When the assistant managing editor trundled over to summon me to my “involuntary separation” from the Denver Post, I was working on an exclusive column about the Crips and Bloods’ turf war at the city’s supposedly family-friendly “Jazz in the Park” series. The timing came to symbolize for me what has happened to the news business. My scoop didn’t matter. Neither did the ten writing awards I won in four years and three months as a metro columnist with the Post. The late nights and occasional weekends I put in, the blog I maintained in deference to the burgeoning online audience—none of it counted.
I had a decent-sized salary and no union protection. Post owner Dean Singleton had bought a bunch of newspapers on credit and needed to shed payroll to get his financing. Circulation and ad revenue was declining. In the newspaper industry’s ongoing struggle to cut costs, I qualified as low-hanging fruit. So, in an office of the Post’s new $85 million building, editor Greg Moore took thirty seconds to pluck me from a branch that had sustained me for thirty years.
My sacking became news on Romenesko. Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword, covered it, too. I meant to die at my desk. Instead, I became a pathetic curiosity.
Today, more than a year later, I feel like an exile. I still want journalism. Journalism just doesn’t seem to want me—at least not enough to pay me a livable wage with benefits and job security. That pretty much sums up the state of the industry.
I have learned a lot in the past year. I have learned that exemplary work at the Virginian-Pilot, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, and the Denver Post carries little weight where profit margins rule. I have learned that friends at other papers—even those with executive titles—are powerless to help me, because of the state of the industry. I have learned that being a columnist apparently keeps me from being hired as a reporter or feature writer, even though I was both before I took up commentary. I have learned that a six-month temporary assignment running a newsroom of sixty-three reporters and editors does not count as management experience.
I finished in the top three for a job as editorial page editor of a large Midwestern paper. Coming close helped my ego, not my bank account. Another editorial page editor told me he couldn’t hire me because I was “too liberal” and my voice was “too strong.” A third editorial page editor invited me to interview, but his paper was for sale, and when I asked the human resources person about my post-sale job security, she answered honestly that her job might not even exist. If you look up the Daily Press—owned by the Tribune Company—on Wikipedia, it says, in part, “Between 1988 and 2003, award-winning metro columnist Jim Spencer was the paper’s most prominent voice.” What it doesn’t say is that, amid Sam Zell’s current personnel pogrom at Tribune Company, I can never have my old job back.
Over and over I hear the civil language of rejection. I am not “a good fit.”
After the Denver Post laid me off, two friends built me a Web site, SpencerSpeaks.com. The Web site incorporated blogging software for readers to converse with each other about the columns I posted. I learned enough HTML to place copy, photos, slideshows, and podcasts of my radio appearances on the site. I parlayed the Web site and my reputation from the Post into an offer from a young ex-newspaper journalist, named Jake Harkins, to write a monthly column for $450 a month for the Yellow Scene magazine, a 67,000-circulation glossy give-away circulating in Denver’s north suburbs. I also negotiated a $3,000-per-month stipend from David Bennahum’s Center for Independent Media, a nascent national chain of online publications with a “progressive perspective.” I co-published my SpencerSpeaks columns on David’s Colorado Confidential Web site, which is now called the Colorado Indpendent. At $3,000 a month I earned twice as much as my co-workers in the online future of journalism.