Saturday, June 22, 2013

Extra! Extra!


I am underemployed. This is not news to most of you. I teach public school music, which has fallen on hard times in this economic downturn. Four years ago I was laid off. I had no income but unemployment for a year. For the next year, I worked 0.1 time--yes, that's four hours a week--teaching band. For the last two years, I've been a 0.5 time band and choir director. Things are looking better for my profession now, and the day may come soon that finds me working at or near full time. Meanwhile I've got private students and performance income to fill the gap.

Thirty-four years ago, I decided to attend Willamette University, launching myself on this trajectory. This week, two headlines got me thinking about the other side of that decision.

I had narrowed my search to two colleges: Willamette and the University of Oregon. Willamette was a comfortable choice, a good solid Methodist choice. I'd been on campus for a variety of Methodist events over the years, as well as gatherings involving other organizations I belonged to, and the place had grown on me. What had me thinking about becoming a Duck, rather than a Bearcat, was U of O's school of journalism.

I was born into a musical home, and I probably would've at least minored in music at U of O. But the divergent part of my identity, the part that just grew on its own without any coaxing on the part of either of my parents, was what I could do with a pen (and eventually, a typewriter, then a keyboard). Throughout junior high and high school, I filled reams of notebook paper with stories, eventually with novels. Almost all of what I wrote was science fiction: space operas, time travel, a dystopian series, and some undersea adventures on a futuristic submarine. Nonfiction was something I did at school. But then, in my junior year, I took journalism, and a whole new world opened to me.

I loved everything about journalism: gathering information, organizing it, writing both to inform and entertain, typing the copy in justified columns, and most of all the paste-up party at which we assembled our respective pages of the school newspaper. Copy and photographs were put through the waxer, then assembled on large blue-lined pages. When all four pages were finished, Mr. Angaran took them to the printer. The next day the final product was picked up and distributed to the entire school.

There's a box somewhere with every edition of the Injun-uity in which I had a story. (Yes, that was really the name of the paper. We were the Philomath Warriors, it was the 1970s, and we didn't know any better. Sorry.) The powdery black ink, the brittle newsprint, the broadsheet with its double fold--I loved it. I would've happily spent my life doing it. Field trips to the local paper, the Corvallis Gazette-Times, were thrilling to me, especially when we went in the printing room, where the roar of the press coupled with the smells of the production line transported me to a future I could easily see myself in.

My senior year, I ran the editorial page, and got myself in hot water printing incendiary op-ed pieces about the over-recognition of athletics, and under-recognition of academic achievement. Things actually changed because of what I'd written. I had seen an injustice and righted it with my pen. This could have been the beginning of something spectacular.

Instead, I went to Willamette. I was on the staff of the Collegian for two years, then just dropped it to focus more of my attention on my major, music education. I wrote some extended pieces for the paper, worked in production during my freshman year, but gradually lost interest, probably because I saw no chance of advancing into an editorial position. My greatest journalistic, as you may have gathered from this blog, is opinion writing. I did write a single editorial for the Collegian, and then had the sickening experience of seeing, in print, that the page editor had snipped off the last paragraph, the conclusion of the piece, to make it fit.

But I never lost my taste for journalism. In seminary, I could again work my opinion into papers, as persuasive writing (and, of course, speaking) is an essential part of being a pastor. My final year at Perkins, I found a job at the United Methodist Reporter, an independent church newspaper headquartered in Dallas that provided local editions for hundreds of churches throughout the United States. I wasn't writing or editing; my job consisted of driving around Dallas, picking up copy from local churches, and then, on Saturday, dummying pages for the paste-up editors. It was some of the least creative newspaper work I had done, but it was still a newspaper.

As a pastor, I wrote and published many a newsletter. My pastor's columns were similar to this blog, though never as long as my entries here tend to be: opinion pieces that sought to inspire in some way. Apart from the writing, I had, since my teens, always enjoyed reading the newspaper, especially the editorial and op-ed pages. Sundays were especially fulfilling, as the Oregonian would publish an entire editorial section.

Since leaving ministry, I have rarely found an outlet for the op-ed bug. I've submitted a number of pieces to the Oregonian, and even had a couple of them printed. I've also submitted to Scouting and The Christian Century, with much less luck. In 2008, I decided to end my subscription to the newspaper, concluding I had spent far too much time on it over the years, time I could better spend reading books. Apart from that, I felt it was time to cut my paper consumption footprint. More recently, my news bug has been fed by e-zines I can read on my phone: the online version of The New York Times, Slate, and Oregon Live, the online version of the Oregonian. Getting my news this way, it's newsier, more current, and I can get all the depth I want by clicking on hyperlinks.

Last week I learned the Oregonian is cutting back on its subscription service, and will only deliver four days a week. The paper itself has been physically shrinking for years. Today I read in Christian Century that my former employer, the United Methodist Reporter, has ceased publication altogether.

It's hard seeing this transition, even though I know I have, along with so many others of my generation, contributed to it by my shift away from the print media. It was inevitable: print consumes so many resources to deliver a product that is obsolete before it is ever read. All the news that's fit to print is already available online before it's even ready to print. We're eliminating middlemen here, the printers and distributers and delivery persons, getting it straight from the source. And who wants stale news, anyway?

We're eliminating something else, though: the look, feel, and smell of news we hold in our hands, fold as we turn pages, tuck into our backpacks and briefcases to finish later; the crosswords and sudokus we fill in, erase, correct, eventually scribble out in frustration; the comics, most of them lame but some hilarious, those with a political bent even more outdated than the page one news; and that sense of physical connection with the world. As current as Slate may be, as opinionated as its bloggers are, it somehow seems less personal than a stack of newsprint that was dropped off on my doorstep in the wee hours of the morning, which I can spread out on the breakfast table, pore over as I sip my coffee, and eventually stuff into the recycling bin.

Now back to the sliding doors with which this piece began: if I had opted for U of O, I would probably have started out on a local weekly paper, eventually working my way up to a daily in Portland or Eugene, possibly to a nationally syndicated column--and then found the industry collapsing around me, and unless I could make the leap to online publication, facing layoff. Which could have landed me right where I am today, underemployed and blogging. Go figure.

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