Maria Stuart

Maria Stuart
Howell, Michigan, USA
February 17
Maria Stuart is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, their teenage son, and Ted, the hyper labradoodle who keeps her from sitting at the computer too long. You can check out her website at or Follow @mariastuart on Twitter.


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AUGUST 6, 2009 9:43AM

Life after newspapers: On the public dole

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These past few days have been mostly dedicated to getting ready for my yard sale, the culmination of the purge of my household. Surrounded by stacks of things to be tagged and sold, I had to take time out to file for unemployment.

I’ve been laid off from my newspaper job since April 1; but up until today, I’ve been receiving my regular paycheck every two weeks as my severance, one week of pay for every full year worked. Continuing to get my regular paycheck has made my life over these past few months feel like a really long, really weird vacation.

But today, reality has hit. I’ve found myself curiously unprepared for how heavy the experience of going on the public dole would weigh upon me.

You’ll be glad to know that Michigan processes unemployment requests quickly and conveniently. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation at just over 15 percent, the state has had plenty of claims on which to practice. Filing was blessedly easy: I completed my application online wearing my nightgown and sipping a cup of coffee. Thank you, State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency!

Now that the filing is done, I have come face to face with the knowledge that the most challenging and satisfying period of my work life is over.

This is why I feel so sad. Even though I knew today would come, and even though I’ve done my best to prepare for it, I find myself struggling to put into words how it feels. It feels so frustratingly final, like the angst-filled end of a hot-and-heavy love affair, or a death.

That this career bust comes in the midst of the tug-of-war playing out ’round the clock between the old and the new media is little comfort. I can be grateful, though, because I’ve learned a couple important things about myself, the most important of which is that I write not for money or notoriety, but for love of the craft.

I know, too, that I like to be read, and the warm reception on Open Salon has been sanity saving for me. While I dearly miss the camaraderie between writers in a newsroom, OS has filled that gap nicely.

I had lunch this week with one of my old reporters, a talented, ambitious young man who is leaving journalism to pursue a graduate degree in public relations.

While I tried not to go negative about losing my job, I found myself creeping down that dark lane a time or two. Then I gave him a bit of advice that sounded a lot like the bitter old bitch I’ve tried so hard not to become.

“Remember one thing,” I told him. “No matter how long you’ve worked somewhere, no matter how valuable your contribution, no matter how well you do your job, in the end, you’re just a line item in a budget.”

As the words tumbled from my mouth, I regretted them. Then I thought of my father, who suffered an even more heartbreaking job loss when he was about the same age as me. For him, and for me, there were no going away parties, no gold watches, no pats on the back for a job well done. In this, the golden age of the corporation, that I got a severance package at all is reason to celebrate.

What do you suppose I did right after I was told my position was “eliminated” by the man I had worked under for nearly two decades?

First, I called my husband. Then I used my cell phone in the parking lot to call the editor who was on his way in. Dedicated dumb-ass that I was, I had to let him know what he needed to do to start the process of getting the paper out that day.

Soon after, he called me back: “I got laid off, too,” he said.

Between the two of us, we had over four decades of time in at the paper and we were flicked away like a dog scratches off fleas. Rather than thanks for jobs well done, we found boxes waiting for us at our desks.

So as important a cog at the newspaper as I fancied myself, it keeps right on printing without me.

“It’s history,” I tell myself when I go to the dark place. “Do something positive instead.”

So instead of grousing after filing for unemployment, I decided to be productive to shake off my crappy mood. I went into the spare bedroom to clean out the armoire, which I am planning to sell amongst a whole lot of other stuff at my yard sale.

In one of the drawers in the armoire, I found a stack of old newspapers that I had forgotten about. Some showcased special pieces I wrote from my days as a reporter. One was from my first week on the job as editor, when I had to direct coverage of a Ku Klux Klan rally held right across the street from my office on the steps of the historical Livingston County Courthouse. (You’ll recognize the lovely old building when “Betty Anne Waters,” a filmed-in-Michigan movie starring Hillary Swank, hits theaters.)


The Livingston County Courthouse

Then there was the paper of Sept. 12, 2001. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 was the first big news story my paper covered after becoming a daily. And cover it we did. As I sat in the spare room, I leafed through each page, looking at the edition from a journalistic standpoint. I marveled at the job my small staff did on the most difficult day any of us had ever spent at work. We produced a remarkable number of pages, full of well-written and compelling local stories presented seamlessly with wire copy and photos. It was a stunning effort, one that rivaled the coverage of the nearby big metro papers, which at the time had resources journalists like me only dreamed of having.

