this darkness, and just wait for it all to reveal itself again.
Chelsea Brasted is a freelance journalist in New Orleans. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @cabrasted.