“Your maiden name is Bruce? What is that Scottish?,” he asks with a smile.
I look over at the white-haired older gentleman in a full suit and tie. Ed Mead. A living newspaper legend, notorious for knowing nearly everyone in Pennsylvania’s third largest city, a byproduct of a lifetime spent in the newspaper biz.
I’m interviewing for a crappy position in advertising services that is far below my capabilities and has nothing to do with my recently acquired college degree, but it offers a “foot in the door” at the Erie Times-News, which in the early 1990s, was still a stable, family-owned, union newspaper that took great pride in serving it’s hometown the news it needed to know (whether people wanted to hear it or not).
It was a good place to work and I wanted the job because I’d just discovered that I hated the field (Public Relations) that I’d just spent four years studying. I was kinda lost and sad and sort of scared. And I just wanted a job at solid company.
Back then, every single person who was hired—from reporters to janitorial staff to advertising service reps—met with and were interviewed by the “front office,” which included cousins Ed and Mike Mead, whose grandfathers started the paper more than 100 years ago, and CEO (or whatever his title was then), Jim Dible.
They were the top dogs and they had the final say on who joined the ETN family. And it was a family, they told me.
The front office was intimidating. The conference room table, a behemoth oval of dark gleaming wood, dwarfed my 5’1″ 120-ish pound frame. My legs dangled, not touching the floor.
While Mike and Jim asked me the traditional interview questions — strengths, weaknesses, job experience, etc. — Ed wanted to know who I was. Was I married? Where did I go to High School? Where did my dad work? Did I have kids? (Forget whether he was “allowed” to ask these things, Ed didn’t really follow rules.) What was my heritage?
“I…I, uh, I don’t actually know if it’s Scottish…” I stammered.
Then Ed, being Ed, launched into some long story about Scotland or people he knew who were Scottish or maybe golf… I don’t know. Ed was well-known for going off script, reading people (or the room), and putting everyone at ease.
I liked him immediately. Everyone did.
I got the crappy job and I did it for about three months before I got a better job at ETN, sliding into a made-for-me position in the Marketing Department.
Those were the golden years (for me) at ETN. Life was good. Work was good. The newspaper business was good. And, we all shared in the rewards with service anniversary gifts, bonuses, birthday gifts, family picnics, and more.
My bosses knew my name. Ed also knew my kids’ names and my husband’s name and my maiden name and where I lived and what I liked to eat for lunch and which races I ran on the weekend because Ed knew everything about everyone. And it was all good.
I was honored to work for Ed and the ETN for a dozen years—eventually moving into the newsroom—before the Internet exploded and blew the newspaper industry to hell.
Gone were the bonuses, the service gifts, the family picnics, raises, pensions. Layoffs and furloughs became commonplace. And, when you made the cut, you breathed a sigh of relief until you realized someone had to do the work of all those who were laid off.
The workload was crushing, the demand endless, and the rewards few.
I knew I was leaving the day they chose to turn the successful glossy women’s magazine that I had started into a tabloid (newsprint) publication.
As I cried in the back parking lot (one of only three times I have ever cried at work), I knew with complete certainty that I could not save the paper from itself. That no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put in, no matter how well I wrote, no matter how much I cut costs, no matter how much work I sneaked home and secretly did at night…it wouldn’t matter. It was a losing game.
When the right opportunity came along a couple years later, I knew it was time to go. I felt guilty leaving. I still do. I felt like I was abandoning the ship. I’d grown up at the paper. They were my friends and my family, and I loved them. I still do.
But I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t handle the workload, which had grown to include a monthly, a weekly, and 30+ special sections a year, in addition proofreading, writing columns and stories for Features, and editing Letters to the Editor. I hated editing letters, one of the many “extra jobs” I was saddled with after a round of layoffs/furloughs. I had not had a raise in years and rising health care costs meant I was earning less and less every year. And, the black cloud of doom that hung over the entire industry was just disheartening.
Last day at the Times
They had a little party on the day I left. They always do. Nobody parties like the employees at the Erie Times-News, whose holiday spreads and food days put Old Country Buffet to shame. (I lost 6 pounds when I left.)
I successfully avoided crying all day. Until Ed found me.
With tears in his eyes (and then mine), he told me that he was sorry that I was leaving. That he enjoyed working with me. That I was a great writer. That he would miss me. And that he was sorry that the company hadn’t been able to weather the storm and keep the family together.
“We’ve lost so many, lately,” he said. “I can’t blame you. It’s just not what it used to be.”
Ed died in March and I was thankful he wasn’t here when yesterday’s news that the Mead family, which had owned the Times Publishing Company for 127 years, had sold to an out-of-state media conglomerate with 575 “community publications” in 32 states.
Maybe it won’t be a bad thing. Maybe the newspaper, which has been bleeding for years, will get some much-needed resources. I sincerely hope that’s the case. But I’m jaded enough to know that it probably isn’t.
About Just Write: Just Write is my adaptation of free writing, a technique in which a person writes continuously and quickly without little regard for spelling, grammar, or topic. It helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and explore everything from meaningful topics to mundane observations with the same effort and without the pressure of crafting perfect prose. I just start writing.
“What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”