After a 25-year career in journalism, MJ McVay is working longer hours than she ever has, at the smallest newspaper of her career, making less money than she did 15 years ago.
It is as though her professional life, which included a decade each at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Tucson Citizen, has been sucked backward through a time warp.
Still, McVay considers herself lucky—because she found fulltime work in her field. One of her best friends, a former Plain Dealer reporter, is now a nanny. And the majority of her former co-workers at the Tucson Citizen, which closed a year ago this weekend, are still underemployed or unemployed.
"When we first got the word (of the closure), and I started looking, I told myself, 'You won't take less than what you made when you started at the Citizen,'" said McVay, who is now the news editor at The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, Ohio. "But I took a 50 percent cut, because you have to have a job. I have 24 years until I can probably retire, and I bet I'll never see a W-2 that says more than $50,000 ever again."
Welcome to the new normal. The 65 Tucson Citizen employees laid off when media giant Gannett shuttered the 138-year-old paper are among the 16,500-plus journalists laid off nationwide since January 2009.
A year later, a mere 21 of the ex-Citizen employees have made it to Promised Land of paid fulltime work—only five in journalism. (Dylan Smith and Mike Truelsen have journalism jobs, having launched the nonprofit news site TucsonSentinel.com earlier this year, but they're working sans paychecks.) Sixteen former employees have combined part-time jobs with freelancing; five are training for other careers; 10 have yet to find any steady employment; a few have launched businesses; a couple have chosen partial or full retirement; and four are unaccounted for. Emotions range from "thrilled to have a job" to "still really pissed off."
On her last day at the Citizen, Carli Brosseau was minding the police scanner and working on an investigation into inappropriate fund transfers between various city of Tucson departments. Now she minds 4- to 12-year-olds, teaching them gymnastics. In her off hours, she wonders about journalism's future.
"I felt such a stake in investigative journalism, and I look around, and the loss to the community isn't in day-to-day features or events reporting—there'll always be that stuff," she said. "The loss is in investigative journalism, because it takes time and money. It's just discouraging."
Brosseau said her year has been "up and down."
"As the paper was closing, I felt like everything was falling down around my head, but I had the perspective of everyone around me. Their situations were a lot worse than mine, because I didn't have a family to support," she said. "So while I knew I was sad, I didn't realize just how sad until a few months after it was over. That was hard."
With only a few years in the business, and the energy and adventurous spirit that marks 20-somethings, Brosseau isn't ready to abandon the hope of a career in journalism.
"I anticipate freelancing and teaching gymnastics this next year, applying for grad school and taking the foreign-service exam," she said. "Then I'll just see where things lead."
Rogelio Olivas, the Citizen's former entertainment editor, recently figured out where things are leading him—and it's most likely out of the Old Pueblo. He was initially confident that his two decades of journalism experience "would count for something" in the job market, but Olivas discovered early on that experience doesn't necessarily translate into employment—especially at a decent salary.
"I have to face the reality that I'm going to have to settle for a job where I'm making half of what I was at the Citizen," he said. "It's an employer's market. I'm trying to stay in Tucson—my dad is 86 years old—but writing jobs here are so scarce. Last week, I started applying for jobs in New York and Los Angeles."
He's not the only one looking to the coasts: Former assistant city editor Lorrie Brownstone thinks she'll need to head for brighter city lights if her nascent career as a standup comic is going to pay the bills.
Brownstone had long used her Citizen vacation time to squeeze in standup gigs, but the layoff prompted her to pursue comedy full-time. For now, she's based in Tucson, but said moving to New York or Los Angeles will probably be necessary to make a decent living.
"I think what saved me during the months leading up to the layoff was that I had another goal, another dream," she said. "I still had moments of panic, but overall, when the announcement came, I was like, 'Hey, I know what I want to do.' It's scary doing this, but it's been my dream, and I'm glad I'm pursuing it."
Jennifer Boice, the Citizen's former interim publisher and editor, finally found a job last month—a part-time program coordinator position for the grant-funded Institute on Science for Global Policy, run by a former UA chemistry professor.
Due to Gannett's severance package—every employee got a week's pay, up to 26 weeks, for each year of service—Boice, who had 25 years at the Citizen, wasn't pressed to find work immediately, but when she started looking, she was discouraged by the dearth of jobs and the abundance of applicants.
"The fact is, you don't see the people who don't have jobs when you do have one," said Boice, who added that she's "thrilled" that her new job is outside of journalism.
That sentiment was echoed by former food writer Tom Stauffer, who went from writing about food one day to cooking it the next at Pizzeria Vivace. After about six months in the kitchen, Stauffer entered Pima Community College's post-degree teacher-preparation program and is pursuing a special-education certification, while working 30 hours a week as a special-education aide at Brichta Elementary School.
"This has probably been the best year of my life," said Stauffer, who is married with two young daughters. "I've spent quality time with my family; I could take the girls to school; I lost weight; I've found what I want to do. It's been good."
Things have not been as smooth for Steve Rivera, who covered UA men's basketball for the Citizen for 19 years. He was unemployed for six months before becoming an assistant manager at Rillito Nursery and Garden Center, having been trained by the company in all things desert gardening.
The hardest thing, Rivera said, was realizing that what gets you places in sports reporting—your good name and reputation—can be an albatross in a job hunt.
"Sometimes they'd recognize my name and write me off, saying I'd be bored in the job because of what I used to do," he said. "I'm asking the girl to the dance, and she's saying, 'You're not going to dance with me that long.' It was humbling trying to convince people to give me a chance, that I could do something other than reporting."
"Humbling" is a word Judy Carlock also used while describing the past year. Carlock worked 29 years at the Citizen and is currently nearing completion of her teacher certification in high school mathematics. She said being laid off made her feel sorry for herself.
"Being unemployed is one thing, but being unemployed in a recession that's bordering on a depression is very frightening," Carlock said. "Before I was laid off, I thought of myself as professional, and I dealt with service people as though they were professionals, but there was a gap there: I sort of saw myself as having a specialized skill that separated me from them.
"That just shifted radically this year," she continued. "I look at all the people working as clerks at a Circle K who are my age or older, and I realize that there's nothing keeping me from doing that. Why shouldn't I have to hustle like hell to make $11 an hour with no benefits? Plenty of people do. Being unemployed has made me aware of how outright lucky I was to have what I did at the Citizen for so long."
Renée Schafer Horton was the Tucson Citizen's higher-education reporter and random investigative lacky from September 2007 until May 2009. She will complete her teacher-certification coursework this week and has received a fall student-teaching placement at Salpointe High School. She blogs at rshorton.wordpress.com and TucsonCitizen.com, and awaits an anticipated July delivery of documents from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding negotiations between Gannett and Lee Enterprises over the Tucson Citizen closure.