Four lessons from losing a journalism job

By Melanie Coulson It is two years to the day since I ‘lost’ my job in media. I don’t mark it, but it’s hard to forget. It was three days before Valentine’s Day, 2014. It hit me like a truck. It was completely unexpected. So unexpected in fact, the first thought as the envelope detailing…

By Melanie Coulson

It is two years to the day since I ‘lost’ my job in media.

I don’t mark it, but it’s hard to forget. It was three days before Valentine’s Day, 2014.

It hit me like a truck. It was completely unexpected.

So unexpected in fact, the first thought as the envelope detailing my layoff/termination package slid across a desk towards me was, ‘Man, why did I stay up so late last night working on the content strategy for that mobile app?’

Ah, regret.

A lot of my former newsroom colleagues are now fearing their own layoffs. This year began with report of amalgamated newsroomsfinancial insecurity at Canada’s largest newspaper chainlayoffs, and the promise of more to come.

I’ve seen a few posts from journalists sharing their experiences of being laid off. (Including this excellent HuffPo post from Kim Fox.)

There are some fantastic posts on a Facebook Page for journos called ‘What’s your Plan B?

This is not the kind of support group where one expects to find journalists. I think the storied, romantic notion (mostly created by Hollywood) is that they are all consoling themselves over the trauma of covering a sex assault and murder case at an AA meeting.

No, these days journos meet on social media to talk about what they’ll do after they’re laid off, and how to negotiate a decent termination agreement.

So… two years later, I’d like to talk about my enlightenment. That’s how I now describe what happened to me after I ‘lost’ my job in a newsroom.

I hope this post helps anyone out there who finds themselves where I was two years ago — on the outside of the newsroom, looking in.

Because (brace yourself, here comes a fantastic, albeit true, cliché): Losing my job helped me find myself.

Lesson One: The universe is trying to teach you something

For me, the most rattling part of losing my job was it ‘wasn’t according to my plan.’

I’d been a good student, got excellent grades, thrived in a challenging industry, asked the tough questions, worked my way up to management in a newsroom (one of two women managers in a male-dominated newsroom, but that’s another chat).

I did everything I was supposed to do.

So why was the universe throwing me out on my ass?

This is not a productive question, I realized on day five, after binge-watching the entire Dexter series. (Thank you, Netflix)

More productive: What should I do next? I attempted to answer this the same way any journalist approaches a good story. I began with research.

I talked to people. A lot of people. Thirty-two people in three months. It was exhilarating — I knew three of these 32 people before I started my ‘research.’

It was a heavily caffeinated affair: most of my meetings were in coffee shops across Ottawa. I told my husband it was the ‘Mel Coulson Coffeehouse Tour.’ Sadly, no t-shirts.

Most, but not all, of the peopleI talked to worked in Communications. They worked for agencies, lobby groups, NGOs, governments, charities. Some had their own businesses. I am grateful to all of them for their time, and answering what amounted to these basic questions:

1. Describe what you do. What do you love/hate about it?

2. How did you get here — what was your path? (Would you do anything differently?)

3. What kind of advice would you have for me?

4. Who else do you think I should talk to?

The last question turned out to be gold. It helped me build a network in an industry that was new to me.

And I don’t know why this surprised me — but every single person suggested someone else I should talk to. Everyone wanted to help.

Even if they didn’t know me before that coffee.

Perhaps the universe was trying to nudge me in a certain direction? Perhaps it wasn’t this cruel jackass that throws you to the ground, knocking the wind out of you.

“I think you need to embrace the chaos. Perhaps be more Buddhist about it,” one coffee partner told me, “Perhaps the universe is trying to show you life doesn’t have to be ‘according to plan.”

I’m no Buddhist, but I do know I got my first job in communications four months after being punted from a newsroom because one of those contacts wanted me to see the job posting – and sent it my way.

Thanks, universe.

Lesson Two: Journalism skills are highly marketable

If you’re like I was, you’ve been in a newsroom for years. Perhaps decades. People who tell stories, who can weave words to move readers to tears, to outrage, have surrounded you all your working life.

You may be like me and you’re comfortable telling stories online, on social media, in words, photos, video and sound.

As a result, you might think every one can write.

You are so, so wrong. The fact is, your storytelling talents make you a superhero. Your job as a journalist is to take a complex issue or idea and explain it so that anyone can understand it. This is not a talent to take lightly my friend. It is to be valued, cherished.

