It worked.

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Meta, The biz, The job

One year ago this Saturday, I walked out of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for the last time as an employee. I quit. It had been three and a half years and it was time.

After a week off, which was busy enough it didn’t really count as a week off, I got in my car and drove to Pittsburgh. No job. No place of my own. Not even my wife – she stayed in Little Rock to keep working while I tried to find enough freelance work that we didn’t go immediately broke.

Our friend Brian generously let me use a spare room in his house. All I could tell him was it might be a couple months. But I really didn’t know. I had some freelance work lined up and was confident I could get more, hoping my little food site, Eatsburgh, could help me along doing some different types of work than I had done professionally. But I really didn’t know.

The Democrat-Gazette had laid off my wife, but not me, in May 2009. The next day, I sent an email to a man I didn’t know, the assistant managing editor for local news at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We were going to be in Pittsburgh in a couple weeks for her cousin’s wedding. So I was going to have a suit with me already. Would he mind taking a look at some of my work and meeting with me?

Before that we toyed with the idea of moving to Pittsburgh. Tossed it around like a lazy game of Frisbee. She grew up not far away and every time we visited, I liked the city a little more. Dense, old, often overlooked but comfortable and fun. When she lost her job, that was the motivation we needed to get serious.

Editor said the P-G wasn’t hiring. I said I knew that but didn’t know anyone in journalism in Pittsburgh and thought it might be nice to get to know each other. If he could make time.

He did. Brought the city editor with him and promised me half an hour. That became two hours. He introduced me to the executive editor. We all sort of hit it off.

And we stayed in touch. By email, mostly, but if I wrote a new story I thought they should see, I sent it along. If I came to town and hadn’t talked to them in a while, I’d drop off a fresh resume and clips, maybe with a handwritten note inside. The executive editor came to Little Rock to give a talk. I made sure I was there. Those kinds of things.

I tried the normal way of moving to a new city: applying for jobs there, hoping I get one and it comes with moving expenses. I’d been a finalist for a reporting job at not the P-G at one point – they even flew me up for interviews – but it didn’t work out.

It would have to happen a different way.

And then I moved. Even as their newsroom went through another round of staff buyouts, they found room in their freelance budget to toss me work. Mixed in with assignments from other publications, it kind of worked. It was enough.

We found an apartment we couldn’t turn down in late December in the Mexican War Streets on the city’s North Side. My wife quit her job in February. Then we were both out of full-time work. I freelanced. She temped. We scraped by.

I got a job writing for Gas Business Briefing, an online business publication covering the natural-gas industry in North America and based on the South Side of Pittsburgh. The P-G had an indirect role in that. The city editor met someone at a party who worked for a sister publication to the Briefing and put us in touch. When this job came open, my new friend was able to put in a word.

Still did some freelancing. Not long afterward, my wife found full-time work, too, as editor of one of AOL’s Patch websites.

Things were OK. Our plan mostly worked. We were here. We were employed in journalism.

And then the company that owned Gas Business Briefing got sold in July, subsumed into a large unit of a massive global company. The four of us at the Briefing – an editor who also reported, two reporters and a sales person – were not the main asset in the deal. The way we covered the gas industry didn’t have an obvious fit with the new company.

Upheaval. Again. I asked around among friends if they knew of jobs that might come open in the near future. Got some truly good leads. I told my boss I’d started looking around and that I’d feel stupid not to. He understood and encouraged me. He couldn’t make any promises about my future in particular, let alone ours as a publication.

I didn’t go out of my way to chat up anyone at the P-G. Didn’t mention the job situation to them. By then we’d known each other more than two years. They knew where to find me. And my style of gentle persistence didn’t much fit with bugging them just because my circumstances had changed. I knew they liked me. They knew I liked them. If we could work something out, the situation wasn’t waiting on me to initiate it.

So there I am sitting at work and my phone buzzes with an email. It’s from that first P-G editor.

“You gotta updated resume, big man?”

That’s it. That’s the whole email. That’s all it said.

That’s the closest they’d ever come to formally talking to me about a full-time job. We traded emails and he asked if I’d considered being an editor. Breaking-news editor in particular.

Kind of perfect timing, actually. I’d been thinking about that a lot. And breaking news, if you’ve poked around this site at all, is a bit of a sweet spot for me professionally.

The job sounded like a good fit. It wasn’t just any job. Good gig, a lot of work on the website, plus a seat at the table for digital initiatives and social media.

I went in for interviews all day on a Tuesday in September. I wore the same suit I’d worn the first time I went in there to meet them for the first time. I’m not quite that superstitious, but that’s how it worked out and I thought it was kind of funny.

They told me I should hear something by the end of the next week. My phone rang at work the next Tuesday – early for their timeline.

It was the executive editor and the managing editor on speakerphone. I’ve been around long enough that that was enough to tell me what this call was going to be. A job offer. I about fell down in the hall outside the Briefing office.

“So, what are you planning to do the rest of your life?”

The executive editor’s ice-breaker. I about fell down again.

It was a good offer for a good job at a good newspaper. But it was so much more than that. It was relief. It was joy. It was hell-yeah-ness.

It meant everything worked. Our plan to move here with no jobs and build something from scratch – it all worked. The uncertainty – worth it. The week we had 39 cents in our bank account – worth it.

I start work tomorrow at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

  1. Steve Buttry says:

    Congratulations! Thanks for sharing so candidly. I’m so pleased this story had such a happy ending.

    • JQS. says:

      As my friend Sonny told me, you make your own luck. Just thought more folks should know that they can be in the spot they want to be — if they take the risks to make it happen.

  2. Mb says:

    Love the behind-the-scenes take, as always.

  3. TwinMamaTeb says:

    Awesome. Welcome to the Burgh newbie!

  4. Dad says:

    Amazing. Yet also not so amazing.

  5. I had seen a few vague tweets that something good was going on. Congrats on the new work!

  6. Donica says:

    That is a great story. Thank you for sharing it — I’m posting now on the school’s Facebook site!

  7. George Rede says:

    +1 to all the comments above. This is a great story of persistence, resourcefulness, flexibility — just three of the qualities that help define success in journalism and which I point out to aspiring journalists every chance I get.

    Great to see your perseverance rewarded in this way. Good luck in the new job. I look forward to catching up in person next spring when I’m in The Burgh.

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