Today, August 29, is my final day at the only full-time job I have ever known: writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I’m forty-five. I started here twenty-two years ago, half my lifetime. It’s an uncommon crossroads—federal labor statistics show that a person sticks with a job for about four years.
Newspaper work, though, means far more than a paycheck, and most of the other seventy-two people who have also accepted the buyout and are leaving today will tell you the same. We are a family full of passion and character, one I’m deeply sad to leave.
Like a household, a paper takes nonstop devotion and effort. Our people must step up every day, and now with ajc.com, every minute. We share a strong sense of public service, that our work can, at its best, change lives. And our bonds strengthen from crisis to crisis—sound like your family, too?
When I arrived fresh from college, my plan was to survive my ten-week internship then return to my (real) family’s sales company. I still pinch myself that I got to stay.
Like any typical Atlanta transplant, I found my first social network at work. The newsroom was full of twentysomethings who worked long hours then headed to Manuel’s Tavern for beers and b.s. But as soon as I swore off dating anyone there, I met a reporter who would become my husband. (At one time, there were twenty-two couples in the newsroom.)
When our children were born, my coworkers brought food and helping hands — just as we had done for them. A group of us usually spend Thanksgiving together.
As in a family, our roots deepened along the way in other small but significant ways. One reporter made me her bridesmaid. I introduced a photographer to his eventual wife. I babysat for a page designer, and as the years passed, coworkers’ children babysat for mine. I still go to a doctor whose wife worked here until recently, to a church that a copy editor invited me to.
From my colleagues, I learned how to make a feather-light piecrust, quilt, find the best flea markets. They taught me how to camp, hike, and paddle. One work friend saved me from hypothermia after my canoe capsized in a freezing river.
When younger writers arrived, I reached out to them like a big sister. After all, colleagues had shown me how to report and write a complicated story, request a public document, deal with an angry source. Faced with mistakes and criticism, I was fortunate to have these people showing me what newspapering demands day in and day out: honor and guts.
This sense of community helped influence the kind of stories I wanted to write. As Atlanta doubled in size, I sought to connect people to their city and to each other, just as I found connection in AJC’s newsroom. I gravitated toward everyday triumphs and breakdowns—graduations and adoptions, first homes and house fires, affairs, addictions, deep loss. I aimed for stories with a rich sense of family, its joys and sorrows, dreams and disappointments. What I saw around me in the office I looked for in my stories.
When the Internet hit, family life everywhere picked up speed. It rocked my work family. Fewer people wanted their news delivered to their driveway. Classified ads and other revenue dried up. That came to mean fewer of us.
Last month, the AJC offered buyouts to everyone with five years of service, almost three hundred of us, in a memo from top editor Julia Wallace:
You have been a valuable part of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for many years, and we appreciate your passion and dedication to our newspaper.
Regardless of what you decide, we are proud of the company you helped shape and expect your contributions to continue to benefit us. Thank you for being an integral part of our family.
I now faced a difficult decision. Should my household’s two incomes rely on the same tenuous industry? Could one of us separate from our tight newspaper clan? What had we learned about risk from our work family?
A year ago, my editor Jan Winburn had challenged me to dig deeper into a story about a road trip I had taken with my father. It meant exposing a complicated relationship, trying to build with words a bridge from my private loneliness to a public narrative.
That story changed my life. As reader after reader wrote to tell me they could relate, I realized, for the first time, that my isolation was my own creation. A series of vivid dreams signaled me to write more of my own story, so I began, bit by bit. But with a full-time job, my memoir was slow going. Still, I understood that my personal history, even if my daughters turned out to be the only ones to read it, would be my most important story. The buyout offered paid time to get it done.
When I turned in my voluntary separation forms, Jan hugged me, and we both cried. She told she believed the best for me. I told her, “You’re like a parent who raises children so they can leave and make it on their own.”
All those stories, all those years, all the people I learned alongside— they raised me to try, to risk failing, to write no matter what.
With their support, I’m trying something different. I’m going to miss them terribly. I will never replace those who helped me grow as a writer, and, in so many ways, grow up.
Michelle Hiskey started as a stringer for the Prince George's County (Md.) Journal at age 16. She's taught at the Poynter Institute and National Press Club. She's working on a memoir.
The steady drip of layoffs and buyouts, slowly desiccating once-vibrant newsrooms around the country, has also produced a reservoir of anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty—even some cautious optimism here and there—among reporters and editors who invested years, decades in some cases, of their lives to print journalism. We’ve asked anyone so inclined to channel these emotions, not into rant—although there will be a bit of that—but rather into reflection on what went wrong, and where we might go from here. We will publish these periodically under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.