I have a little bit of a mania for noting significant anniversaries, and right about now marks one of them: Ten years ago I got my job offer from America Online, and officially left print journalism for the online world — and along the way learned an important thing about how the world works.
Bear in mind that leaving The Fresno Bee, where I worked before I went to AOL, wasn’t something I had planned on. At the time I was very happy working for the newspaper — but then, why wouldn’t I be? I was the movie critic — the youngest pro film critic in the US — which meant that my job consisted of watching movies and then saying clever things about them, and then also occasionally going down to LA and interviewing people prettier and richer than me as they talked about their latest projects. And to boot, I had a newspaper column where I could pretty much write about anything I wanted. Life was good, and I recall mentioning to a friend that I was happy enough at my job that I could see doing it for many years.
And of course, just like in the movies, as soon as you mention that life is good, that means something needs to come by and sqaut one out on your life. In my case, it was one of those periodic newspaper revamps, in which people get moved about and reassigned for no particularly good apparent reason other than because sometimes editors like to redecorate, and the way they redecorate is with staff. Call it editorial feng shui. I was called into my editor’s office and the two editors of the department told me that as part of their reorganization, my column was cancelled, they were going to cut back substantially on the number of movie reviews I would do, and that I would be required to do more straight-out reporting. In short, they were taking away from me the job that I loved doing, and asking me to do a job for which I didn’t feel I was suited .
Was it malicious? Almost certainly not. The editors in question were good people, and I feel reasonably sure they felt that aside from any raw talents I might have had as a writer, I could use some polish in other forms of newspaper writing. This is was also one of those times where the paper was trying to do more with the staff it had on hand, and the fact of the matter was that what I did was expendable — it’s not as if they couldn’t find movie reviews on the wire — and then they could use me as a resource for doing other things. Having now been an editor (and having now spent more time in the corporate world), I can see perfectly well the logic of their decision, and also how the editors could have sincerely believed it would be to my benefit as a writer.
Be that as it may, at the time, it felt like a sucker punch to the gut, and what compounded the issue was that, whatever the logic behind the move, I was pretty sure my editors knew (or thought they knew, in any event) that there wasn’t much I could do about it. Ten years ago as now, the number of jobs available at newspapers were smaller than the number of people competing for them, and the number of really cool jobs, such as mine, was much smaller. Unless I was willing to quit outright — which they rightly suspected I wasn’t — then there really wasn’t much I could do about it. Even if I went looking for another newspaper job, it could take months or even years to get.
What my editors didn’t know — and to be fair, what most newspaper editors didn’t know at the time — was that the print world was no longer the only way people could make money writing. By early ’96, I had already been online for a couple of years (my very first Web page, in fact, went up in 1994, when one still had to hand edit html and learn unix commands to upload pages), and that was enough time for me to start getting freelance writing jobs online. One of the jobs was writing a weekly finance and humor column for America Online’s Personal Finance channel (I got it largely because the person in charge of that area read something I wrote online and found it amusing). Over the several months I had written it, I had gotten to know the AOL folks pretty well, and knew they thought I was a clever enough person.
So as I was driving home that night, I decided to do something completely insane. First I signed on to AOL, and sent an e-mail to one of the AOL Vice-Presidents (the one in charge of their Web programming), and asked her if she thought AOL might be interested in buying a straight-out humor column from me. The Bee has cut the column, you see (I explained), and I was now free to pursue other options for it. Then I sent e-mail and waited for the VP to IM me to get the whole story, which she did about five minutes later (yes, back in the day, you could get an IM from an AOL VP — in five minutes, no less).
A few minutes after this Krissy came home from her job and walked into our bedroom to find me staring at my computer with scary, scary intensity.
“What are you doing?” she asked me.
“I’m waiting for something,” I said, without taking my eyes off the computer.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked, and right then, as if on cue, the VP of AOL unofficially offered me a job.
“That,” I said, and then turned to Krissy. “What would you think about moving to Washington, DC?”
Long story short, within an hour of being told that the Bee was changing my job, I had lined up another job. The next day I came in to work, and my immediate editor pulled me aside and asked, with real concern, if I was okay with my new assignments. I told him, honestly enough, that I had dealt with my issues and was ready to move forward.
Three weeks later I got my formal job offer (which I accepted via IM, to keep with the whole then-cutting-edgedness of it all), and called my editors into a meeting in which I told them I was leaving. They asked if there was anything they could do to keep me; I told them that it seemed unlikely. They asked if they could ask what I was going to be making; I told them. They both blinked; it was more than either of them made. It was their first real encounter with the online world, I suspect, and the first realization that major changes were on their way.
The move from the print world to the online world, and from California to Virginia, was immensely important to me in several ways: New work challenges and frustrations, a new crop of friends, many of whom remain quite dear to me, and of course my first full immersion into the online medium, where I still spend much of my time (heck, I’m still even working for AOL, though part-time rather than full-time). I miss working on a newspaper full-time, and I miss some of the people with whom I worked with back in Fresno — remember I wasn’t originally looking to leave the paper. I was happy there. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it again the same way. I like where I am now, and that required leaving the “nest” of my first real job.
The most important thing the move taught me was simply this: There is always another way. What is required is the will to confront change from without and roll with it so it becomes change from within. My job came crashing down on me, and I had a choice of accepting it or finding another way. I found another way and and took it. My editors forced change on me; I turned it around and worked to make it a change on my terms. In this particular case I was fortunate that work I had been doing had prepared the way, so I could move quickly — but even had I started from zero, with work another way would have presented itself in time.
This was an immensely important thing for me to learn. It’s been knowledge that I’ve had to remember more than once over the last ten years, most notably when AOL laid me off in 1998, and Krissy and I had to decide how to deal with it. We advanced rather than retreated and found a way to make it work. It made all the difference in the world then, and it still does today.
There is always another way. Remember that when your own challenges and changes show up and try to knock you back on your ass. Maybe they will knock you on your ass, but it’s up to you how long you stay sprawled out. That’s what I learned, a decade ago. I’m happy to share it with you now.