Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives.
“Hi Sandra, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but the company has decided to close the newspaper due to COVID so, unfortunately, you’ve been terminated.”
“It sucked the air out of the room” is an expression I’d heard many times but didn’t fully grasp until my publisher delivered that message during a phone call late last August. The call about the closure of my beloved community paper came two weeks before my 62nd birthday. Even as I processed what it meant to lose the job I’d loved for 20 years, and to lose a newspaper that had been around for 112, the realist in me knew immediately this layoff would reverberate. Because of my age and the ever-diminishing number of print and digital news publications, I knew this likely meant the end of my journalism career.
Six months earlier, when the coronavirus was emerging in North America, almost all the staff had been given a “temporary” layoff. I worried we wouldn’t be brought back, so I spent six hours the day after our layoff sorting and cleaning my desk. I shed tears rereading letters grateful readers sent me over the years, and even found a couple of death threats I’d kept as a kind of badge of honor. Sitting at my desk for the last time, I realized I’d be losing the almost-daily contact I’d had with my colleagues/friends from the editorial team, some of whom I had worked with for two decades. During those years, we spent more waking hours together than with our families. Now, while we still keep in touch, our weekly online get-togethers have dwindled to once a month or every six weeks. The Slack channel created after our layoffs is where we keep one another posted on our job hunts and other personal and professional news.
My entry into the newspaper business came later than most. I was 37, with shared custody of my son, when I decided to become a journalist. I was fortunate to have an ex-husband who took on more of the parenting duties while I attended class. I was so excited to start journalism school I wasn’t even put off by naysayers. A male faculty member once told me that while I’d be a great addition to the program, because of “my age” and the fact journalism was “dying,” I’d be better off using it as a launch pad for a career in public relations.
His advice just made me work harder. Before I’d even graduated, I was named best junior reporter by a (now defunct) provincial journalism foundation. I also won a provincial Victoria Press Gallery Award while still in school. One of the newspapers used as an example of what we should strive for at my school was the Vancouver Courier, which at the time was known for its long-form feature stories. I gave myself a goal of five years to get hired there. I made it in three.
With no assigned beats initially, we were expected to come up with our own story ideas.
We were also encouraged to dig deep, which is how I began writing investigative features. It was while working on those stories that I found myself dressed as a sex trade worker walking a stroll, attending a Saturday afternoon matinee at a porn theater, and investigating the inordinately large number of young men who went missing from southwestern British Columbia between 2008 and 2010. In 2010, I was named best investigative community reporter for my “missing men” series, as it came to be known. As the mother of a son who fit the general age and description of many of these missing men—short hair, little or no facial hair, muscular with distinctive tattoos—I was driven to find answers for the parents, siblings, and friends I interviewed over the course of a year. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t—the majority of those men are still missing.
At the time of my termination, I was the newspaper’s lifestyle and travel editor, a move I made about eight years earlier in an effort to save my job when I saw how much the media landscape was changing. While the Courier had an editorial department full of talented journalists, it had never had a dedicated lifestyle editor to tackle special sections. After creating my position, my job title eventually grew to include travel editor and editor/writer for numerous magazines we published, including Lifetime, dedicated to older adults.
Working at the same community newspaper for years meant we had the unique opportunity to get to know—in detail—issues important to our city, through readers’ emails, phone calls, and dreaded handwritten letters. Our collective knowledge and long history together allowed us to understand the city and its people in ways few others could. We put that theory to the test with an award-winning series featuring different Vancouver neighborhoods, which we published over 14 months. Now that’s all over.
I had always imagined colorful ways my journalism career would eventually end, including me storming out one day after finally having enough. A pandemic had never made the list. But as the pandemic spread and lockdowns were implemented, many of the businesses who regularly advertised in the Courier were no longer able to do so, and there went our revenue. In the months I’ve been out of the newsroom, I’ve slowly come to realize living life without daily deadlines or dealing with an increasingly volatile public or walking through most days like a zombie due to stress-related insomnia has its benefits.
I’m certainly not alone in the job loss. In September, I joined the ranks of more than 1.5 million Canadian women who lost employment in 2020 due to the coronavirus, many of whom were in female-dominated fields. While men have begun returning to the workforce, far fewer women have been reemployed, according to a recent study conducted by Royal Bank of Canada. Many of those women may end up finding other jobs or go back to school. I hope age doesn’t dissuade them, like it didn’t dissuade me 25 years ago, when I was told journalism was “dying,” so don’t bother.
The question I grappled with those first few months after termination was, “Who am I, if not a journalist?” I could have just packed it in and retired, but the writer in me refuses to give up. What I’ve learned mostly is I am still a journalist, just one without a full-time job. I still have a reporter’s curiosity. I still ask too many questions of people I barely know. I’ve been doing some freelancing and am threatening to finish a book I started writing 10 years ago. I’m attempting to reinvent myself once again, this time as a content writer and freelance editor. I’ve also been applying for full-time work, but the number of journalism jobs that come up are very few and far between, so instead I’ve been concentrating on any jobs where I can put my writing to use. I’m having a website built—boomer604.com, and I’m attempting to learn WordPress. I’m not sure who’s going to read it, but I keep hearing the voice of that instructor who told me because of my age I shouldn’t pursue my dream, so I’m going to keep writing.