The end came while I was away on vacation, and long before I was really ready to acknowledge it.
In a big-picture sense, it was a relatively subtle set of circumstances, purely coincidental but, in retrospect, fateful.
I took off for my first Dave Matthews Band concert in Las Vegas and a trip to Tombstone, Arizona, in May of 2009, and shortly after that, my newspaper career veered off the tracks for good.
At the time, I didn’t even realize it had happened.
And looking back, it was an interesting coincidence that on our visit to Wyatt Earp’s old stomping grounds, we went from the office of the famous Tombstone newspaper, The Epitaph, straight to Boot Hill Cemetery.
Then, I accidentally left my copy of The Epitaph inside the souvenir shop at Boot Hill.
So much potential for symbolism, but it’d be overkill to declare that I carried my love of newspapers to that famous southern Arizona burial ground and left it there to die.
Besides, the more significant symbolic situation had already been set in motion, the day before we flew from Portland to Las Vegas, when I logged on to my newspaper website’s subscriber services and requested the paper be held while we were on vacation.
I’ve been working in newspapers, in a professional capacity, since my freshman year in college, and before that, in a wannabe capacity, since seventh grade. During the latter part of my career, it wasn’t uncommon for me to go a few days without ever opening up the newspaper that hit my doorstep. I’d kick it inside, leave it by the front door next to the others, gather ’em all up after a few days and dump ’em in the recycle bin.
I had literally read most everything that interested me the night before at work, so I didn’t figuratively read anything into this practice. Besides, I always read the paper on my days off, and I still read it many days despite having seen it the previous night.
Then came that desert trip, which was, by the way, a hell of a lot of fun. I’d always wanted to see my favorite band in concert, and floor seats at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena were a sweet place to take in the DMB spectacle. Two days in Sin City preceded a week of hanging with friends and family in southern Arizona, which included journeying to historic Tombstone, a place I’d wanted to visit since I was a kid and in love with the Old West.
My wife and I came back to Oregon, went back to work, settled back into our routines, and, despite a little post-vacation high mixed with post-vacation depression (a rather conflicted emotional cocktail, I might add), everything went back to normal relatively quickly.
Except for one thing. The carrier never did resume our newspaper delivery.
A few days went by before my wife asked if I was going to call Circulation and let them know we were back, but I didn’t do it, and not for any particular reason. After about two weeks, I declared I was not going to call, that I was going to use the whole thing as an experiment, to see if I ever actually missed getting the paper.
I never did.
I’ve told many people that being a newspaper designer and copy editor could be a painfully difficult job if you didn’t really want to be doing it. Nights, weekends, holidays, all year round. Newspaper journalists, by and large, are a rare breed. Most of us went into the field knowing we’d never be rich, that the lifestyle would require sacrifices other jobs didn’t, that ours would never be a conventional gig.
It’s corny, and it’s a cliché, but it works — we do this for the love of the game.
But a few months into my unintended no-delivery experiment, it struck me that my entire outlook on the game had changed, and not for the better. I’d struggled for a while to maintain faith in the validity of our printed product, but worse yet was that, in my own world, I no longer even had a personal need or desire for it. Sure, I still read the paper online, and on my iPhone, and I continue to see a great need for the kind of content newspaper journalists generate. But my career had essentially devolved into being merely about the process and not about the product itself.
I just couldn’t live with that.
I felt like a pastor, addressing an ever-dwindling congregation on a religion I no longer believed in.
I know, the chef doesn’t have to eat every meal he prepares in order to be good at his job, but he ought to believe he’s doing something worthwhile, that the end result justifies the sacrifices he made just to be in the kitchen.
Still, for me, there’s much more to it than that. I’ve been asked dozens of times already why I’m leaving the newspaper business, but there is no one answer. It’s this and it’s that. It’s internal and external. It’s Henry David Thoreau, whose “Walden” started me thinking beyond the established norms of society. It’s layoffs, and paycuts, and added duties, and bleak outlooks, and an intense absence of light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the evolution of the business and of my own character. It’s Donald Miller, whose statement “Fear is a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life” spoke to me on a profound level. It’s 10 consecutive Thanksgivings spent in the office and too many missed Christmases. It’s all those late nights leading to not enough daylight.
And it’s just time for a change.
Conventional wisdom says I should have lined up my next opportunity before I stepped away from my job. And maybe I should have. But I thought about my colleagues who’ve been laid off over the past two years and who are, for the most part, tackling different challenges, in fields they might not have otherwise considered, in new careers they most likely never would have sought out if the need to do so hadn’t been forced upon them.
It’s scary to lose your job and have your livelihood taken away, and, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a bit terrifying to be stepping away voluntarily without a landing place lined up. I’ve had my career goals in place since high school, and it’s unsettling that, after all this time, I have no specific aspirations. I’ve got a lot of ideas, and have already encountered a few possibilities, but this is still a giant leap into the unknown, without a parachute or a safety net.
There’s a reason it’s called a “comfort zone,” and a reason most people don’t seek to leave it.
For me, merely being comfortable was not enough of a reason to stay. In fact, it became a reason to leave. When the best arguments I had for staying in newspapers centered on comfort — I know the job and the business, I’m (debatably) good at what I do and comfortable with it — I knew it was time to go.
I’ve worked with some great people in the past 14 years, some of the best, most interesting, talented and intelligent people I’ve ever met. One of them, after listening to my reasons for leaving and the unease I have over my uncertain future, said: “You’ll be fine, Adam, and I hope you get to do something … completely unexpected.”
I could live with that.