Okay, so, breathe.
Twenty-eight hours ago I was huddled against the wall of the bathroom, knees to my chest, fingers racing to trace out the words. Morse code, like. Dot-dot-dash. Mayday, mayday, this ship is going down. “They laid me off today,” I texted, a thousand times I texted, and it still just sounds so wrong.
No wronger, though, than this:
“This isn’t personal.”
This is the personal story of a girl who waited.
I was 18 years old and I fell into writing, and I freelanced, and I waited for them to notice. Then they started paying me to write concert reviews, and I waited for them to notice I could do more. Every year, they’d give me a little more work, and a little more hope, and I lusted after the job at night, when the sun faded and my confidence came out to play.
In 2009, I finally got it. Then I lost it, in a round of cuts that sent three of us packing. They gave me a job downstairs from the newsroom, at the weekly papers; shoved off the ledge, I had a soft place to land. I grieved for what was, though. For the dream that had died, or at least gone a little blue.
Almost exactly one year later, the job came up: city reporter. I’ve never been a city reporter, and I can’t say I knew what to do. “You need to apply for this,” they said, and so I did. They named a time for me to come in for the interview.
I woke up that morning racked by violent sneezes, eyes gushing sick liquid. Goddamnit, not today. I popped a handful of Tylenol Nighttime Colds to keep the symptoms at bay. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to be noticed.
Ninety minutes later, I’m shaking hands with my editors, and notice I can’t feel the weight of their squeeze. Then they ask me: so, what can you bring to the Winnipeg Free Press? “Uhhh,” I say, looking up to the sky, and my brain is a fog and the words all fade away. “Uhhhh… I’m really sorry, I had to take some cold medicine, and I uhhh… oh man…”
My mind screamed at my eyelids to stay the fuck open.
Then it was done, and I shuffled out, went home, and collapsed into bed.
“How did it go?”
“Bad,” I said, and I covered my face with a pillow. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
One week later, I was back in the newsroom to visit a friend, when Paul Samyn asked me to follow into his office. I sat down and waited for him to start, and arranged my face to survive the decision he would state: when the bad news breaks, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
“Well,” he said. “You’re coming back upstairs.”
I was crying before he finished the sentence.
Six days before the sky fell, we met on the third floor, in the big empty room that says “human resources,” as if you could mine us and gold would fall out. Lord knows they’ve been trying. The big room’s been empty for as long as I know, save for the offices in the corner and a shelf of dated Hollywood DVDs against the wall.
This is where the publisher gives us the bad news, once a quarter; he calls them Town Halls, but the town is dying. Even though there’s only 30 of us at this meeting, the second-last of several, we all take the middle and end-row seats. Everyone wants distance between themselves, and the bar graphs.
Today: same old story, worse than the last, but we’re numb to it now. Revenues are down, and there’s no reason to think they won’t keep diving through the gulf. Web traffic is great. Apps are taking off. Northern distribution routes have been axed. Anything that doesn’t make money, could be axed. Wait, work, pray.
My friend raised his hand and asked the only question anyone really cared about. “Will there be any more layoffs?”
We’re always looking at options, the publisher said. But there are no specific plans to cut more departments at this time.
I exhaled, tapped my phone back to Twitter and walked back to my desk.
“How bad was the Bob thing?” they asked.
Not bad, I replied, just the same old story. A little bit worse than the last.
Was this a lie? I don’t know. I don’t know how decisions are made, in offices. I don’t know how fast the balance sheets move, and bean counters point at departments and draw a line across their throats. Tsssttttt. You’re dead.
“It’s not personal,” she said, the Human Resources lady.
It’s never personal to the ones who aren’t personally affected. I stared at the ceiling. I stared at the wall. I stared at the Jets something or other, framed in a big frame and God I can’t see it now, what is it, what is it and is it worth holding onto. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.
I told them I thought they were committing suicide.
“It’s not personal,” she repeated, as if a suicide is ever about the people left behind.
More on this later. Another time. When thoughts skew straight and ideas come around, I have nothing but time on my hands.
I live-Tweeted my layoff from the bathroom corner, with my legs pulled up to my chest and my blood still running hot.
Then I left my phone on my desk, picked up my cookie-tin banjo that is a Lorne Collie original, because it’s the best memory I have of this beautiful and draining and sad and fading job, and I marched to the store and bought a new iPhone.
When I came back online, I saw how beautiful people are. And I knew I would survive.
More on this later, on the media and all that jazz. But first, let me say this:
Those of us cut yesterday, we all deserved better. We deserved better than to be blindsided and cut loose without warning. We deserved a chance to offer up ideas, to make suggestions and volunteer to find a way to make it work. At the very least, to prepare. This has happened in other situations, I hear. Even in 2009 we had discussions about job-sharing and other ways to try and stop the cuts. We all knew they were coming, when they did.
“Same old story. A little bit worst than the last.”
Paul Samyn deserves better, so freshly installed as editor. I was excited about working for him. He is still one of the finest editors I have ever known, a bundle of big ideas and little battles and a fire for this game. He deserves far better than to be the last editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, though I fear that is what happens no matter how hard he fights to keep the thing alive. And he deserved far better than to have to pull the plug on so many of us, so soon.
For those who keep track of such things at home: these are not on him. It doesn’t work that way.
The Free Press deserves better than to be hacked apart until it has no blood left to bleed. One hundred forty-something years it’s been surviving, and now they’re tearing off its head. I’m not saying I could have been the saviour of that paper; I wasn’t, I’m not, I can’t, I’m not enough. Besides, it never fit me as easily as I had hoped. But the only thing that matters anymore is content; it’s the only thing of value. And content is what got cut yesterday.
It’s not about who we are, or what we do. It about the fact that these jobs are never coming back.
Same old story…
I woke up to the sound of freezing rain, wrapped my blankets around me and laughed until I fell asleep again.
My friend called to see if I was okay. “I’m great,” I said. “You’re covering the IKEA opening, and I’m not.”
Energy never ends. It only mutates, changes and transfers into something else. Stay tuned.