OLD Media Moves

A laid off business journalist works to stay in the game

August 30, 2013

Posted by Chris Roush

Marlene Kennedy was laid off from her position as business editor of the Albany Times Union in upstate New York in July 2009.

Since that time, she has struggled and worked to maintain her position in the world of business journalism. In the first two years after being laid off, she wrote 730 cover letters and had 10 interviews, but no job.

Just after Labor Day in 2011, Kennedy took a part-time job with Courthouse News Service in Pasadena, Calif., collecting new civil court filings in the Albany courthouse for a subscriber database.

Though no longer in a newsroom, Kennedy also now writes a freelance weekly business column for The Daily Gazette in Schenectady. And her part-time courthouse job gives her leads for business- or government-related stories that she can write for the Courthouse website or can pitch freelance to the Gazette.

Kennedy, who had been editor of the crosstown Capital District Business Review before joining the Times Union, spoke earlier this week with Talking Biz News by email about her feelings toward business journalism and her work in the past four years to remain in the game.

What follows is an edited transcript.

When you were first laid off in 2009, how fast were you ready to get back into the game of business journalism?

I wanted back in immediately for very practical reasons: I was laid off on a Tuesday and on the Friday of that week was due to attend a parent-student orientation weekend for my daughter’s freshman year at an expensive private college – I couldn’t not have a job. You can believe my husband and I made a beeline to the school’s financial aid office that weekend for advice!

So I started looking around right away, working contacts, and signed up ASAP for the outplacement services that came as part of my severance.

What jobs did you consider outside of business journalism?

I really didn’t want to leave business journalism. In the first few months, I was asked to consider a city editor job in another state, received a couple of calls from local PR folks inquiring about my interest, was contacted by a political campaign to do their communications, and talked to a local TV newsroom.

But my heart’s in business journalism; it’s what I’m good at. In my view, business and politics make the world go round, and we all know that the former is the more important of the two.

Why do you think it was so hard to find another job in journalism?

Because there are plenty of fresh young faces to take my place. Companies don’t seem to want to hire experience, whether it’s “institutional knowledge” or “been there, done that, won’t make that mistake again.” Why pay for people like myself who have been in journalism for a couple of decades and were earning a decent living when you can get 1.5 or 2 newbies for the same price?

You wrote about one cover letter every 10 days during the first two years. How did you deal with the frustration?

I hated/hate cover letters with a passion – all that “one chance to make a good first impression” pressure. Honestly, the only way I was able to psych myself up to do them time and time again was knowing that the extended unemployment benefits I was getting – and needed – required proof of X-number of contacts per week with prospective employers to remain eligible.

The frustration was enormous, given that employers, bombarded as they were by resumes during the recession, created application sites that rarely acknowledged your uploaded resume/cover letter packet.

I’ve heard some business journalists who were laid off say the industry left them, they didn’t leave the industry. Do you feel the same way?

Yes, I feel abandoned by the industry and angry about it still. I feel as if I paid my dues as requested over the years – nights, weekends, holidays, birthdays, school plays, etc. – only to have the rug pulled out from under me at a time in my own life when it would be all the more difficult to start over.

How did you keep yourself busy during this time period?

I took up blogging soon after my layoff, which gave me an outlet to continue to write while exploring not only what was happening to me but to the newspaper industry as a whole. The blog was my “newspaper” and I was the publisher – and I wasn’t going to lay me off!

I also spent time in other cities, primarily Washington, D.C., networking, getting the lay of the land and trying to arrange informational and more formal interviews. I was willing to relocate for work.

And I also took as many free and low-cost skill-building courses and webinars as I could at libraries, the National Press Club, the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, SABEW, the National Press Foundation, etc., to show prospective employers that I was putting my time to good use.

How did you start writing the business column for the Schenectady paper on a freelance basis?

I landed the freelance business column at The Daily Gazette in Schenectady by asking a former reporter who knew the editor to inquire about meeting with me. The editor agreed; she had just lost her last business reporter through resignation and saw my column as a chance for a local voice on the business page.

I had been writing a weekly business column in the Albany market for close to 20 years, so I was a “known quantity.” That column has been an important lifeline for me, and I’ll be forever grateful for having it.

Tell us about your work for Courthouse News Service. How much time per week do you spend doing that?

My work for Courthouse is part-time. Originally, it was part-part-time, 10-12 hours a week. Since I started two years ago, I’ve expanded the courts I cover — now eight vs. four at the start) and added my byline to the company’s website (courhousenews.com) by pitching stories gleaned from cases I pick up or taking on ones assigned from other courts. I also started writing on appellate-level and high-court rulings that come out of Albany. So I’m probably up to about 20 hours a week – a far cry from the former full-time me.

I think of this work as another “beat” to master: my job is to collect new civil filings against businesses or public entities, which go into a data base sold to subscribers (lawyers, law firms, law libraries). Many filings are mundane – a restaurant failed to pay its supplier; a customer slipped on a wet supermarket floor – but others can make you gasp out loud at the story possibilities.

Would you go back to a full-time job in business journalism? Why or why not?

I’d return to a full-time job in business journalism in a heartbeat. But it would have to be with a niche pub/site – real estate, banking, law, etc. – rather than a general-interest daily or website. I enjoy the freedom that comes with part-time and freelance work, but I like a steady paycheck even more.

What keeps you going and wanting to continue writing and reporting?

Writing and reporting for me are as instinctive as blinking and breathing: I can’t not do them.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself in the past four years?

That I still have a deep reserve of strength to swim against a tide that would just as soon drown me; that I sometimes may be down but I’m never out. I hope that perseverance serves as an example for my two daughters, who are just beginning their professional lives. And, no, neither chose journalism.

Has your opinion of the journalism industry changed in that time period? How so?

I worry about journalism’s long-term prospects, that fewer and fewer “Holy Shit Mabel” stories will be done as more and more experienced reporters leave or are forced out. I wish that whatever new revenue model is needed would hurry up and show itself.

Or, as Archie Bunker once told Edith as she seesawed through The Change (menopause) on “All in the Family”: “Edith, if you’re gonna have a change of life, you gotta do it right now. I’m gonna give you just 30 seconds. Now c’mon, change!”

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