This is a transcript of the fun chat I had with The Poynter Institute about my latest book Getting Laid (off).
Live Chat replay: Journalist Rodney Curtis tells how he got laid (off) and lived to laugh about it
by Joe Grimm / Published Apr. 23, 2014
Rodney Curtis is not right. Like thousands of other journalists, he got laid off. Unlike all the others, though, he decided this would make a funny book, “Getting Laid (off).” Who does that? Seriously, folks, American Society of News Editors surveys show that newsroom employment is down from a peak of 56,900 in 1989 to 38,000 in 2012. The 2013 number is expected to be smaller.
Poynter career chats feature job opportunities and strategies for journalists, but the new journalism jobs have not filled that gap and many have had to leave the industry. Curtis’ approach seems to be that if you can’t beat ‘em, tickle ‘em. Has it worked for Curtis? Can it work for anyone else?
See a replay of our Wednesday, April 23, talk with Curtis below:
MODERATOR: Hi, all. Please join me in welcoming Rodney Curtis, a journalist whose career gave him the uninvited opportunity to write a book called “Getting Laid (off).”
JOE GRIMM: Hello, Rodney!
RODNEY: Hey thanks for showing up. I appreciate everybody wanting to talk about Getting Laid
JOE GRIMM: Well, this is better experienced vicariously, I think.
JOE GRIMM: Let’s start by hearing about your situation, Rodney. What happened and when and how?
RODNEY: Well, let me think for a second …
RODNEY: I was happily employed, albeit stressed to the max. Then journalism cheated on me.
RODNEY: I was a photo editor for several years …
RODNEY: …when we saw the writing on the wall … and it wasn’t graffiti.
RODNEY: There were times when I was absolutely terrified…
RODNEY: … about getting laid …
RODNEY: The stress, the complete and total pressure mostly melted away once I got my notice. Leading up to it were years of worry about our profession. It was a nice relief when it was all over.
RODNEY: I worked in a dozen newsrooms in my 30-year career out on the East Coast and in Michigan…
RODNEY: It was 2009 when I got my marching orders.
JOE GRIMM: Rodney and I worked together at the Detroit Free Press. I left a year earlier, in 2008, in a buyout.
RODNEY: Yes, it was always fun working with Joe. So much so that we worked together again at Michigan State University and at David Crumm/John Hile’s Read The Spirit books.
JOE GRIMM: Layoffs are so much harder than buyouts … was teaching part of your “new plan?” How soon did that opportunity arise?
RODNEY: I began teaching at MSU a few months afterward, in the fall. Also, within a pretty short time I got sucked back in to journalism when The Detroit Daily Press started up and promised to revolutionize the way news was delivered in the Motor City. They definitely were revolutionary, only lasting about five editions before folding.
JOE GRIMM: That startup lasted, what, one week?
RODNEY: Yes, it was pretty funny, actually. But then again I find humor in LOTS of things!
JOE GRIMM: And how long did you teach?
RODNEY: I taught for a wonderful two semesters, both writing and photography if you can believe it…
RODNEY: … and THEN …
RODNEY: … I caught Leukemia but I made sure to do so while I was still on COBRA.
JOE GRIMM: Wow, so it was hard to find a new job … and things got so much worse. Please tell us how you are today.
RODNEY: Don’t worry kids, I’m fine. Right as rain — as they say. I am so much healthier than I ever was.
RODNEY: After getting laid, (off) I dropped about 20 pounds and exercised regularly.
RODNEY: Now that I’m off the treadmill, I can plan and eat better meals instead of picking stuff up on the fly. Now I don’t worry about my sleeping patterns after reading the New York Times piece Rethinking Sleep. It talked about how our ancestors and other cultures slept in two or three different chunks of time throughout the night. It was very eye-opening, if you will. tinyurl.com/97dsuka
RODNEY: I’m off the treadmill and onto the elliptical, as it were.
JOE GRIMM: Rodney, it sounds like in a weird way, getting laid (off) and catching leukemia was sort of a good thing? We should all have such a positive attitude.
