It is 3:47 a.m. and yes, I do have to go to work tomorrow. But really only to fill a box with my belongings. There are some old notebooks I'd like to save. A photo of myself with my wife, sister and brother-in-law. A few Phillie Phanatic figurines that I have lined up on the top of my cubicle.
Thursday will be my final day of work at The Washington Times. And I am oddly relieved. I am certainly not happy about losing my job--a job which I thoroughly enjoyed and would have preferred to keep--but when rumors of your eventual demise swirl for more than a month, it is nice to finally have some certainty on things.
Every single sports staffer got canned. Every single one, despite a vague reference to the possibility of "sports features" to be included as part of a revamped newspaper that will launch on Jan. 4.
Bear with me here, as I'm going to take you way back here and give you a full history of my experience at The Washington Times, and my view of how we ended up in this situation.
I started working for the Times in the fall of 2000 as an unpaid intern. I was still a senior at Maryland at the time and had decided I wanted to become a business reporter. I was a journalism major and found that I had a knack for dissecting business concepts and also thought that business reporting lent itself to a more normal lifestyle than, say, a political or foreign correspondent. I had no real thought of going into sportswriting at the time, because I saw sports as my hobby, something fun, and not something I wanted to mesh with work.
So anyway, I landed a gig working two days a week for Cathy Gainor, the business editor at the time, who was kind enough to let me write and do a lot of cool things even though I was only 21 and didn't have a ton of experience. She paid me nothing and I didn't care. When I graduated, there just happened to be an opening on the business desk and I got hired right away. I was idealistic, excited and full of energy.
Now, I should point out that I was a little naive about The Washington Times and its reputation at the time. I had heard vague things about it being owned by "the Moonies" and that it was a conservative paper, but none of that seemed to affect how I was treated. And, many people joked, the church didn't care how much money they were losing, so job security wasn't an issue.
I was enjoying myself. Got to cover a lot of interesting things. Was a few miles from the Pentagon on 9/11 and ended up spending the day at BWI interviewing stranded travelers. I spent a year writing about the problem of spam e-mail, and did a decent enough job that the paper sent my stuff to the Pulitzer committee. (I just ran across the photo they took of me that went alongside the submission. Man, was I a skinny little kid back then.)
In 2004, I left the Times to take a job at the Daily Record, a business and law newspaper in Baltimore. In retrospect, my reasons for leaving are a little unclear, except that I know the Times wasn't paying me much and the Daily Record offered a slightly bigger salary and the chance to be the sole reporter in their Baltimore County bureau. I was also getting married to a girl from Baltimore and thought that writing for a Baltimore paper would make things easier for us.
Within nine days at the Daily Record, I was begging for my old job back. It wasn't that the Daily Record was a bad place, as much as I hated being stuck in a bureau by myself. I was used to a sizable newsroom with lots of people all around, and I missed covering national issues. Within three months, I left to take a job at the Washington Business Journal, covering real estate and economic development. It was a good place, very good company with some tremendously nice people. But I still missed the larger newsroom. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, for instance I found myself frustrated with the lack of TV's in the WBJ office. (Not a single TV!) And I never got used to the weekly news concept. In the fall of 2005, I got an email from Cathy Gainor, my old editor, suggesting I look into coming back to the Times on their sports desk. The sports business reporter, Eric Fisher, had left, and they were looking for a replacement.
I sat on this news for about two weeks and then finally got in touch with the sports editor, Mark Hartsell.He hired me a few weeks later.
I felt a little odd about returning to a place I had quit only a year before. But it was a great, great job. I wrote about the construction of Nationals Park from start to finish. I sat three rows behind Roger Clemens as he testified before Congress about the Mitchell Report. I interviewed every major commissioner, tons of athletes and ate a lot of press box hot dogs.
In early 2008, there was a shakeup at the paper. We were told that the Unification Church was no longer interested in propping up the paper. We needed to become profitable. They hired some consultants, we filled out some surveys. Next thing we knew, Wes Pruden was resigning as editor-in-chief and was replaced by this guy named John Solomon.
I remember the day the email announcing Solomon's hiring came out. The email explaining the hiring listed Solomon's credentials. We read the email and wondered "what's the catch?" He was a legitimate journalist. Wrote for the Post. Worked for AP. We were amazed.
Immediately, Solomon injected a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy into the newsroom. He was a force of nature--a total bag of wind in some instances--but someone who truly cared about moving The Washington Times into the 21st century. He announced that he would draw a hard wall between editorial and news and made some other changes that gave us some credibility. We got a new Web site and there was a new emphasis on that. The journalism improved. The product was better. We did have a round of layoffs, but they weren't overly painful. And though it seems harsh in retrospect, many of us felt relieved that the paper was able to rid itself of some dead weight.
Now, I should point out that around the time Solomon was hired the Times engaged a consulting firm to evaluate ways that the paper could move toward profitability. One of their suggestions was to downsize sports, business and metro coverage. But Solomon saved us sports guys. He noticed that our stories were getting national play. He saw that we were able to strike partnerships with MASN, ESPN and other outlets. We felt safe as long as he was around.
Then on Nov. 8, I got an email from a friend that made my heart sink.
"Bad news. Big moonie infighting. One of the brothers nearly closed the paper on Friday. The other kept it open...Solomon resigned..."
I hoped it was just unsubstantiated rumor. But it wasn't. The company's publisher, CFO and chairman were fired. Solomon quit without explanation. Jonathan Slevin, a church member who had been with the paper off and on for many years, was named acting publisher.
A newsroom-wide meeting the next day was less than helpful. There were rumblings about the two brothers of the Rev. Moon fighting, but we were getting all of our information from Talking Points Memo and other blogs. Communication from the top levels was nonexistent. Solomon was MIA. Editors who were supposedly in charge were told nothing and knew nothing about what was happening. This went on for a month, until on Dec. 2 we all received notice that mass layoffs would be coming. Slevin issued a press release talking about a new product that would focus on the "paper's strengths." But there was no mention of sports. We saw the writing on the wall.
The axe swung down Wednesday, in a big white envelope. Slevin gave a short speech to the assembled newsroom. But he never addressed the status of sports specifically, despite having an office adjacent to us over the previous two months.
So what to do now? Well, I'm getting a lot of advice, but what I really need is a job. It will come, eventually. In the meantime, I will blog here. I will play with my seven-month old son. Maybe I'll go see a few basketball games with my dad. I'll cook a few nice meals for my wife. I will get by.
For some of my friends, this is like deja vu, as they came to the Times after having been laid off from previous jobs. The job market for journalists is shitty right now. The industry is in turmoil. Few people are hiring. Those that are will pay only a pittance. Of the 25 or so people laid off from the sports desk, I'd guess half of them will find jobs outside of sports journalism. It makes me sad. But I don't feel depressed.
I don't believe it was a coincidence that earlier tonight I came across the movie "Rocky Balboa" on cable. There's a good section where Rocky says, "The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."
We're all moving forward now. Where that takes us is anyone's guess. But it'll probably be OK.