Journalism: Here’s to second chances

Two years ago over the Christmas holiday, I finished a series for The Guardian looking at deep job cuts in the British media industry. I wanted to look both at the numbers, but I also wanted to speak to journalists to get a sense of the human toll. It was heart breaking to find the devastating impact on local newspapers and journalists in England, Wales and Scotland.

Personally, I hadn’t yet decided to take voluntary redundancy (a buyout) from The Guardian, but I had turned a corner. In November of 2009, I had decided that not only was change possible, it was preferable. As I often told friends, I saw more opportunities outside of The Guardian than inside. However, it would be the first time that I would leave a job without another waiting, and it was the first time that I would leave a job without something clearly bigger and better waiting.

As I knew from the series that I had just finished, my story was far from unique. I joined thousands of journalists in making the difficult decision and thousands more who had the decision made for them.

Like people that I interviewed for my series, I found the buyout gave me some time to recharge, dare I say heal. It also gave me time to explore options and navigate the initial transition. Two years later, I’m thinking about second (and third and fourth) chances sparked by a piece in Smithsonian magazine by Meghan Daum about her decision to trade her native New York for Lincoln Nebraska, more precisely a tiny farmhouse on the outskirts of Lincoln. More than a decade later she isn’t entirely sure why she made the move. However, she returns there usually once a year. Why?

“Lincoln gave me a faith in second chances. In third and fourth chances, too. I’d had a nervous upbringing in the tense, high-stakes suburbs of New York City, after which I lived hungrily and ecstatically, but no less nervously, in the clutches of the city itself. This was a life that appeared to have no margin for error. One mistake—the wrong college, the wrong job, embarking on marriage and family too soon or too late—seemed to bear the seeds of total ruination. Terrified of making a wrong move, of tying myself down or cutting off my options, I found myself paralyzed in the classic New York City way.”

In November of 2009, I too was paralyzed, which was a new feeling for me. I’ve never been too fussed about making pretty major course corrections in life. My entire journalism career started because of my first, but not last, left at the lights. When I entered university, I was an aeronautical and astronautical engineer. Yes, I was going to study to be a rocket scientist. However, I soon realised that my interests were too broad, and I loved writing too much to throw myself into an engineering career. (I will admit to a slight twinge of regret last year when the Space Shuttle flew for the last time. Yes, I grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut.)

After graduation, I passed up a prestigious political journalism internship in Washington for a fellowship with an environmental group. It didn’t work out as planned, and I learned a valuable lesson: My journalism values – providing accurate information so that people could make their own decisions in a democratic society – trumped my own personal, political values. However valuable the lesson to me personally, the experience handicapped my effort to land my first journalism job. Like Meghan Daum, I found myself on the Great Plains, in Kansas rather than Nebraska, working for a small newspaper. I’m still grateful for that second chance. Apart from my job for the BBC in Washington, being a regional reporter for the Hays Daily News is still my favourite job.

Fast forward to 2009, with The Great Recession and now a wife, I didn’t want to leave a full-time job without something to go to. Suw and I wanted to stay in the UK at least until I could apply for citizenship, which was still two years away. I felt stuck, and I felt worried about the risk, not only immediate but also in the long-term to my career, of leaving. Suw remembers the day when I woke up cheery again in November of 2009 knowing that I didn’t have to accept the status quo.

I now look back at 2011 with a sense of the importance of second chances and also that life and careers are a bit more forgiving than we might think. I look forward to 2012 with a lot of excitement. We’re actually more financially secure than we were in 2009, and the work is fascinating. After I get that British passport, we’ll have a few more options open to us. Here’s to 2012 and second chances, mine and yours.