Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Under the Header: Be Careful What You Wish For

Here's the challenge: You must develop and produce three monthly magazines for three disparate Birmingham communities ... from scratch. You have no budget for articles or photography. There's no art director, so you'll be making all the design choices -- although the publication does follow a template with limited options. There's no photo editor, so you'll have to color correct every photo and select your own stock images. There's no copy editor or fact checker, so it's your job to proof read and vet every page. There's no production manager, so you'll also be uploading photography to the server, and proofing and flight checking every page. Of course, there's not money for an editorial assistant, either, nor resources even for an unpaid intern. And you have to learn inCopy and how to navigate a complex content management system that is undergoing updates and refinements so that just when you think you have the system down, they change it. Oh, and you're expected to get out and engage three very distinct communities, two of which are an hour roundtrip commute (without being paid mileage!) and convince the people who live in those communities to provide you with articles and photography — for free.

Sound like bad reality TV show? Nope. It's a publishing model that's been launched across the country.  And it's being met with some success. But not by me.

Last summer I went through a bout of financial insecurity. Being a freelance writer means an ebb and flow in income, often with variables that are entirely beyond my control. Editors change jobs. Freelance budgets tighten or dry up altogether. A new manger decides that more copy should be written in-house. So when I was offered this full-time editorial job with an insurance and 401k benefit package, I became seduced by the illusion of security. The salary wasn't great, but I could work from home and (ostensibly) have a very flexible schedule. I liked the idea of developing publications that could be reflective of a community's unique voice. I also liked the idea that an editorial product could live and breath in less than rarified air. After a 20+ year career in publishing and media, I'd seen a variety of business models, but this one was truly unique. It was so bold I thought it could work -- and it still might. But it didn't work for me.  I had to cry uncle.

Yet the job was not without merit or karma.

In six months I produced dozens of articles, many of which I reported and wrote myself. I wrote at least 30,000 words and put out 12 distinct issues (4 each in three communities.) And I took a lot of photos, too. The work was not the stuff of Pulitzer but it resonated with the locals. People loved these magazines because their friends, neighbors, ministers, business owners populated the pages. ( I did receive one curt request to "please remove me from your mailing list" and an irate email from a woman whose daughter's name I misspelled but other than that, people were kind and the responses were we-drank-the-Kool-Aid positive.)

In six months I wrote two feature stories about two different community programs for adults with special needs,  a cover story about a grass roots foundation started by friends of a young mother with cancer who died from the disease but wanted to keep helping other women with cancer pay their bills. I researched and wrote about a wellness program for teachers in the public schools of one community. I wrote about a teenager who's making money to attend college by performing as a children's party entertainer (he looks just like Justin Beiber.) I wrote a cover story about a nine year old boy who might not see adulthood because he has a terminal form of muscular dystrophy. His parents were so appreciative for the publicity. They are trying desperately to find a cure for him and other children with this same disease. I wrote a story about a woman who decreased the number of unwanted pets at her county humane shelter by 1/3 without using euthanasia. I wrote stories about non-profits who help children and the elderly, and about mom and pop businesses that put the focus on local commerce and philanthropy.

I met with business owners and teachers, with mayors and housewives. I edited stories by grade schoolers and retirees. All these voices became a part of the fabric of the publications.

And I published photos from local photographers, some professionals, some not. I even retouched an almost destroyed image of a woman's 100 year old mother. I drove an hour to pick up images of a young man who'd been serving in Afghanistan and was due home in May. (His mom didn't have digital images.) And on an cold evening, three days before Christmas, I met with the aging mother of the young woman who succumbed to cancer to receive precious images of her daughter.  These people trusted me to tell their stories. I suppose that trust weighed heavy on me. In the end, it was not the company for whom I worked that kept me going, it was the people in the communities I served. I didn't want to let them down.

I was told that people read these stories and were moved to action. Donations were made, items purchased, awareness created, word spread. A TV producer for a local network read my story about an  art therapy program for homeless people and she produced a story about the group just in time to promote their fundraiser. Of course, I'll never realize the ripples that were extended out into the world by my six month stint on this crazy adventure. I have heard that some good came of it. I'm sure some ill came of it too. I could not check and double check every name, every phone number, every URL. I'm sure there were things I got wrong, but hopefully there was much more I got right.

My final cover had a circulation of one. It was a
gift to Jack in honor of his 5th grade graduation.
But producing three monthly magazines proved more than I could bear.  I worked an average of 60 hours a week, getting up at five or six a.m. and working well into the evening on most days. I've worked in the media business all my adult life and long hours are nothing new. But without a staff, this was a lonely pursuit.

I tried to tell myself it would get better. I hoped once I had enough community contributors and I was no longer reporting so many stories myself, that I wouldn't have to work so many hours. But I was told that I had to produce another three publications.  And six magazines threatened to become eight or even ten before long. I would be little more than a curator before it was done. Most important, I could not maintain any type of quality control or the personal touch that I gave each magazine. Producing three magazines left me stressed out and exhausted. I feared I made a big mistake taking this job. I was afraid to quit, but I didn't know how I could keep up the pace and maintain any semblance of quality of life.

I was finally pushed to make a decision.  Just a few days before my son Jack turned 11, he asked me if I would be able to celebrate his birthday with him.

"Of course," I said. "I always celebrate your birthday with you!"

"It's okay Mom," he said. "I know you probably have to work."

"No son, I don't have to work," I said. I knew I had to resign. I knew I couldn't wait until I had another job. I would return freelance writing. No amount of salary or benefits could compensate me for the time I was having to spend away from Jack. As my Dad used to say, "He'll be all grown up before you can turn around three times."

And Dad was right. Time is fleeting.

Now here it is: the beginning of another summer. I'm grateful to be unburdened of the task of Sisyphus and to have the time to spend with my family. Sure I still have to work, but now it's on my own terms. And yes, it's a little scary not having a solid source of income (again) but it's a trade-off I'm now willing to make. Last year, I longed for the security of a full-time job, and I was  given what I wanted so I could appreciate all that I have ... and what I truly need.


  1. Lovely and well written. Karma means you win the lottery.

  2. Chris O'ConnellMay 28, 2013 at 3:25 PM

    Excited about opportunities you are going to be open to now!

  3. Brigid - amazing. Well done. I'm proud to be your friend. And Happy Birthday, Jack! Love the pic of him and the part about him as a video game expert! Even if Mum works a lot, he did get some props out of it :)

  4. Very well written Brigid. What a journey you had and so much to be proud of. Love that final cover. Put that in a frame for the Jack Man. Peace.

  5. Brigid, this was a fantastic post. Completely captures the spirit of the challenges we all face as journalists/workaholics and parents. You've done the most important thing: find a way to be happy and make Jack happy. Good for you! Great bit of perspective every time I realize I've been in the office on the third floor for 10 hours while family life goes on below or the times or I find myself right there with them but trying to work out a transition graf or a lede in your head to make a story work. Keep up the great work — with Jack and with you!

  6. Brigid -- you are truly amazing! xo.