WARNING: This post is about me. If you don’t care about me, stop reading. Here, you can watch this YouTube video of a cute cat thing and browse from there.
It was so long ago that it’s hard to remember what it was like back then.
It was seven years ago this month that, while attending a national student journalism conference in Edmonton (thankfully that year there were no debilitating illnesses), I got a call on my cellphone from the city editor at the Gazette offering me a paid internship that summer.
My reaction was subdued. The man who offered me the job even remarked on that point. It’s not that I wasn’t happy – I was over the moon – but for some reason the only thing that I could think of was how much this conversation was going to cost me in roaming charges.
Though it occurs to me now that I’m not the kind of person who pulls out the theatrics when someone gives him really good news.
After a short, unpaid internship at the West Island Chronicle that I actually enjoyed even though it wasn’t exactly hard-hitting journalism, and another at CBC Montreal that resulted in a few paid shifts at CBC Radio over the previous holidays (which in turn convinced me that being a guest booker wasn’t quite my cup of tea at the time), I was really excited at the idea of working at a major newspaper in my home town.
The summer of 2005
I remember parts of that Gazette internship (I was the copy editor, and there were four reporters, a photographer and a designer). I remember meeting Michelle, the person who did the copy editor internship the year before me and who said I could come to her if I had any questions. Michelle is now the paper’s city editor.
I remember breezing through my training on my first day, since I was already familiar with QuarkXPress (at the time they were using version 3.32, while I had been using version 4 for my entire time at Concordia’s Link newspaper). So even though the first day was to be just for training, they put me to work on the next day’s paper for a few hours.
I remember Ray, the foreign editor at the time, handing me a page with a Washington Post story on it, and me discovering that a name was spelled two different ways in that story. I remember that when I pointed this out to him, he told me to call the Post and ask them about it, and he gave me the number to call.
I remember thinking that was insane. You mean I just call up the Washington Post? But I did, and after I explained what happened, they realized there was an error and a correction moved on the wire a few minutes later. I remember thinking how awesome that was that I found a mistake in a Washington Post story on my first day.
I also remember all the mistakes I made during my internship. Thankfully I wasn’t put in charge of anything for months, and there were plenty of people to check my work. Whenever I made a mistake, a more senior editor would calmly explain what I’d done wrong and have me try again.
I remember when the internship came to an end, when the schedule went up for mid-September and my name wasn’t on it. I didn’t have any plans for what I’d do next. My education was done and I had no desire to go back. I had no jobs on the horizon, and I’d never done any paid freelance work.
I remember a strange twist of fate when a position opened up for a part-time copy clerk, an entry-level job that involves a lot of running around at night fetching proofs and doing small tasks. As it turns out, I went directly from one to the other without missing a week. I remember the newsroom manager telling me she had to get back my termination papers from HR. I was in that position for two months, which was enough time for me to literally write the book on it (I put together a fancy-looking guide on how to perform each of the tasks), before another copy editor position opened up and I was back on the desks with the two monitors.
The year of firsts
I remember the first times I did various copy editing jobs, particularly slotting (i.e. laying out) sections. The first time I slotted Nation. The first time I slotted World (which involved going through the wires and choosing what stories to put in the paper). The first time I slotted the city section. The first time I edited the front page. The first time I was given the responsibility of floor editor, which made me the last line of defence for all pages before they were typeset. (It was when I was in that position that, one night when a major error was caught on the front page after deadline, I got to literally call up the plant and tell them to “stop the presses”).
I remember about a year later, September 2006, when again a schedule went up without my name on it. As it happened, there was no twist of fate this time. After my last shift (in which I was the last one in the building at 1:30am), I left and didn’t come back. Everyone said something would happen to bring me back. But it didn’t.
The year of nothing
For the next year and a half, I was unemployed. I had gotten into freelancing, which combined with unemployment benefits kept me afloat. But while I wasn’t
loosing losing money from my savings, I wasn’t adding to them either.
I knew I had to do something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I don’t remember offhand if I applied for other jobs, or what they were. I remember that I enjoyed what I did at the Gazette more than any other job I’d done, and I didn’t want to do something less enjoyable than that.
It was during this time of no salaried work that I setup a blog and started sharing random thoughts with the Internet, not sure where that would lead.
The return, and again
I remember when, completely out of the blue in January 2008, I got an email from my former boss asking if I’d be interested in a nine-week contract to fill a parental leave. That nine-week contract lasted two full years. And then again, in January 2010, when my bosses ran out of ways to extend my contract, the schedule went up and my name wasn’t on it. Once again, I was unemployed.
I spent the month of February 2010 in my apartment watching the Olympics and contemplating my next move. I’d even had discussions with a different media company, though that ended up going nowhere.
As they had in 2006, my colleagues said I would be back. I was skeptical. But they were right.
Again out of the blue in the middle of February, I was told by a bunch of people simultaneously that a handful of temporary copy editing positions had just been posted. The paper was switching from QuarkXPress (software that was 14 years old) to Adobe InDesign, and needed relief staff to put out the paper while everyone was trained on the new system.
The interview was short, I was asked if I could start again on Monday, and the day after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics I was back at my old job. I’ve been there ever since, working between two and five days a week depending on how many shifts they needed to fill.
