If you are following me online, it’s eventual you’ll see that I am returning to my old stomping grounds, the place where my career first began. It’s been a long, twisting road — a very rocky one for much of 2019 — but I am happy to double back (or triple back, in this case).
I must have seemed as green as a frog that day in January 1990 when I walked into my first real job out of college at The Times-Journal, located in the tiny concrete building now occupied by Bryant Heating and Cooling. Gary Gengozian was the publisher then, Dennis Benefield the managing editor. I walked into the newsroom to find the elder newsman Darrell Norman grumbling about something. He looked at me like I’d be gone before the workday was done. If not for Cathy Landstreet befriending me and showing me the ropes, I don’t know that I would have.
I stuck around for nearly four years the first time, leaving in 1993 to operate my photography studio full time.
After nearly 5 years of struggling at that, a new publisher walked into my studio and asked if I would consider coming back. So I returned for a second time in 1997, finding things pretty much as I had left them. As I recall, I replaced my sister, who left to do something. The managing editor was a fella named Patrick, who has gone on to do big things in the newspaper biz and now owns the place! He was great to work for then, and I learned so much from him.
Across the years, I served as interim managing editor on three occasions and worked successfully with four different publishers before accepting a promotion to Associate Editor at a different newspaper in the same chain in 2002. I put in 11 years with the company before I struck gold with a pet project online and got offered a full-time job making more money and the chance to work from home instead of commuting two hours a day from Fort Payne to Albertville and back.
I worked almost five years with that online magazine/social network hybrid called Savvy.com, then another four years with a national television network called MAVTV, experiencing tremendous success, if I may say so. In fact, I did my job so well that I ended up getting laid off when the owners sold the TV network to a bigger company that absorbed my marketing duties internally.
The timing sucked, putting me squarely in the middle of the so-called “Great Recession” of the late 2000s. After struggling for months to find another lucky strike, I decided to go back to college and earn my Master’s degree, part-time working as an adjunct instructor.
Eventually, I interviewed for the job I had until this past May, working as a copywriter/marketer/photographer/account manager for a full-service digital marketing agency in Chattanooga.
How I ended up back here again
In February of this year, I suffered something akin to exhaustion from the accumulation of long commutes and a hectic agency environment where I was managing multiple accounts and leaving each day completely drained.
I loved the work, but the long drive had grown tiresome, especially contending with all of the highway construction and traffic congestion on my daily commute into Chattanooga and back to Fort Payne in the evening to be with my daughter. We are talkin’ 10 hours a week spent behind the wheel of a car (more than making up for the previous 8 years in which I had telecommuted from home).
That grinding routine had wore me down and started to affect my health. I was suffering from intense panic attacks, terrified that I would come into and find that I had messed something up, putting me right back on the unemployment line.
My solution? Get back on the unemployment line. Sort of. I didn’t have much choice if I wanted to avoid a heart attack from all of the stress.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
I had a heart-to-heart with my bosses, who are some of the best people I know. I was confident that will all of the skills I had acquired since my last job search, I would have little problem finding something even better than wasn’t so challenging. I predicted that I would be “a catch” professionally.
I was shocked to go on for 273 days putting out resumes, all the while promoting my freelance availability to do the very same things that Fort Payne business owners had traveled to Chattanooga to hire the agency to do for them. I’d signed a non-compete agreement, plus trying to siphon off their clients would’ve been a pretty terrible thing to do when they were being so great to me.
The happiest I’ve ever been professionally was when I ran my own business and controlled every aspect of my own destiny. It was thrilling to make all of the decisions and pull all of the levers, struggling as it was to pay the bills at the end of each month. I’d only given that up because, after years of being an entrepreneur, I was tired and looked forward to someone else sending out the invoices and chasing down payment.
I’ve loved getting back into my own thing, but I’ve honestly struggled to get my marketing consultancy off the ground. For one thing, it’s extremely challenging simply communicating what I do. Having a “day job” will give me some room to breathe and not be poor. I’m too old for that. Plus, after almost a decade of being single, I want a girlfriend and they cost money.
When I got the call with a job offer, I could finally exhale and relax a bit after spending 23 million seconds | 393,120 minutes | 6552 hours | 273 days | 39 weeks | nearly 75% of my 2019 feeling tense and terrified of starving to death.
The last several months have been absolutely grueling. I’ve experienced so much rejection and ghosting that I feel a bit of PTSD from the whole experience. There have been real struggles as I’ve talked to potential marketing clients who met with me and said they would hire me, only to change their minds after I’d already done some work on their behalf. That’s devastating. And not very ethical. It left me feeling a bit broken.
I experience a lot of exploitation by prospective employers who wanted free or obscenely cheap labor. Most places around here only had manufacturing production jobs available, offered as contract labor without benefits, and rejected me as overqualified because I had an advanced degree and would quit on them the moment something better came along. Which is true.
I realized I would likely have to find a job away from Fort Payne, where my daughter lives. A long commute was part of what had worn me down, so I dreaded the choice between making long daily drives vs re-locating to some other city where I didn’t know anybody (to live 5 minutes away from the office now feels like a dream).
Over the summer, I did several telephone interviews for promising jobs that led to being totally ghosted with no promised replies. Basically, getting my hopes up over and over, only to be disappointed and feel despair.
One company “hired” me for a telecommuting job that I quickly realized, during the training process, was a big scam — one of those where the crooks send you your first paycheck, encourage you to quickly deposit it, then immediately convert some portion to cryptocurrency and buy yourself a work computer and furniture to be shipped from a vendor that doesn’t exist. The con is that they get your money and you get hit with the overdraft charges when that check fails to clear. There’s a spell place in Hell for those people.
