Freedom Day

Monday was an anniversary of sorts. On that day, two years ago, I worked my last shift as a full-time newspaper reporter.

Those of you who’ve followed me for a while know what a big decision that was. I had worked for that particular newspaper for 18 years and in newspapers in general for 22 years, which was pretty much my entire adult life. I spent a long time thinking about the choice to go freelance and try to make a living with my words while I went through what I thought would be two years of grad school. Whee.

Last year I wrote that this decision was like jumping off the high dive with my family handcuffed to me, but without knowing if the pool was full of water. I spent the first few weeks of grad school sure I had made an awful mistake: I was too old, I didn’t fit in, I was a bad fit for academic style and the philosophical approach to the field. I didn’t exactly hit the ground running, but I adapted, and as of this writing I have finished all the coursework for the masters degree in media studies.

Several factors have delayed completion of Ye Olde Thesis, not the least of which has been COVID-brain – no, I haven’t had The Plague, but the situation we’ve all been in since March seems to have made my concentration very difficult. Wurdz r hard.

But I have never regretted my choice. It’s not an easy life, being a freelancer. I spend a lot of time hustling work and filing invoices. But I also choose what I write about, and I am my own boss. That has definitely been worth what I gave up in security and a regular paycheck.

And I’m still reporting. I do magazine articles on a fairly regular basis, and I also do some local reporting for a subsidiary of my former employer. I like to keep a foot in the game, since I hope to be teaching newswriting again in the future and I feel you really need to keep up with the profession in order to teach it, beyond reading in the trades about the general state of the news industry.

I truly love teaching. I didn’t know how I would take to it, but it surprised me by being the best part of the last two years. One of my few disappointments this year was that we could not figure out a way for me to keep teaching newswriting while I’m teaching English comp this fall, as I would happily teach both classes as long as they’d let me. All of us got hit with unexpected challenges – a baby-bird new teacher suddenly switching to all-online instruction in mid-semester required multiple adjustments of the syllabus and assignments, but fortunately my poor students were patient with me, and I’m looking forward to continuing my teaching in the English department this fall.

Oddly, my fiction work has flourished even during the grind of grad school, in ways it hasn’t in years. This year in particular, I’ve seen several stories picked up for speculative fiction anthologies and also a literary magazine, an avenue where I haven’t had much success in years past. I am hoping to see far more of that, as I begin my new MFA program next month.

Meanwhile, nothing dulls my passion and advocacy for news reporting, even as it becomes more and more tiresome to wade through the hate spewed toward us online (and sometimes more than hate, as evidenced by the treatment of journalists on the protest lines in so many places this year.)

So while I tend to think of the anniversary of my departure as Freedom Day, it should not be interpreted as freedom from my old job or the news or journalism. It was more an internal freedom, the freedom to remake my life and my work to better suit all the facets of who I am as a writer. It’s freedom from the expectations of others and the restrictions I placed on myself, not freedom from any particular employer.

Below is the speech I gave at my farewell party at the newspaper. I meant every word of it, and still do. (Yes, I wrote it down. If I don’t write down what I’m gonna say, I’ll talk forever and it’ll be full of “um,” as my students can attest.)

——-

I remember the first time I walked in here as an employee. It was June 2000, and we won’t talk about how old some of you were on that day, Josh

I was 25 years old and less than three years out of school. I filled out my papers and they sent me up to the bureau so I could introduce myself to the crew working up there: Doug Criss, Teri Maddox, Steve Nagy, Marilyn Vise, Jayne Matthews.

I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know shit.

But I learned, because of the people I worked with here. I had editors, and colleagues, and mentors, and friends. We are a strange and often dysfunctional little family, but we are a family nonetheless. 

And that doesn’t change when you walk out the door, as I’ve discovered from the number of people I’ve heard from in the last few weeks and even the last few days. They remember, and we are connected. We are a family, because we all came here for one purpose, one calling that rides above an ordinary profession.

We are here because we believe in journalism, and its importance to the community in ways that they will never understand or appreciate. No matter how awful or exhausting or difficult it gets, no matter how jaded we think we’ve become, we still show up and shovel coal into the furnace and do the work and inform people who will never appreciate it.

To me, that makes every one of you heroes.

I am proud to have worked with every one of you. I am proud of being part of the News-Democrat. I always have, and I always will be. I have been here so long that “News-Democrat” is part of my name – when I introduce myself to people out in the world, I have to stop myself from saying, “Elizabeth Donald News-Democrat.” 

It’s going to be a hard habit to shake. But that’s okay, because it’s part of me, part of who I am.

I know there’s a lot of uncertainty right now – it’s weird, and there are difficult times ahead, more difficult for some than others. But I know that wherever our various paths go from here, each of us can and will stay the course with our true mission – and I don’t mean the checklist or a spreadsheet or a hit count goal. But the true mission of any newspaper: to serve and inform our community.

Each of you has been a shining example of that mission. And I don’t just mean the mentors who taught me so much of what I needed to know all these years. I mean you young ones who will carry the torch forward for us, and have taught me things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. 

Your dedication, your skill, your passion and commitment have restored my faith in our profession’s future. I will always be proud to have worked with each of you.

And you’re required to stay in touch. That’s why God invented the internet.

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