Life After Journalism
Groping Toward Whatever
Or How I Learned to Retire, Sort of
By Susan Trausch
Free Street Press
192 pages; $15.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
As so many of us were told so often, journalism isn't a job but a way of life. It's all-consuming and permanent. Or so we thought.
But for thousands and thousands of newspeople, including the Boston Globe's Susan Trausch, that way of life has abruptly ended.
This book is about what happens next.
Trausch took severance in 2005 after 32 years at the Globe. She had the classic profile of a newsroom lifer: studying journalism at Ohio State, hooked after interning at the Cleveland Press, advancing to the big time to become an award-winning writer and columnist.
"I'd always had an identity, had one since age 20," she writes. "I belonged to a masthead, a big room with presses that shook a building..a Constitutional power...I was the working press."
Over time, though, she found herself feeling a "deadness" in "an industry that seemed to be dying." She writes of "seeing myself at 28 – a reporter flying free on a job that did not feel like work – and at 60, a tired veteran who just wanted out."
Then a "severance package dropped from the sky, and I got sprung. School let out forever and I was free, really free.
"I was euphoric. Except when I wasn't...."
In a book that is both charming and poignant, uplifting and melancholy, Trausch captures the emotional and intellectual ambivalence of a career newshound suddenly untethered from the great Mother Ship Journalism.
In chapter one (titled "Who Am I?"), her sense of self moves from "I'm published therefore I am" to a much more fragile "Not getting published means what exactly?"
She puzzles over what to call herself ("retired press"? "journalist emeritus"?). The term "writer" is accurate but comes with "the whiff of pomposity" and with questions about who has published her lately.
A little off stride, Trausch dives into semi-retirement, joining a book group, tending to her mother-in-law's failing health, observing the skunks and baby birds in her yard. She chooses recipes from Woman's Day and cuts flowers for the living room in a love-hate mishmash of procrastinated domesticity.
She notices what others notice about her.
"What are you doing to keep yourself busy?" her doctor asks.
"Working at home."
"Doing little housewifey things?" he inquires.
She tries creative writing, but it unnerves her when people ask how it's going. "Nobody asked how the writing was going when I had a job," she worries.
She mentions to a postal clerk that she's mailing a "manuscript."
"There's a manuscript in here?" the clerk replies loudly. "It's so light."
Checking in with fellow Globe retirees, Trausch finds they are also, as a former garden writer says, "figuring out what's important."
A production editor now studies to be a nurse ("I don't regret a thing"). A manager devotes herself to AA. An editor works for a supermarket ("low pay, low status, and lots of fun"). A newsroom executive flips pancakes at a homeless shelter. An arts editor is learning to draw ("I'm way more relaxed"). A critic enjoys events without a notebook ("I can't imagine a happier post-Globe life").
It's hard to fully evaluate this section, because Trausch doesn't use names, we don't know how representative her examples are and she isn't clear about how ex-newsroom folks make it financially.
But it is striking that most of them seem contented, maybe even happier than back in the newsroom days.
As for herself, Trausch compares retirement to jazz: "wild and wailing one minute..mellow and familiar the next."
It's "a little like learning how to play tennis...Some days, the retirement game is nowhere, the feet don't move, the follow-through is lousy...Other days, magic happens. Ball, body, and psyche are in The Zone."
Her book, which will speak to many journalists in similar situations, is trim and personal. It is also self-published.
She doesn't say how hard she worked to find a commercial publisher. But self-publication seems apt. Like so many others, she is now an entrepreneurial journalist, with the accompanying shakiness, insecurities and go-for-it optimism.
"Where am I going?" she concludes. "Somewhere. Somewhere interesting."
Ultimately, Trausch personifies the industry she left. Like the legacy media of her experience, she remains full of talent and commitment, but those qualities are being recast every day, and the end product, whatever it may be, is not yet in view.