READER COMMENT: I was laid off last November. Still looking for gainful employment. I can laugh about it only because I have decent retirement savings.
RODNEY: I hear you. That’s lousy timing, before Christmas.
RODNEY: Loss of income is certainly a worry. I know many families that have been dependent on one or both partner’s journalism pay. Some families have contingency plans in case something catastrophic happens. Others don’t. For instance, luckily we made sure both our daughters got braces as early as possible on the company dime. We also refinanced our home to make our payments lower while I still had my newspaper income.
JOE GRIMM: Laughter seems to have helped both of you … career stage and planning sure make a difference, too. READERS and Rodney, how old were you when you were laid off?
RODNEY: I was 46 when I got axed.
RODNEY: On Facebook, my friend Heather Newman wrote: “Don’t think of it as getting laid (off), think of it as premature evacuation.”
READER COMMENT: I was 33 when I got fired in 2011.
READER COMMENT: I was 57 1/2. Severance payments will end right after my 58th birthday.
JOE GRIMM: I was 54 when I left voluntarily. 33 and 46 seem like tough ages to start over.
JOE GRIMM: Post-leukemia, have you been looking? What is it like Rodney?
RODNEY: Yes indeedy, Joe, I have …
READER COMMENT: Still looking for a job, which is hard to come by in Zambia. I do occasional freelance work
RODNEY: I have three different resumes: one that emphasizes my photo skills, one that shows off my writtinngg skillz and one for teaching.
JOE GRIMM: Any nibbles, Rodney?
RODNEY: There are definitely nibbles, Joe.
RODNEY: Writing has been a fantastic solace for me.
RODNEY: Except when I have to come up with things on the fly in a chat room atmosphere.
RODNEY: I also do some fun freelance photography.
JOE GRIMM: Was the book kind of therapeutic then, and does joking about this help?
RODNEY: Someone once wrote that my writing was a bit like Dave Barry meets David Sedaris, but there are times when I feel more like it’s a sad love child between David Crosby and David Schwimmer.
RODNEY: People have been laughing in the face of fear for years; I’m not new in that respect. But for me laughter has always been the best medicine … well, that and chemo.
READER COMMENT: All I have are editing skills, and I worked a long time in a niche so narrow it looks like a splinter. I should have moved more forcefully into online publishing.
READER COMMENT: I’m surprised that your journalism experiences haven’t soured you entirely on the profession. You still want to get back into a news operation?
RODNEY: That’s a great question. I am entertaining ALL options.
RODNEY: I’ve also looked into speech writing, advertising photography and Costco.
RODNEY: I’ve done a ton of volunteer work too. Every fall, I help teach book production and photo editing at The Mountain Workshops in Kentucky.
RODNEY: I have even been a calendar boy …
RODNEY: … I wrote the photo captions (or as National Geographic calls them, legends) for several bone marrow transplant calendars.
READER COMMENT: Hi Rodney! Now that you’ve been away from the M-F 9-5 type of job for a while, do you find that you miss it? Or do you prefer the freedom of freelancing on different projects?
RODNEY: Great question. Yes, I miss it especially when the big news stories happen…
RODNEY: I hear something happened to the Detroit mayor???
READER COMMENT: The day I was fired, I laughed when giving my newsroom colleagues the news and they thought I was joking.
JOE GRIMM: It sure seems like it is harder to get laid off when you’re halfway through a normal career cycle and so many things have changed. Young workers can adapt or change, older workers might be able to coast, but what if you’re between 35 and 55. Rodney?
RODNEY: Yes Joe, yes, yes!! We didn’t just lose our jobs, but our professions as well.
JOE GRIMM: Any advice for us? What’s funny about that?
RODNEY: Put me on the spot, why don’t you?
RODNEY: There are times, of course, when I’m not laughing or even smiling. But I have learned to keep things in perspective …
RODNEY: People think losing your job a couple times and then getting cancer is all fun and games, but it’s not as great as it sounds.
RODNEY: But you have to laugh. Didn’t Sarah Silverman say, “when life hands you AIDS, make lemonaids.”
