Monday, August 10, 2009

Confessions of an Organization Man

The following is a column I wrote based on my experience after the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition. An edited version of this column appeared previously in The Wall Street Journal.


I never thought my life would come to this. Or that I would say what I’m about to say. It’s so hard for me to believe it that even now I doubt myself.

But before I explain, let me start at the beginning. I remember as a 20-year-old working one summer on a small oil tanker on the British Columbia coast thinking I didn’t want to live my life in the position of a crew member, answerable to the captain, with little say over my fate. At that time I thought I would find the independence I sought by learning a trade. Which I did. I know it might sound far-fetched, but I became a log-house builder. I figured if I knew how to do something well, I would always be able to call my own shots. It didn’t quite work out that way. Sure, I did find I could make a living on my own. But I also discovered I was reliant on suppliers and customers. I had to keep finding new jobs, the work was hard, the days long - and lonely. I couldn’t imagine myself standing atop a stack of logs with a chain saw in my hands when I was 50. So I charted a different course, one that ultimately led me to my first love: writing. One that took me inside an old and large organization, where I built a life that supported my family and provided me with great satisfaction. Then came last fall’s economic collapse and, more than 30 years after my short stint at sea, I was without a job. The Rocky Mountain News, where I had worked for 17 years, closed, and my role as its editor, publisher and vice president/news of its owner, the E.W. Scripps Co., was finished.

I found myself on my own again. I was living and breathing outside the cocoon of a large company for the first time in a generation. It was then that I learned a terrible truth: I appeared to have become something I had sworn I would never be: an “organization man.” Could it really be true? Could I have become one of those people whose identity, purpose and meaning derived to a great extent from their trip each morning, briefcase in hand, to an office?

For those of you who’ve never lost your job, let me tell you that it takes some getting used to, even when you don’t need to find work the next day to feed your family or hold on to your house. As much as I might have seen myself as someone who embraced the uncertainty and opportunity of forces - the Internet in particular - that were changing my work, when I was suddenly confronted with having to find my way in this new world it was much more difficult than I had imagined. One step at a time. Patience. These are the things I keep reminding myself. I call myself a “free agent.” I like the sound of it. Free. Agent. The kind of person I had always wanted to be. Self-reliant. Self-directed. I enjoy my new life. And I’m intrigued by what may come.

And yet, I also feel a sense of loss. I wonder what will be the cost if, as seems possible, we end up in a media universe of free agents. I see more clearly what the journalists who come behind me might miss. Many of them won’t be able to experience the benefits of being part of an organization with a mission much larger than their own, with a history and traditions. Yes, many companies today may be suffocatingly slow to adapt to changing times. But for those who want to be part of telling the story of their era, there’s nothing quite like being able to work with other talented people with the kind of backing you don’t need to think twice about. Good journalism does require an independence of mind and spirit. It starts with strong, smart, curious individuals. But it’s also made possible by the help of others, whether colleagues to elevate the quality of the work or companies to provide the support to do the digging and the reach to give it impact. Of course the journalists of tomorrow will find new ways to collaborate with others. But time spent with a group building a common culture can lead to unexpectedly beautiful things.

I grew up in the West, at a time when being able to stand on your own feet was seen as a virtue. I wanted to be the kind of person who needed no one else to help carve his fate. Now I stand free and independent, ready to live that dream, and new doors are opening. Perhaps there are new organizations to build. I hope so. Because if I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I miss being part of an entity with a purpose. I’m not embarrassed to say I may have become the man I never wanted to be - an organization man.


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