The long goodbyeBy Wade Kwon
I used to work for a newspaper, a Birmingham institution. Six months ago today, we published the last edition. My nine-year career there was done.
Shortly afterward, I wrote this update to e-mail to friends and former colleagues.
– – –
The end came quickly, mercifully, but all too soon.
My newspaper, the Birmingham Post-Herald, ended its run. And I am out of work for the time being.
Before I close that chapter, let me tell you about the place I spent many hours, day and night, to earn a living, hone my craft, build a career. The nine years I had there were mostly good ones, though near the end, I was ready to move on.
So when I got the call at 8:30 a.m., I wasn’t shocked. Our office manager was calling to let me know that the next day, Friday, Sept. 23, would be the last day of publication. I needed to let people in my department know right away.
My life was about to be turned upside-down.
Before I entered the building, a reporter from the competing newspaper greeted me with what I now call the “pity hello.” It’s that sad look of knowing, with a soft “hello, how are you holding up?” and a nod of acknowledgment.
I don’t like the pity hello, mostly because you have no adequate response.
Thank God I already knew — finding out from the competition would’ve pissed me off.
Walking into the newsroom, it was crazy. Colleagues were stunned, or quiet, or going through the motions. For me, it was somewhat surreal.
A few things kept me sane:
- I had known this was coming for sometime. This contract we had was similar to ones in other cities, and they either failed or were dying quickly. The only question wasn’t if but when.
- When other job opportunities had come up in the past nine months, I had checked them out. The New York Times and Southern Progress had given me the chance to see what was beyond my little newsroom.
- We still had one last edition to put out. So while others were cranking out resumes and making phone calls, I actually had pages to proof, stories to edit, all the mechanics of putting out a newspaper.
The morning was a barrage of calls and e-mails. People were calling in condolences before some staff members knew (one was vacationing in China, unreachable by phone or e-mail). All pity hellos.
One longtime reporter and his family were closing on a new house the next day. And, to his credit, was still going through with it.
Confusion reigned. Corporate honchos had taken over the conference rooms to meet with staffers individually. Questions flew about recommendation letters, health insurance, severance packages.
Jim, the boss, pulled us into one last planning meeting. Because it was out in the newsroom, most staffers wandered up to join in. Jan-Michael began shooting photos for coverage. Whenever I was in the frame, I edged out — just don’t like having my photo taken under certain circumstances. I discovered later that one of the photos that ran on the AP wire has me in plain sight. It looks like I’m sad, staring at the ground, while our editor is speaking, but the truth is, I’m trying to hide behind the reporter in front of me so I’m not in the shot.
So much for low profile.
After the meeting broke up, I started writing my final column for the Post-Herald, a quick and simple goodbye, with a thank you to the readers.
It had to be quick: We still had a lot to do.
• • •
Some days, you just have to keep things moving. I met with the corporate folks. Fielded every phone call. Ignored most e-mails. Kept my staff moving on pages, meetings, questions.
My copy editor was leaving town the next day on a planned vacation, so I really had to get his exit in order. There was no tomorrow.
They fed us box lunches, about the least they could do. I had wanted to take my group out to eat, but realistically, we didn’t have the time.
I had heard from two of my exes, while my reporter had heard from one of hers. Clearly, I was winning the sympathy battle.
Keep things moving, keep things moving.
We’ve been through days like this before. The newsroom is on fire because a big story is consuming everything we do, professionally and personally. The only difference was that we were the big story. And we’d only have one chance to get it right.
Not only that, but you’ve got to get packing, start putting out feelers and say your goodbyes.
If you ever have the company pulled out from under you, you’ll understand. Chances are, some of you will. And you’ll have my complete sympathy.
• • •
About mid-afternoon on that Thursday, my blur of tasks began to lighten. I was still hearing the same question — one I’d hear endlessly if not politely over the coming days: What are you going to do next?
For me, it’s a question that has no answer. Just a deflection: I don’t know yet. I haven’t had time to think about it. I’m sure something will come along.
Even now, 10 days later, that answer eludes me.
• • •
Being in the smaller paper of a JOA (joint-operating agreement, the contract between our paper and the senior paper) is a series of indignities, huge and tiny. I’ve brushed most of them off, because that is what we do.
The last days shouldn’t be any different.
Our editor couldn’t give interviews on camera in the newsroom, because the publisher of the senior paper wouldn’t allow them in the building.
So he went out on the street. In 90-degree weather.
Because that’s what he does.
I didn’t pay attention to the media coverage. I knew what was going on, and seeing elsewhere wasn’t going to change that.
What I did do was have us publish one last section, sticking to what we had planned for weeks, with one minor change, the goodbye column.
Normally, I don’t like goodbye columns. But we owed the readers a heartfelt thank you for the privilege of covering the community.
• • •
At 5 p.m., they wanted a group photo, something for the front page of our last edition. The intern, who had worked here all of three days, took our parting shot.
It didn’t seem right, us hastily arranged in the center of the newsroom, with colleagues scattered across the globe literally out of the picture. But you make do.
Earlier in the day, two former Post-Herald reporters came by. But they weren’t here to reminisce — they were here to write the obit for their outlets. Still, it was good to see friendly faces, perhaps for a last time.
We smiled for the camera, a last show of camaraderie before we’re scattered to the winds. For posterity.
And then, we last four of the features department get a last shot together.
Like I said, it came all too soon.
• • •
They gave us cardboard boxes and trash bins. The rest was up to us.
We tend to be packrats in the newsroom, which is why I usually feel at home among the cluttered cubicles. But when it comes to cleaning time, the task can be overwhelming.
Tossing out large piles of newspapers, file folders, magazines, useless junk can be therapeutic, if not for all the dust.
It is past quitting time for me on this Thursday night, and I’m chowing on some BBQ (from the company) while clearing out my double-wide cubicle. Already, one of my colleagues has a job, and his timing is razor-perfect.
That morning, he was all set to hand in his resignation, right after the 9:15 a.m. deadline. He had lined up jobs for him and his wife in upstate New York.
He could’ve handed it in anytime that morning, since he’s in early every day to get the paper out the door. Sometime after 8 a.m., they told the newsroom.
His resignation letter went back into his drawer, averting a five-figure mistake.
It is late, the end of a long day, and a few colleagues are out drinking somewhere. I tried to give blood earlier that day, but got bounced, again. My friends are otherwise occupied, and these desk drawers aren’t going to clean themselves.
The irony — and there are many — is that the building will be torn down in nine months. The other paper is moving to a new building across the street, and we knew we weren’t invited. You try not to think about what you’re doing when you’re throwing away years of crap in a to-be-demolished building.
A few late nights have I spent in that building, usually struggling against deadline or helping out on one of those big-news days. Tonight, I’m packing my career up in cardboard boxes and scrapping the parts that don’t fit.
• • •
My exit interview was at 9:30 p.m., the last one of the day. Apparently, my severance will be fair and generous, so I have some breathing room.
I made it to the end, and I get a reward out of it. For me, this works out.
When I finally make it home, I crunch some numbers, the last task before bedtime. I am dying to tell all of you what the day has been, but that must wait.
The last edition awaits.
Continued in part 2 …