White Collar Reset: A magazine editor loses his livelihood

Reading about the salary-cut standoff at The Boston Globe this week made me nostalgic for a time, way back at the beginning of the recession, when I, too, had a salary worth fighting over. The Newspaper Guild rejected a proposal by the parent New York Times Company (NYT) that would have effectively cut wages by about 10 percent, a move that caused management to unilaterally impose a 23 percent cut. One reporter who said she had voted for the original plan, commented, "I can't afford to gamble with a fourth of my pay. How am I going to pay my mortgage?" To which my reaction was: Just wait.

It was just about eight months ago that the parent company of the magazine where I was the editor-in-chief cut my salary by 50 percent. As with the Globe, the across-the-board measure was part of a desperate, last-ditch effort to stanch the flow of red ink, although in our case it was said to be "temporary," which proved to be true in a sense. Three months later, the company declared bankruptcy, and I officially joined the thousands of magazine journalists now out of work in New York City.

In the three months before and after my magazine (Private Air, a luxury lifestyle magazine popular at private airports) closed, some two dozen other magazines were shuttered, including Portfolio, Blender, Country Home, O at Home, Play, Cottage Living, Domino and Men's Vogue. Most other media companies in the city have implemented layoffs and salary and hiring freezes. Fill-in editing gigs, which have seen many a top magazine editor through previous downturns, have all but been eliminated. If newspapers are a dying industry, then magazines would have to be considered chronically ill, like the aging relative with the wheelchair and oxygen tube who manages to hang on and utter a few raspy witticisms at family functions. I'm not being dramatic when I say that my prospects of ever finding another job in the industry which has long supported me with a six-figure income and to which I have devoted most of the last 25 years of my life is somewhere between zero and three percent.

I am a highly trained professional in a profession that barely still exists and has negligible, if any, remaining economic value. I am very good at "thinking of ideas" and working with writers and designers to "structure" their thoughts and bring words "alive on the page," none of which anyone gives a rat's ass about anymore.

Three months into my unemployment, the people who run this website kindly offered to have me spend a couple hours each morning working from home polishing the prose of the posts before they went live. The economics of the Web being what they are, they explained they couldn't pay me "very much" (my wife helpfully pointed out I could probably make more on jury duty). Still, it got me out of the bed in the morning and gave me something to do between unanswered emails . . . and then I got laid off. True story. As part of the development of this site, which is still in beta, most editing functions are being brought in-house. Softening the blow, however, the site's managing editor did have another idea: I could write a twice-weekly column about retooling myself instead. Despite the fact I hadn't written for a living in 15 years, I said yes.

Now, you, too, will get to follow along in the weeks ahead as I figure out what the *$#% I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Some posts, like today, will be about me. Some will focus on other people attempting to re-invent themselves in the face of the most profound economic upheaval in this country in 80 years. I'll talk to an out-of-work automobile robotics operator in Michigan and a lawyer in Baltimore. I'll introduce you to the unemployed former-publisher friend of mine who couldn't figure out what to do next so he started a website called What'sNext. We'll meet another friend, a nonfiction author of critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers, who recently came to the realization that if he doesn't retool and start spending less time on the words and more on thinking about linkable content and video outtakes and multi-platform distribution channels, before long he will be every bit as outmoded, obsolete and irrelevant as me.

Tonight, I attend my first group job-counseling session with the noted outplacement, counseling and support firm The Five O'Clock Club. I'm frankly dreading it. Not only am I positive I will be the most hopeless case they have ever seen, I'm staring at a good six hours of homework before we even meet. When I expressed dismay at my suddenly burgeoning "workload" for someone so jobless, Kate Wendleton, the Club's famously upbeat, energetic talks-a-mile-a-minute founder, took a deep breath. "Look, you have to stop the whining and follow the process. If you don't follow the process, then there is no hope and I get depressed, and that's no good."

She was right, of course. So I made her the same deal I'll make you (and that I would suggest to my colleagues at The Boston Globe). No matter how bleak things seem in the weeks ahead, I'll try not to make you depressed.

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