First the Sack, Then the Plaque
Journalists don’t like getting interviewed. Or at least I don’t. I would imagine it’s akin to a doctor being asked to drop his pants. You feel even more vulnerable because you know what’s coming next.
Sorry, unnecessary metaphor. The point is, when Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader called me the other day to ask about the recent Lisagors Award dinner, I involuntarily shuddered.
It wasn’t Miner, a terrific and sharp-edged media critic, of whom I was afraid. It was me.
A fellow reporter could call and ask me about the Swine Flu and I would make myself sound responsible all in the interest of offering up a decent quote.
In this case, however, I was afraid of sounding bitter, a whistleblower, the kind of person no one would ever want to hire in the future.
The problem here is that there had to be about 300 eyewitnesses when I went up to accept my award for Best Feature of 2008, and ended up having to retrieve it from the managing editor of the Tribune, my former employer, who ostensibly was accepting on my behalf.
That the Tribune editors did not know I was there was probably appropriate under the circumstances as I no longer existed as far as the company was concerned. That the managing editor, whom I had never met, appeared to observers to want to rush up and grab it so that emcees Phil Ponce and Felicia Middlebrooks could move on to the next category and perhaps minimize the moment and any potential embarrassment for the paper, seemed to be more the case.
“I wasn’t planning on keeping it for the Tribune,” Jane Hirt told Jim Romenesko of Poynter Online.
But no one, including me, suggested or even entertained the thought that the paper would be interested in – with apologies to the much-respected Chicago Headline Club – a simple plaque.
I won the award, not the plaque. And here is why I cared; why I nominated the story myself and why I went feeling the way I did. Why I got my hair cut and put on the dress I wore to my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Why I gratefully accepted the donated ticket after being invited by the paper to the dinner a week earlier, accepted, then told hours later, “Sorry, table's filled.”
The winning feature was the most meaningful story I’d written in my 26 years as a journalist. It was the story of my parents and their simultaneous 20-year battle with Alzheimer’s until their deaths from the disease. It was the story of my family, the story of my adult life, the story, as it turned out, that would mark a career soon to be over at the only newspaper I ever wanted to write it for.
I went last Friday to accept the award in their honor. And yes, for the paper that allowed me to write it, the paper that once seemed to care about stories like this one. The paper that I never thought would allow its employees to walk out the door without a thank-you or even a good-bye.
But it is not, of course, just those of us let go last week. We grieve too today for the Baltimore Sun, for the editors and managers, loyal and trusted employees only seconds before, ushered out of the newsroom by security guards on Tuesday. And for the sportswriters who were called out of press boxes and fired on Wednesday.
We grieve for every worker laid off in this country without being given the dignity they have earned.
It was never about the damn plaque.
The Lisagors, Chicago Reader
Romenesko, Chicago Reader
Fade to Black -- Something's Not Right with Mom, Chicago Tribune