From the field to the office | Bleader

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the field to the office

Posted By on 10.19.11 at 08:00 AM

Before the last slice of cake is eaten from the Reader's 40th birthday, I wanted to offer a personal reflection about the paper.

Our editorial team has always consisted of two kinds of workers: the office staff (editors, proofers, designers), and the field hands (writers). Freelancers have also contributed greatly, but I'm talking now about the regular employees. I joined the Reader in 1981 as a field hand. That meant I only stepped into the office to drop off a story.

This arrangement was part of the Reader's all-around clever financial plan. Why provide space for writers who could work just as well from their homes—and who would then pay their own phone bills, and buy their own supplies?

Not that we field hands were complaining. I was delighted to skip a commute to the office on Grand (and later on Illinois). The only congestion I had to deal with was the occasional laundry basket between my bed and my desk. I got to see much more of my kids.

The system worked just fine when the Reader prospered. Then in the 2000s Craigslist appeared, and, as Cecil Adams painfully reminded us last week, wounded the paper by snaring its classified business. Craigslist wasn't the sole cause of our financial decline, but it was a leading culprit.

In 2007 the Reader was sold, and the new owners decided to tinker with the fieldwork arrangement. Most of us writers were told we could remain indefinitely in the field, but with a slight 100 percent reduction in pay.

At least we didn't have to clean out our desks.

I had the honor of being canned in the distinguished company of John Conroy, Tori Marlan, and Harold Henderson. This group purge, in December 2007, brought all four of us lots of attention. ("Reader lays off Conroy, three others.")

After a fellowship and some freelance writing, I started looking for a regular job. I was familiar with the process, having done it when I was 12. Only this time, instead of scanning newspaper classifieds with pen in hand, I was checking the listings of sites like JournalismJobs.com and Idealist.org. Without ideal results. The few employers seeking journalists were less interested in reporting and writing ability than in the abbreviated skills: HTML, CSS, jQuery, SQL. I was SOL.

One desperate morning last summer, I broke down and checked the job listings on—I still feel dirty admitting it—Craigslist.

And, lo and behold, there it was: an opening for an associate editor—a posting that stressed journalistic and not digital experience. A job with the Reader.

I wanted to write, not edit—but beggars can't be choosers, so I applied. Kiki Yablon, the Reader's editor then, managed to convince her bosses I was a different Steve Bogira from the field Steve Bogira, and I was rehired.

The only catch was that as an editor, I'd have to work in the office. My friends thought I'd find this impossible. "But you've never worked in an office," they said. I reminded them that only three-plus decades ago, I'd done three years in the Tribune Tower before I was paroled to the Reader.

My return engagement with office work began just over a year ago. I've since been converted from editor to writer, so I don't have to be in the office every day. But most days I choose to be.

The commute, usually on the el and a bus, has been a delight. Not everyone is hunched over their phones. I've had many engaging chats with strangers and have enjoyed watching the sunset out the Red Line windows.

Just last week on the train, two sisters, ages four and six, were busy drawing on sketch pads on their bench seat, while their dad, sitting across from them, drew on his. He was a professional artist, he told me when I asked. The four-year-old—curly-haired, gap-toothed, gum-chewing, her feet dangling short of the floor—did play-by-play as she sketched: "I'm gonna draw a snowman. I'm gonna draw a hippopotamus. Actually, he's a man. Actually, she's a cat. Look at my circle—gi-normous! Ready for the big mouth? Actually, he's a puppet. That's why he has strings."

This doesn't happen in my home office.

I always liked the solitude of working from home. I wasn't cloistered—I got out often to do my reporting. I became friends with some of the other writers and photographers in the field. There were our kids coming home after school.

But I always wondered if I was missing something by not working alongside my teammates. And now I know. I was.

We have a crew of many talents here, catching and striking a softball unfortunately not being among them. They are people who are playful with words. People of a variety of ages, ranging mainly from younger than me to much younger. It's exhilarating being around them, and a pleasure getting to know them. I'm ready for the next 40 years.

So, thank you, Kiki. Thank you, teammates. And thank you, Craigslist.

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