There is Always Another Way

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.

22 Comments on “There is Always Another Way”

  1. John, you are SO right? Speaking as technology layoffee pro. Well, I only lost one job that way (they rid themselves of the entire business unit)… and was able to recover less than a week later.

    But where this post REALLY speaks to me? My fiction and column writing dream. :-) And yeah, I’m working on it. No matter what the way.

  2. Very true stuff, and for me a fairly spooky coincidence. Almost 10 years ago, my educational tech job was moved to Connecticut, and I was offered the choice between leaving NYC forever and being paid a chunk of money to stop working. So it wasn’t really a case of bravery or gumption making me a freelancer, more like laziness and greed. (And fear of, you know, Connecticut.)

    So thanks to that laziness and greed, in 2007 I get to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my first novel coming out. (Wipes away tear.)

    Of course, we’re hardly the only two of our techie generational peers to have gotten practiced at taking employer evaporations in stride. (

  3. Thank you. Sometimes it’s not about being brave or being fired, it’s just a matter of doing the next thing, and that’s where I am right now.

  4. And for the record, you’ve still got at least one fan in Fresno who missed your column (at least until I discovered Whatever and RSS).

  5. That is some very sound advice, and my own experience backs it up. For some reason, every job I’ve had in my adult life has been restructured into “sales.” Sales makes me utterly miserable, I can’t do sales, and I won’t do sales. So if I could ever move jobs and have one not turn into “sales,” I’d be overjoyed.

    Oh also, I just tried signing in with my Typekey identity and I get a message stating that “this site has not signed up to use this feature.” ?

  6. Yeah, I have problem with Typekey for some reason. I took out the “sign in with typekey” link.

  7. And THAT is why you have the ability to channel Heinlein…damn if your real life sometimes sounds just like it came right from one of his books.

    Well, minus the group marriage and redheads. You aren’t holding out on us, are you John?

  8. I’ve had 6 jobs in the last five years. Two of them ended as a direct result of the dot com bust and one indirectly because of the Tom DeLay indictment (No, I don’t even know the man, not that I’d want to). The others I left voluntarily.

    Like you, John, I’ve learned to be resilient and open to change. Deep down, no matter how weird or stressful things got, I always knew I had the mad skillz that would always guarantee me work and I continue to make sure I do.

  9. There’s always another way

    In a new blog post, John Scalzi recounts his move from print to online writing back in 1995. This is what John learned from the experience: The most important thing the move taught me was simply this: There is always…

  10. Nice piece.

    I was quite surprised to find out that I had already posted a comment.

    How many fans named Stan Taylor do you have?

  11. “There is always another way.” This is a tough lesson for newspaper folks, especially in one-newspaper towns, especially if they love the town and the pay provides for a decent middle-class living in that town. It reminds me of the joke about the guy who cleans up after the elephant in the circus: If you suggest that miserable newspaper people quit, they say the equivalent of: “And give up show business?”

    I’m afraid that people think I’m being disingenuous when I counsel there’s always another way. They say, “Yeah, but you had the other thing.” But I didn’t have the other thing (writing mystery novels) because I was an industry visionary or even because I foresaw that they would one day come for me. I wrote novels because I liked it and, against all odds, I found I could support myself doing it. I left my job in November 2001, learning in hindsight that I had followed the Scalzi rule-of-thumb. (I think it’s Old Salary + 30 Percent More = No Change in Lifestyle.) Believe it or not, I actually pay less for health care than my old colleagues because I managed to grit my teeth through the 18 months of COBRA, which meant that Blue Cross Blue Shield had to take me. Meanwhile, the last contract at the Sun raised the employees’ share.

    Anyway, I’ll take the occasion of John’s anniversary to out myself as a longtime lurker here. Congratulations, John.

  12. A great post, thanks as always for sharing. Like everyone else has said I think it is also very true and have had (and currently having) many of the same sorts of experiences, trials and travails. But like you said, it is all about how you deal with it, and that “There is always another way.” Very well said.

  13. Congratulations, John. My 10-year anniversary of joining the Internet world comes in March 2007, though I’ve been back in print journalism for a little over five years. My years online, at a time of remarkable ferment and innovation, were invaluable to boosting my career and those of many of my colleagues. And I got out just before the mass layoffs started! (Not that there haven’t been mass-ish layoffs here at Unnamed National Newspaper, but I’ve managed to avoid those so far.)

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  15. It was spam that popped this article to the top but I am glad it did because I missed it the first time around.

    Great advice here! I’m fortunate to have had 28 mostly happy years with the same employer but while the employer has remained constant the jobs I have done for the company have changed greatly. Even if a person does everything to stay the same change will come crashing in. I’ve come close to changing my employer 4 times in those 28 years, and I’m sure it will happen a few more times before I am done.

    I miss some of the early work I did but there is no use looking back. The world needs what it needs and jobs reflect that.

    One thing I do is to take that SS summary we get once a year, the one that lists your SS income over the years, and I graph it in constant current dollars. It shows me very clearly the dips, plateus, and some increases I’ve had in my income since I started working in 1972. It also lets me compare my starting salary and my college summer jobs to what is available today.

    Do you know I made $8,000 (in today’s money) working a summer job for 3 months in 1977? It was a machine shop job with loads of overtime I’d had for four straight summers. I’ve always enjoyed working machine shop jobs and have considered it for a career or a post-retirement job.

    Anyway I like that you encourage people to take heart when the chips are down and things look the worse. Many times change is for the better.

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