Sameer Rao knew the furloughs were coming, but he had to ask around to learn he was one of two Baltimore Sun reporters with the longest of them — a total of six weeks.
Maybe it was his beat — arts reporting was tough during the shutdown.
Maybe it was his experience and salary — both more than some younger colleagues.
Maybe it was him?
He asked and got no real answers.
But honestly, Rao was also kind of burnt out — with the lack of transparency about the future of the Sun, then still owned by Tribune and being stalked by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which now owns it and recently offered buyouts; with watching his colleagues and friends take buyouts or leave for other jobs; with the pace and with the pay.
So, honestly, he didn’t mind the two- and three-week stretches off of work, where he could not check in or respond to emails or file quick stories. The forced time off forced him to start asking tough questions.
Was he passionate enough about this job? Was he talented enough? Did he like who he was becoming?
During those scattered six weeks, Rao took day trips and some small vacations with his wife.
And after the furloughs ended, he started considering life outside of a daily newsroom — a place he’d worked hard to be part of.
Highs and lows
Rao discovered journalism in high school in Connecticut, but drifted away in college and eventually started working in nonprofit administration. Working with an arts organization, he realized he was passionate about the arts and its role in marginalized communities. He worked his way back into newsrooms with an internship at the alt-weekly Philadelphia City Paper. By the time he came to the Sun in 2019, Rao had been covering the arts for six years
The arts scenes in smaller cities are often ignored, but there’s something special that sustains that scene in Baltimore and a lot of pride around it. In 2020, Rao wrote that in a majority Black city, it was the artists who were speaking truth to power.
That storyline drove him. And it wore him out.
“Before I was willing to admit how unhappy I was at the Sun, it took my wife being like, ‘I don’t think you enjoy this job. You don’t seem happy in this job and I don’t know that you would be in the future short of becoming a different person.’”
It felt different.
Rao started applying for jobs outside of Baltimore. He looked into public radio, podcasting and nonprofit journalism. Then, at Asian American Journalists Association’s virtual convention in 2020, he was approached about a job he’d never considered — writing for and about lawyers.
He applied, got the offer, and took the job with Law360.
“First off, it was more money,” Rao said. “The money was a huge draw. I felt like there might be more stability at a place that has a fairly fixed audience and subscriber base than at a place like the Sun where it felt like there was both an acute monetary crisis and a broader existential crisis about our core readership.”
He hoped the new job would help him become a better reporter, strengthen his fundamentals, and it felt good to try something different — something he wasn’t totally passionate about, and something he could walk away from if he had to.
He started last November.
“I don’t feel the highs and lows as much,” Rao said. “I don’t feel this sense of personal and moral obligation that is inevitably going to run up again the corporate reality of working for a paper that is so old that I’m pretty sure they ran ads for slavery. It just felt different.”
Not his job
Rao still cares about his work and journalism.
But the pressure to be someone who gets to the truth of art, who can show how it intersects with race, identity, marginalization and oppression, well, he believes all of that and cares about it, too.
But it’s not his job anymore.
Now, he’s weaving some of those same threads into his work at Law360, story by story.
“For all difficulties, I didn’t experience and I don’t experience a lot of the really toxic things that happen to some journalists, particularly women and women of color and LGBTQ folks,” Rao said.
He doesn’t experience high levels of harassment. He hasn’t been sued. He worked with people at the Sun who faced much worse and still do. He’s still friends with many of them and supports their work.
But the pandemic taught him this: There are very capable people who are willing to step into a newspaper job. Maybe that job is a better fit for them than for him.
The pandemic also taught him this: “Try to find things that make you happy outside of work,” Rao said. “Your life doesn’t have to be your work.”
This story is part of a series, Some Personal News, that shares experiences of people who were laid off from their journalism jobs or left the news during the pandemic. We know thousands of people lost their jobs last year, and want to capture the stories of journalists, printing plant employees, ad sales people, news researchers and anyone else whose employment by newsrooms ended or was altered because of the pandemic. You can tell us your story here.
More from this series:
Correction: An earlier version noted that Rao moved to Baltimore in 2019. That’s when he started at the Sun. He moved to Baltimore in 2018. It has been corrected.