The contract life
It’s the nature of contract work, especially in a field like journalism where so many people want jobs but there are so few good ones available. Despite the on-again-off-again employment, I considered myself lucky. The two people who were copy editor interns the years before me are still there, but all who came after aren’t. Jennifer, Kate, Lucas, Cari, Sebastien, Ambreen, Angela, Dylan, Mel, Jill and Kamila. Those who filled in on short-term contracts like Phil, Jasmin, Amy and others I’ve probably forgotten about. Plus all the reporter and designer interns who came and went within months, and the photographer interns whose best hope after their stay was to be added to the end of a long list of regular freelancers. Many of them have found other jobs, some even better than The Gazette. But others would probably jump at the chance to come back, if only there were positions available.
On the flip side are those who went from contract to contract for years without having permanent jobs. There was even a name for this: “permatemp”. In one extreme example, a copy editor was working for nine years before he was finally given a full-time permanent position as a copy editor.
I haven’t done any research to confirm this, but I believe I’m the person who’s been there the longest without any permanent status whatsoever.
The permatemp situation has for the most part been eliminated. Partly because there are much fewer people taking maternity leaves (most temporary replacements derive from that). Partly because of an agreement with the union when the last contract was signed to post new positions for people whose jobs were temporary in name only. And partly because there have just been so few non-interns hired in the past five years for even temporary jobs.
On the copy desk, I was the last on the seniority totem pole (I’m now second-last, thanks to a temporary job filling a short-term parental leave), despite being first hired six and a half years ago.
Welcome to the family
I think I’ve buried the lead enough. Last week, I was offered (and accepted) a permanent position as a weekend online copy editor. As of Feb. 1, I’ll be working at least two shifts a week on a contract that never ends.
I’d like to say it’s forever, but with the industry the way it is, one can’t be certain of anything. What I do know is that my job is a lot more secure than it was before, and my worries about unemployment are much less pronounced. They’re more abstract, more long-term, more if-this-company-goes-bankrupt or if-they-lock-us-out. And I’m in the same boat as my colleagues.
The difference is mostly psychological. The pay is the same, the work is the same, and the benefits are similar. But as corny as it is to say, I’m part of the Gazette family now. I’m no longer a temporary fill-in. I’m an employee. As much as The Gazette is permanently tied to me, I am permanently tied to it. I can think of my work there in the long term, not just three weeks ahead.
I don’t know what that all means, and what will change. But I know there will be a slightly different mentality toward things like big projects. I’ve already been asked to help with one, and am eager to do so.
The position technically replaces Tyler Todd, who left the paper months ago for personal reasons and decided not to come back. I know this disappointed many of his coworkers because even though he didn’t seem to enjoy it terribly, he was a very good editor. There’s some irony in that Todd was first hired in the fall of 2005 to replace me as a part-time copy clerk. In hindsight, my path to permanence might have been faster if I’d stayed a clerk back then.
The next generation
As I remember my past, I remember the editors who helped me learn to excel at the job I enjoy so much. I remember the managers who praised me to their managers, and who did what they could to make sure I had chances to succeed. I remember the people who came after me and whose chances weren’t as good as what I had.
And I think of the people yet to come, whose job prospects are even worse than mine were. Those for whom six years on and off part-time contracts would be a dream come true.
I think of the journalism school I came from, where last I checked the program I was in has since doubled in size, putting out twice as many journalists even though only a handful of the people I graduated with have salaried jobs as journalists.
Nathalie Collard wrote in La Presse last week about recent departures at Radio-Canada. Unlike The Gazette, where people are on contracts of three months, at the CBC they have casual workers who will know they’re working only when they see their name on the schedule. Or in extreme cases, those who sit at home hoping to get a phone call asking them to work that day.
It’s a system that on the one hand lowers the barrier to entry for new employees, but on the other hand offers them no security whatsoever when they get inside. Some people have been contract, temporary or casual workers there for years, de facto permanent but technically not.
I wish I could offer reassurance to people just coming into this business, or who are still looking for jobs. I can offer advice – be flexible, don’t undersell yourself freelancing, don’t work for someone else for free, find a niche, go where there’s demand instead of where everyone else is, think outside the traditional media box – but I know there are cases where it doesn’t matter how good you are or how much you love your job or how much your coworkers consider you invaluable. I know because I lost the job I love three times for reasons that were out of my control.
Now I don’t have to worry about that happening for a fourth time. Unless there’s a lockout, or a strike, or a situation where they have to lay off permanent
employes employees (something that, despite the company’s financial troubles, hasn’t happened in the editorial department since I started there), I’ll keep working indefinitely.
I hope the next generation doesn’t have as much trouble getting a real job as I did. I hope it doesn’t take decades before the journalism industry has found a proper business model. I hope freelancing for a few scraps won’t be a last-resort career option for people who are so dedicated to this profession they are willing to live poor to make it happen. And I hope those whose passion isn’t really journalism realize that quickly and move on.
For young journalists to be, I can only say I hope you succeed. Hard work does pay off, but not always in the ways you expect. And it takes a while. In my case, six and a half years.
In the meantime, follow good advice, like these nuggets from Gazette Arts editor Basem Boshra, a must-read particularly for those who want to freelance for big papers.
And, as Michelle said to me my first day, if you have any questions, I’d be happy to help.