Thursday, November 12, 2015
A Little Ditty About an Out-of-Work Sportswriter
The Daily News - another place where I worked - recently laid off some of the best sportswriters in the business. This was humbling for me. I could never turn a phrase like Filip Bondy. Bill Madden has broken more stories than I've written. Wayne Coffey was my mentor as a feature writer.
I'm nothing compared to those guys.
But I'm going to share some of what I've experienced the last three years, as I've searched for a job to help me support my family, which includes two teenage sons.
Just to set the scene for you, I'll let you know that for the past four months I've worked a seasonal job at a golf club. I was the locker room attendant. I cleaned and polished golf shoes. I vacuumed the carpet several times a day. I kept the bathrooms clean, which sometimes included heavy lifting.
One day, a golfer (a guest) asked me, "Where's the locker room guy?"
"That's me," I said.
"Oh," he said. "I thought you were one of us."
Honestly, it's not as bad as it sounds. I always dressed for work in proper golf attire. It's a nice club. Perhaps I wasn't as "ethnic" as the past locker room guys he'd met. I was not offended.
I was never shy about sharing my story with golfers who wanted to strike up conversation. "Yeah, I used to be somebody..." That's the way I'd begin to tell them about my 25-year career as a sportswriter. "I worked for Sports Illustrated, the New York Daily News, was a columnist at the Star-Ledger. And for almost 14 years, I was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine."
I wasn't trying to impress them with my story - okay, maybe a little bit - but for some reason I thought maybe one of the well-to-do members would say to me, like in the movies, "Here's my card. Call my secretary tomorrow and she'll discuss your salary and benefits package."
That didn't happen. Usually, the more caring members would give me a pat on the back and a "hang in there, bro." If I had a dollar for every "Hang in there, bro," I'd have a few dollars.
No one had a job for me, though one guy insisted I apply for a job at UPS. So, I went through the whole background check thing on their website, was asked to schedule an interview, and then was greeted with the disclaimer: "You will be on call 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and make $10 an hour."
Okay, then. Next.
Lots of people had ideas. The one I hear the most is, "Write a book." My response to that is usually, "I will write a book one day. Probably when I retire. But right now, I need a job."
My favorite suggestion was always, "You should start your own sports blog." But when I'd follow up with, "Yeah, there are a lot of those, and I'm not really sure too many of them make money..."
What I've learned in three years is that in my chosen profession, right now there are assignments, but not jobs. I've hung in there for three years, grabbing assignments with reputable outlets like SI.com and the New York Times. The reality, however, is that I'd have to write 300 stories per year for those two outlets to make half of what I used to make at ESPN The Magazine. It's impossible to write 300 stories per year. If you crushed it, you could write 150, which would mean I'd make a quarter of what I used to make. I have not crushed it. So, maybe that explains why I became the locker room guy.
The reality in sports journalism in 2015 is this: You need to be willing to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and do so with a smile on your face...and not worry about being well paid. I think I'm willing to work hard. I think I proved that in 2012, when I was asked to give up my columnist job at the Ledger and become the Yankees beat writer. It had been 17 years since I'd covered a beat. That was before the internet, boys and girls, but I gave it my best shot.
I would tell you that - not gonna be humble here - my writing was really good. I will also tell you that my other skills - live tweeting, posting random photos of things in the stadium, in the press box - were really bad. Why? Because I was an old dog trying to learn new tricks. And like I said, it had been 17 years since I'd worked a beat and I decided to focus on, ya know, working the beat.
I felt I was taking one for the team when I went on the beat. Not that I had any choice. My editor told me, flat-out, "Another writer is not walking through the doors of the Star-Ledger..."
When I finished the 2012 season, I was brain-fried. And them came Sandy, which crushed the Jersey Shore, where I have lived since 1993, so I then became a baseball writer who was also trying to help my 80-year old parents get back in their home. I think I performed admirably.
And then I got laid off.
At first, I was relieved. The beat was taking me away from my family. My son had just played his first season of varsity baseball - as a freshman - and I saw about three games. That killed me. There was no way could envision myself missing his baseball games for the rest of his high school career, or my younger son's soccer games, as he was also about to enter high school at the time.
So, I was relieved. I was also excited to look for work outside of sports writing. I got my foot in the door for an interview as editor of a college alumni magazine. Made it to the final round, but didn't get the job. "In the end we went with a candidate whose past work experience more closely meets the job description." Some version of that reply became the all-too-frequent response to subsequent interviews. I was in the running for a job as director of communications for a senior living community. I got in the door to try to manage sports marketing/communications for a major investment firm. I was a finalist for a communications position at a prep school. I went through four months of interviews for a position with a Major League Soccer team...and the same thing with one of golf's major governing bodies. Those last two rejections were especially painful because, for some god unknown reason - the guy doing the hiring told me the salary and benefits, and asked me if those conditions would be acceptable... ummm...hell yeah...only to give me bad news the next day.
Now, it's been a year since I've been able to get past a phone interview with Human Resources. I haven't met for a face to face interview with an actual human being in a year. I apply for a job a day on-line, which has only led to ridiculous amounts of viral spam in my mailbox every day.
In the end I have much to be thankful for. My wife is an amazing teacher who loves her job. My dad taught me a few things about saving money "for a rainy day." Don't get me wrong, I need a job. But because of the two things I just mentioned, I was able to quit my job as a car salesman after two months when I realized, much to my dismay, that the car business is shady, shady, shady. I have been able to watch my sons play their games, been able to make two trips to see my oldest son at college, have begun to take my younger son on school visits. Were I working 24/7/365 as a sports journalist, I would not have been able to do those things.
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy back time.
But it's tough. One of my brothers, every time he hears about me not getting a job, or not getting an interview, comforts me by saying, "You're a good man, Jeff."
It means a lot, but I don't know anymore. How do you keep pushing for work - jobs that pay less than what you were making in 1990 - and continually hear you're not the right fit for the job?
I have never, ever, told anyone I was a great sportswriter. I've always felt I was lucky. Lucky to get a foot in the door. Lucky to get some chances I probably didn't deserve. Lucky to have a few editors at ESPN - in the beginning - who told me, "Jeff, you're good at explaining stuff."
Well, I guess that's why I just wrote this blog...I felt like I had some explaining to do.