I felt proud, but not for long.

Like it always does, reality swept in to remind me that any ties binding me to my old newspaper are now completely severed. I’m like one of those insipid celebrities dumped into the middle of a jungle for a reality show, except there’s no helicopter hovering overhead to pull me out if the going gets tough. However the going is, I have to thrash my way through on my own.

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hope your next job recaptures the excitement you used to enjoy.
Maria: Your skill as a writer shines through this eloquent piece. You are right to treasure the craft; it suits you. Mrs. P and I also labor in an industry much in flux, though not yet in as dire straits as newspapers. We, too, wonder how we will do what we want and love to do in the new world. I hope that you find your answer soon, and I hope that whatever that answer is, it allows you to continue to sing in your sweet, moving voice.
“Remember one thing,” I told him. “No matter how long you’ve worked somewhere, no matter how valuable your contribution, no matter how well you do your job, in the end, you’re just a line item in a budget.”

Bitter? There's nothing bitter about it. Stating the cold hard facts is just that.

I was fired on March 30 (

I had a former employee e-mail me one day saying the usual "the place will fall apart without you here," "How will they function without you?"

While I appreciated the compliment behind the comments, I told her almost exactly the same thing. People caring about their employees welfare went out the window with the invention of corporations being traded on Wall Street.

The industry I worked in, health care, cares nothing about the employees. Hell, they don't even give a shit about the patients, they're just a necessary evil and the care they receive now reflects the callous attitude.

Why? Because they're all corporations, many of which are publically traded. They care about the investors and the profit margins so the dividends are handsome rewards.

Frankly? I wish we could somehow turn back the clock to the days of community and neighborhood businesses. Sure, people weren't driving around in Beamers and living in houses they couldn't afford, but people worried about other people then. I can remember.

Is there any hope in your industry for you in the near future? It seems that newspapers were in a decline before the bubble burst due to e-news, etc.
Good luck in the future Maria. Like you, so many are in a position in which they must reinvent themselves. I'm not sure how easy this will be to do when so many jobs are moving overseas. As Americans lose their spending power, this contraction will continue. And since the politicians are avoiding the real cause of our economic problems, I fear that what we are seeing now is just the beginning of what will become the second great depression.
I went through exactly what you're going through now several years ago. I felt all of those same feelings and some of them still come up especially when I see the low calibre performances of some people who still have high-paid jobs.

I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but I have not found a job/profession that fulfills me in the same way that my 20-odd years as a newspaper reporter/critic did. I doubt that I ever will. At least I had a good run, and some good times. I try to focus on that.
It's a crappy hand you've been dealt, no doubt about it. As an unemployed and now freelance (read poorly paid) writer, I empathize. Good luck to you. It's unfortunate when the thing you most want to do in life is fading into the ether.
What a depressing post--but eloquently rendered and true. Thanks for laying it out there.
I will not say welcome to the club because that might signal that it is one of those that ppl join for the fun of it.

I too am reliving and re-empathizing with my grandfather who left the US during the depression to return to India only to be face within a few years with the Quit India movement of 1942-47. He had worked with original Ford it is fabled and was an engineer from UPenn so said his name plate. The next 40 years were spent as a headmaster at a local high school in Kolkata where the boys certainly benefited from his administrative powers but his engineering skills went unnoticed and died a natural death. What a pity!
Though the subject could easily go dark, you bring balance to the experience in what you write. I know the balance isn't easy to maintain, but hopefully you will find a gig (or a gig will find you) that feels like a step in the right direction - and soon. Outstanding piece here.
Ouch! This hurts. I hate we can be treated like inconsequential cogs when we are genuine, meaningful human beings. What is your next step? Are we really at that age that some things become our "lasts"?
You write so well -- you deserve to be employed, dammit!

You'll get through this, of course, but I guess you'll have a lot more days like this for awhile.

I hope your yard sale goes well. And everything after that.
It's good that you write, and write so well, about this experience. I work for a small family-owned publishing company that has been teetering on the brink of extinction for the last 20 years. Really, there's no reason for our existence. I'll take a few minutes off from my constant carping to be grateful.
This piece makes me so sad because I grew up on images of His Girl Friday and Lois Lane. I thought that journalism was the most interesting and rewarding career. Writing and detective work! How cool!

