When Losing a Job Means Losing an Identity

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"I've always had an affection for divey little bars," Mike Lewis tells me. The first time he entered the Streamline Tavern, he came as a reporter on assignment for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, writing a series called "Diving Lessons" about the characters who congregate in such places. Now he has become the starring character of the Streamline, having invested his P-I severance pay into buying part ownership of the classic Queene Anne's Hill establishment.

When the national economic downturn coincided with old media's pre-existing condition of fiscal vulnerability, a virtual hemorrhaging of the fourth estate erupted. Beginning soon after last Christmas, bulk emails would arrive in my inbox on a weekly basis, as one friend after another ruefully announced they'd joined the growing ranks of unemployed journalists.

In February, Denver's Rocky Mountain News halted operations entirely. A couple weeks later, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced it would cease to exist in newsprint form. While retaining a skeleton crew to generate online content for SeattlePI.com, 160 reporters, editors, designers, critics, and columnists lost their jobs.

Pundits have thoroughly dissected the slow downfall of print media, typically citing the availability of free newspapers on the Internet as sparking the bleed of subscription rolls, thus creating an increasing margin of unprofitable. More bitter media watchers blame blogs and online news aggregators for parasitically sucking content (and readers) away from the original creators.

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Longtime Seattle P-I book critic, John Marshall, believes the most critical loss of revenue can be pinpointed with greater precision: "Craigslist is what killed the old media. That was the cash cow that drove old media, and now that cow is dead."

When I meet up with him for a wander through the University Farmer's Market, he admits solitude is the hardest thing about being unemployed. "There are some days when they only person I talk to is a barista at the coffee shop." He misses the camaraderie of the news room, and that sense of collective effort and accomplishment when a good issue closed.

These days John usually has to work alone, writing the occasional freelance piece for The Daily Beast or IndieReader.com. He also just began teaching a memoir-writing class at the Richard Hugo House, a literary community center. Marshall received a fairly sizeable severance package for the 26 years he invested in the P-I, and admits he won't start seriously worrying about his employment status until after the first of the year.  

Only about a dozen of his former colleagues have secured full-time jobs since the March layoffs, so it doesn't seem like there are many opportunities available for people of his background and interests. Most are cobbling together a journalism-related career with two or three small jobs, he says, typically freelance writing, editing, or teaching. 

At weekly coffee gatherings of former P-Iers, "People hardly even talk about trying to find jobs anymore," John says. "There's a tremendous amount of hopelessness and despair among those who thought they knew what they'd be doing for the rest of their lives. They wanted to go into journalism to make the world a better place, then you realize the world doesn't care."

Claudia Rowe, formerly the P-I's social issues reporter for six years, holds tight to the belief that her efforts can improve the world, and has the distinction of leaving journalism to discover a new way to satisfy that ambition.

"I am sort of stunned," Claudia admits. "I never could have envisioned leaving journalism. I had never done anything else. My identity is totally tied up in journalism. I was quite distraught through the summer, thinking 'How am I going to recreate my career.'"

Rather than recreating her journalism career, Claudia became a public information officer for the Marguerite Casey Foundation, an organization that supports grassroots and community efforts to empower the working poor. Now in her second week as an ex-hack turned flack, Claudia finds her new job "surprisingly gratifying and interesting."

"I've found out that the very things I'd been trying to do for 20 years, while very gratifying, I was less and less able to shine a light on social issues. This foundation provides another route to the same end."

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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