I wasn’t going to write anything about James Lileks’, er, sudden change of assignment. I mean, talk about your inside baseball. But reading about the right-wing blog star / Minneapolis Star Tribune “humor” columnist’s predicament — abruptly told the paper had other plans for his FTE, and that he was to report to the metro desk a week from Monday for general-assignment reporting duties — rang a bell, you might say. It is, with a few details changed, pretty much exactly what happened to me five years ago at a fading p.m. daily in far-less-glamorous Fort Wayne, Indiana. Perhaps I can offer the pint-size pundit some perspective.
Sometimes I feel like journalism’s coal-mine canary. All the stuff that started happening in 2002 at our paper, the stuff that had my friends at bigger papers saying, “Wow, that’s terrible. So far, knock wood, we here at the Major Metro Times-Bugle are OK” — that’s happening everywhere now. Even Lileks, if he could stop the furious cycle of his narcissism for five minutes, would have to agree that having a job as a full-time humor columnist at a large-circulation daily is a little like being Henry Ford’s buggy-whip polisher in 1905. I’m sure his vision is somewhat clouded, though, by his status as a right-wing web star; his allies’ gift for understatement (“newspaper suicide”) is already muddying the waters. They forget the Lileks they know, with his daily Bleat and radio appearances and one-joke books, is not the Lileks the Star-Tribune readers know, the writer who offers 250-word dispatches on his sniffles, his dessert choices and …oh, I seem to have reached my limit of free Star-Tribune stories for today, but you can do your own explorations here. To them, the effect of killing the Daily Quirk is the destruction of their boy’s meal ticket. He gets paid for the Quirk; the rest of the stuff he does free. If they like him so much, they need to get acquainted with that 20th-century concept of paying for content.
As a long-time reader of Lileks in print and online, I’ve found him a fascinating study. I used to like his Newhouse column, until his hardening right-wing sensibilities ruined it for me. Close your eyes, and you’d swear his words were issuing from the mouth of a 33-year-old Grosse Pointe soccer mom in a blonde pageboy, about to climb into her Hummer H2 without guilt, thank you very much, because it makes her feel safe. He never irked me as much as Albom or Greene, probably because he never made it as big as they did, but many times I set aside his work with my eyes crossed in either boredom, rage or frustration, wishing I had the last three minutes of my life back. But what really bugged me about him was his Janus-faced b.s. about the news media and the internet, the way he threw meat to his MSM-hatin’ buddies by hatin’ right along with them, and then quietly cashing his check on payday. His complaints about news coverage, whether in Iraq or St. Paul, ring hollow from a man who stands up today and frankly admits “writing straight news is a skill I lack, and I take off my hat to those who’ve mastered that discipline.” Really? You do? I must have missed those Bleats. They must have been hidden between the ones hailing the Web as the end of the lecture-based form of journalism, and explaining the secret liberalism that stalks American newsrooms, this from a man who works from the kitchen table in his $600,000 house. And it will be amusing, in the days to come, to see the defense of Lileks coming from people who, days ago, would have agreed that newspapers are overstaffed and need to get some more shoe-leather reporters out on the street. To see them begging to have their humor columnist spared will be quite the entertainment.
But I’m losing the plot. All this has nothing to do with anything, and the sooner Lileks faces a few facts, the sooner we can cut this whining short.
Fact. No. 1: It’s not personal, Jim. Try to remember that. It will be difficult for quite some time. I can still tick off at least half a dozen newspaper managers who, if I saw them in flames on a sidewalk today, would prompt no thought more vexing than “Damn, where’re my marshmallows?” But really, it’s not about you. It’s about your salary. You’re fat, and the paper is on a crash diet. They don’t really want you to be a reporter; they want you to quit. They’re just making sure you’ll be in a mood to do so when, in a number of weeks or maybe months, they offer you a buyout to leave. Take it. There’s no guarantee the next staff reduction will be voluntary. Keep in mind, many of us didn’t get buyout offers; we just got the humiliating reassignment. You’re better-positioned than 90 percent of journalists to make a soft landing; you have a reputation, a sideline (the books), fans and, far more important, a fully employed spouse with a professional degree. Presumably you have a health-insurance alternative. (I’d say at this point that you should thank the Newspaper Guild before you leave, not only for your living wage but for the buyout offer, but I don’t expect a nice conservative union member to do anything that drastic.)
Fact. No. 2: Change is good. Yeah, yeah, it’s a cliché, but it’s a good one. When my job was crumbling beneath me, when I moved first to columnist/reporting/editing and later, post-fellowship, to the copy desk, I was beside myself with rage and frustration and self-pity. But here’s the thing: I kinda liked the copy desk. The move was designed to make me insane, but for the six months it took us to find new employment and shake the Hoosier dust off our shoes and move to Detroit — I should say here you’ll probably not be required to move to Detroit — I actually liked sitting behind a giant bank of monitors, enforcing AP style. The hours were insulting, 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., but that meant I was free to enjoy summer from lunchtime on. I enjoyed driving to work at 4:45 a.m., listening to “Coast to Coast” or Eminem and trying to break my land-speed record in the deserted streets. Who knows, you might like covering breaking news as a g.a. reporter — trust me, you can “master the discipline” of the five-W inverted pyramid in about 12 minutes — and, if you open your mind a bit, you might see things that could end up, oh, changing your outlook. You might see how hard it is to be poor, how racism is the metastatic cancer of American life, how…oh, but that’s crazy talk. Still, though, a change of perspective is always good. Seriously.
Fact No. 3: You have alternatives. Freelancing should be a breeze for you, and it will enable you to dote on your kid and bake bread and whatever else you do all day at home. It may require some early belt-tightening, until the cash flow equalizes; you may not be able to buy every new Apple gizmo the first day it ships from the factory. (I know this will be hard, having endured the Bleat after your wife was unexpectedly canned, and you actually lamented having to let go “the woman who does the woodwork,” as though this was a chain reaction of economic catastrophe unlike any the Twin Cities had seen. Most people married to an unemployed lawyer might be able to hold their tongues for a few weeks before turning their pockets inside-out, but not you. You have standards! And woodwork!) Your kid may not be able to go to private school immediately. But eventually your life will assume a new form, and you’ll be fine. You’ll be different, but fine.
Well, looky here — give me an inch, and before long I’ve gone on as long as Lileks can about the new soap choices at Target. And I know no one asked me, either. But as I said before, I’ve been down this path, and I’m looking out for the people who are following. It’s rocky, the thorny bushes need to be trimmed and there’s no lighting but the moon. But it leads somewhere, and so far I’m still advancing under my own power. So will you, Jim. So will you.
UPDATE: I must be getting some outside linkage, because I’m getting a lot of first-time commenters today. That’s great, but for you newbies, our policy: First-timers go to moderation first, as an anti-spam measure. I’ve been approving everyone promptly so far today, but I have to step out to do some errands, so more will have to wait a bit. If your comment doesn’t turn up immediately, rest assured it will eventually, and don’t re-submit.