Do you hear me? Do not take your talents lightly.

Stop thinking of yourself as a journalist with specialized skills that won’t transfer to other jobs. I’m telling you — they are so, so in demand.

Words are your super power — but to others they are kryptonite.

You have other amazing superhero skills: You ask the right questions, ones that others are afraid to ask.

This is something you’ve done that your whole career.

Don’t stop now, that curiosity will help you communicate internally and externally, so that everyone understands the heart of your story.

Also important: you’re adaptable. Those newsroom training budget cutbacks are a blessing in disguise: in the newsroom they taught you to be resourceful, to train yourself on new technologies.

That kind of ‘let me just figure this out’ attitude and confidence in learning new things is awesome.

Watch it, you’re sitting on your cape!

Lesson Three: You can still change the world

If you’re like me, you got into journalism to make a difference. I have a sign in my office that reads ‘That’s why we’re here — to make a dent in the universe.’

I firmly believe this. (Though a good friend and data expert will remind me again and again that from a statistical reality this is impossible, the universe is just too big to make any sizeable impression. Way to kill a metaphor with reality, friend)

Well guess what: you can change the world from beyond the newsroom.

One former newsroom colleague is leading Ottawa’s initiative to bring Syrian refugees to our city. She is doing media interviews and ensuring their transition to a new home in Canada is a smooth one — this is something she could never have done reporting on the “new Canadian beat.” (Also, hello Superhero Louisa!)

I’ve felt the impact of my work in Comms for a major charity at the local level, and at a think tank with a national policy audience. I like inspiring people with big, achievable ideas around what our country, our world can be.

I’m no longer in a newsroom, but I’m making a difference.

Lesson Four: You are more than your job title

This is the hardest and most important lesson to learn.

About two weeks after I lost my newsroom job, it hit me. And it hit hard.

I was on a chairlift, high over the trees.

I’m no longer a Senior Editor at the Ottawa Citizen.

The wind howled, I lost my breath.

I’m no longer a Senior Editor.

Holy. Crap. I’m no longer a Senior Editor.

For just a moment I felt panicked. I was breathless and lightheaded. Was it a panic attack? I dunno, but the earth, the world seemed so far away.

Then again… I was on a chairlift.

My husband, always good for a dose of reality (even when he was laid off from another local newsroom later the same year) said, “But you’re still Melanie. You’re still skiing.”

He added, “and you have your health.”

As I skied down the hill, I smiled. He was right, of course. I was healthy; I was doing my favourite winter sport.

I was still me.

I’ve been a lot of things:

Senior Editor, Deputy Managing Editor, Night Editor, Online Features Editor, Online Editor, Assistant National Editor, Assistant Toronto Editor, Toronto Editor… before that, I was All-Canadian Varsity Athlete, Royal Canadian Henley Champion, Journalism Student, Groom (horses, not weddings)… and even ‘Stall Mucker’ (A fancy title for ‘Shit Shoveler)

Those are jobs. Things I did.

And, dammit, I did them all — even shit shoveler — so well. (No comments about how that forayed into journalism, please)

But no matter the title, I’ve always been Mel.

I’ve always loved Duran Duran, 80s and 90s music (except grunge), I’ve always loved movies that make you scream, or make you cry, characters in books that become your best friends, and running. I love my family, my kids and my husband. I love horses and dogs — actually most animals. Okay, all animals. Except toads. They’re just too unpredictable.

But I do love surprise and suspense. Which is where my love affair with news began in the first place. I love politics, and learning the story behind the people who drive the news.

Oh, and in the last few years… I have added skiing to the list of things I love.

So what if I’m not a Senior Editor – I haven’t been for two years now and you know what? This has not had an impact on who I am.

These days I have a different title… but I’m still all the things that make me Mel.

Those titles are jobs, tasks, responsibilities.

Sure, they describe what I did/do, the tasks I am good at. Some of them even helped pay the mortgage.

But they don’t define me. They are not who I am.

So, please allow me to introduce myself:

I’m Mel Coulson. And I’m here to make a dent in the universe.

Melanie Coulson is a storyteller, digital/social messenger who is working to make a dent in the universe. She is a digital Comms instructor @Carleton_U, and a runner, skier, 80s girl. This story was originally published on Medium and is republished here with Coulson’s consent.