I’ve not really revealed how dire my situation has been. When you are in a bad place, you have to project confidence and competence — not allow potential recruiters to see how desperate and depressed you are feeling. It’s already easy enough for them to disqualify you from consideration without putting in their notes that you have emotional baggage to unpack.
All of that said, I am very relieved this nightmare process is over. I take on this new assignment with enthusiasm. I want to do a great job for them – again.
This day job will allow me to more easily pay my bills while continuing to grow my freelance marketing consultancy. Health insurance is definitely a benefit I’ll rest more easily having.
I want to thank Patrick and Tricia for this opportunity. I want to thank my mother, sister and daughter for their patience and tolerance for my grumpiness this year. Enormous gratitude to my bosses at the agency, who were extremely empathetic of my situation and great to work for; they more than adequately rewarded me for my hard work and loyalty over the years. I want to thank every single person who offered encouragement during one of the toughest times in my life.
Now… Turn the Page.
It’ll be a little strange being back in that building with all of the ghosts of people I used to work with. Sylvia, JD, Ben, Kelly, Lew, Nita, Kathy, Larue, Cathy, Darrell, Dennis, Gary, Bodie and Margaret, my best friend Mike, and so many others. So many memories, mostly good. A few I cringe about, realizing how much things have changed or how I should have chosen my words more carefully. So many stories I could tell. Some other time, maybe.
My cousin-by-marriage, Linda, became the advertising manager a few years back. It’s comforting to have a familiar face nearby. Plus, the crew there now seems to be pretty awesome and good at what they do.
I’m going to have to restrain myself from saying things like, “back in the old days…”
So much has changed since that cold day when I first wore a press pass. Desktop publishing was just becoming a thing. We would print out 8×10 pages that had a one-column width from these old Microtek PCs with the green dot pixel lettering on the screen, carefully trim the formatted text, run it through a waxer, then carefully place the columns on the blank 6-column wide pages, using Exacto knives to delicately splice the paper between lines of the text to fill the column depths. That seems downright primitive now.
While I was at the newspaper in those earlier go-rounds, I witnessed the introduction of the first digital cameras, rending our darkroom essentially useless in favor of Macs loaded with Photoshop.
I was there as we started putting articles on our website but before newspapers started putting up paywalls to survive the ubiquitous nature of news online. I saw us go from 100% local news, to introducing AP wire stories, to back being all-local coverage again.
I’ve spent many a night freezing my butt off on some rural football field taking pictures of players who probably have kids of their own now playing high school football (I definitely have second-generation brides).
The last time I worked for a newspaper, Facebook was just a project Mark Zuckerberg was messing around on with some buddies at Harvard. Netscape had not yet become Firefox. Bluetooth-enabled devices didn’t exist. Consumers had not yet experienced a DVR or Skype and our mobile phones were these flip-up devices with crappy one-megapixel cameras. Blogs and satellite radio were both in their infancy.
I was at the T-J during many personal milestones: Getting married and the birth of my daughter. When I left, she was just a year old. Earlier this summer, she turned 18. Wow… that really puts it into perspective.
You’re Going to Be Seeing Less of Me Online, More in Print
One huge adjustment I’m having to make is clamping down on my social media usage and holding my tongue when it comes to my political commentary.
The newspaper understandably needs reporters to tell the news without bias, so it’s not acceptable for anyone to be spouting off on Facebook about this or that candidate, even at the national level, which we don’t really even cover all that much.
Today I peeled a candidate’s bumper sticker off my car. Yes, even that can be interpreted as showing favor because folks are so sensitive and easily offended these days.
I don’t wish to play favorites with anyone. That sort of thing pisses people off and makes it very awkward to stand in the same room with them, so believe me, I intend to play it right down the middle. I’m not looking to make enemies out of anyone.
I am actually looking forward to being more of a spectator than a keyboard warrior crawling into any political mud pits to “wrassle.” I’ve been very outspoken about my feelings in the past, but I’ll be keeping my personal commentary on politics confined to my personal journal from now on. I’ll still blog here, just not on certain provocative topics.
I just wanted to take this one opportunity to explain what has happened so people who have grown accustomed to seeing me on Facebook do not think I am dead in a ditch somewhere because they haven’t seen me rant about something in a while.
I’m also going to suspend some photography that might raise eyebrows among the easily offended. I still want to do appropriate photoshoots on weekends because they are fun, but I won’t be posting anything to my own Facebook or Instagram that could possibly offend my momma or my pastor.
I won’t be blogging here about stuff that happens behind the scenes in my community. You’ll need to subscribe to become “in the know.”
If you don’t subscribe to any newspapers, I strongly encourage you to do so. They are more vital than ever when so much of the information that gets shared on social media is flat out wrong and misleading. When I report something, it’s going to be curated and confirmed by someone who knows what the hell they are talking about.
After so many years in journalism, I’ve had a handful of occasions when I had to write up corrections to publish, and buddy, that’s about as much fun as losing a bet to do something embarrassing after the Iron Bowl if your team gets whipped.
Just because you’re going to see my name on bylines again, it doesn’t mean I won’t be available to do some projects on my own time. They don’t own me, they just rent me Monday through Friday.
I do, however, need to be upfront with people so they know that hiring me doesn’t mean they’ll get favorable coverage or any other conflict of interest. This is about earning a paycheck that I can count on from week to week. Nothing else.
If you enjoy my writing, please please please subscribe to The Times-Journal and let them know that I’m part of the reason you get it. Community journalism is central to our democracy and shaping our towns and cities into better, more close-knit places to live.
© 2019 Steven Stiefel