RODNEY: No, I shouldn’t joke about that. But it does highlight where I’m coming from.
RODNEY: Leukemia completely blindsided me. One morning I woke up, drove to Michigan State University and guest-lectured in a friend’s class, grabbed some pizza, played a quick nine holes of golf, then got my diagnosis late that afternoon. I still have no words to describe how I felt at that moment. But I CAN tell you I had pizza again for dinner. Somehow, counting carbs seemed the least of my worries.
JOE GRIMM: You also wrote a book about having leukemia … same idea?
RODNEY: Why, thanks for the segue, Joe.
JOE GRIMM: I hope this isn’t becoming a series for you. We had with Warren Watson a little while ago about what people are doing after their journalism career comes apart. He is working on a book, too.
RODNEY: Warren Watson interviewed me for that book.
JOE GRIMM: So, back to “Getting Laid (off) …” Can you share any insights or strategies for getting through these unfunny times?
RODNEY: Yes, yes … I realized I had no more Detroit taxes to pay , or parking fees …
RODNEY: … eating out every lunch was a costly expense, as was gas for my 1/2 hour commute, etc.
RODNEY: So you may not realize that you CAN get by on a little less income. Right Joe?
JOE GRIMM: Right. There are some big changes, but you’re still in your house, you’ve beaten cancer — the important things are all in place, eh?
RODNEY: Yep, I am still in my house, still married and have two fabulous kids. I also have two nutty dogs who so far haven’t helped matters much (they won’t even look for part-time clerical work).
RODNEY: And yes, I’ve beaten cancer. They don’t always use the word Cure when it comes to cancer, but they cured me. When they gave me my brother’s stem cells, they weren’t playing around.
RODNEY: I’ve talked about the let up in stress once exiting the profession, but then over the past month I redesigned and re-coded RodneyCurtis.com. Yeeps, I haven’t felt that much stress since Valverde was pitching in the ninth.
JOE GRIMM: Perspective helps a lot. Losing a job can be awful, but there are worse things. And you can survive with a different set of rules for longer than you thought.
READER COMMENT: I used to spend $25 a day on meals. Now it’s more like $10. That’s $450 less a month right there.
RODNEY: That’s right, exactly!
RODNEY: I’m casting a wider and wider net for job opportunities, meaningful work.
RODNEY: For instance, there are several universities and secondary schools in Great Britain that have received my resumes.
RODNEY: I heard that at least one of them was checking up on me; that’s always a good sign unless they’re trying to sell me a time-share.
RODNEY: In the meantime, I am picking up bits and pieces around here. My publisher and editor (John Hile and David Crumm) have been great about royalties, now I have to kick my butt into a higher gear. If you take all the royalties I’ve made from this book so far and then add about four or five bucks I could probably purchase a nice frozen Cappuccino Blast from Baskin Robbins. (Okay BR, does THAT count as product placement?)
RODNEY: Hey, everybody has experienced a job loss or a reduction in employment. We’re all in this together (like that Disney song says).
RODNEY: It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.
JOE GRIMM: This is starting to sound like a strategy:
* Keep your sense of humor and don’t lose your identity with your job.
* Cut way back on the expenses.
* Look for meaningful work and cast the net further based on what success your having.
RODNEY: Good synopsis. Meaningful work is definitely important!
JOE GRIMM: The traditional journalism job market is still shrinking. The new jobs, which are real, are not replacing all of the old jobs. Career changers NEED to consider more options. Newer journalists need to be very aware of what is opening up, they need to be adaptable and they need to bank some money and keep adding skills with an uncertain future in mind. …
JOE GRIMM: There ARE some tremendous and exciting new things opening up, but the idea of a guaranteed job is a relic of the past. This is the case in many, many industries … not just journalism.
JOE GRIMM: Rodney, any closing thoughts?
RODNEY: Thank you all for the opportunity to chat about this. It has been fun and helpful. I want to emphasize that when I got sick, a whole bunch of my former colleagues jumped in with all manners of support. The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News staff and Midland Daily News folks were phenomenal with their outpouring of love. That helped get me over Getting Laid (off) for sure!
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