Now everyone in the biz is losing their jobs and such. It's so sad. But you're a great writer and I know you'll move smoothly into your next career.
I've been ambivalent about the real connectivity of blogging, but you got to me. I'm glad you blogged. I got laid off from a managing editor job I loved in December. Ditto, ditto, ditto. Except I refuse to believe my best work years are behind me. To me, this feels like death and rebirth. I just don't know what form the new body will take yet. Keep your body moving, your blood flowing, it'll be okay.
Boomer Bob: "People caring about their employees' welfare went out the window with the invention of corporations being traded on Wall Street."

I'm in agreement here, Bob. Faster, cheaper, higher profit margins--they all trump community, quality, and loyalty these days. There are, of course, still many good people working in responsible businesses. But we have traded away the opportunity for equitable treatment at the alter of the free market. When corporations are thought of as viable entities--and their needs elevated over individual needs--the system begins to eat its young.

Oddly, as a retired teacher, I feel partially responsible for all of this. If we had successfully taught children to be kind to others, as well as skeptical of get-rich-quick as a worthy goal, we might have a full-scale political rebellion on our hands at the moment. Instead, we gave them annual tests and taught them to be ruthless competitors.

Hang in, Maria. I'm of the opinion that your former paper won't survive long--mostly because it's on a rapid downward spiral. Something better will replace it. There is a market for quality journalism and editorial thinking. There's also karma.
I enjoyed your piece and feel your pain, this magazine editor got the axe in late April. I can get rageful when i think how badly it ended, how I got thrown under the bus, but rage is less than productive so I don't go there too often. Instead I'm enjoying my summer, my first long bit of time off in more than 17 years. Hope you can find some joy in your down time too!
I experienced a similar situation once wherein I was fired but had nine months of sick leave and vacation pay so I continued to receive a check and benefits the entire time. Only when that ended did the reality settle in – as you have described so well. I am always amazed at how much so many of us identify our sense of self with our jobs – I certainly do.

These are tough times. Play with and enjoy that son of yours. They grow up fast! I enjoy your writing and I wish you nothing but the best.
Maria, this is the first time I have read you...but it won't be the last. I hope your future holds some great opportunities and perhaps still...surprises you.
Maria - Unemployment forms, you described so well what that moment meant to you. It's funny what becomes the marker, the moment when the change really sinks in. You are so talented - I will be anxiously awaiting your next adventure in writing and sending good thoughts for your upcoming online project!
I know you’re all waiting for this bit of news: I made $102 at my garage sale today. And the weather was wonderful. Yay!

If there is an upside to all this unemployment stuff, it’s how wonderful all your comments have made me feel. The downside is that no one is clicking on my ads! I’ve yet to earn a single cent, but at least I won’t have to claim that against my unemployment.

BrianB – thanks for your kind words. Your wish for me is what I wish for everyone.
AHP – In a way, we’re members of the same club.
Boomer Bob – I agree with Nancy Flanagan: Your point is a wonderful one. We’ve been seduced to consume far beyond our means in order to keep the corporate wheels turning. It’s simply an unsustainable way to live. I hope for change.
Sao Kay – It’s nice to meet you.
Kenneth – Nice to meet you, too. Your fear seems to be well-founded.
Mrs. P – It’s sort of like it’s better to love and lose, than never to love. And I am trying my best to focus on the future.
Scott – Thanks for the kind words. I am trying to come up with a U2 reference to impress you (I’ve been to your blog before!), but I’m too tired from the garage sale. What I like most about U2 is that they perform every song as if it’s the last one they’ll ever play. If only I could write like that consistently!
Lainey – Thanks for reading.
Traveller – Your grandfather’s story sounds like it needs to be told.
Hi, Owl – I think there may be a gig – hopefully a good one – in my future.
Deborah – Interesting question.
Jeanette – Yard sale update above. I don’t stay down for long.
Hells Bells – Even jobless, I am grateful. There are so many people in my neck of the words whose straits are far more dire.
Gwendolyn – Those tough-talking, competitive, cracker jack female reporters in the black-and-white movies inspired me tremendously.
Betsy – You’re a couple months ahead of me on the job loss continuum, so I am feeling hopeful for a new attitude.
Nancy – Gotta love the karma!
Jaycess – I am glad you’re enjoying the summer. Like you, I’ve not had a summer off in so long. My kid turned 10 in July and the time with him has been sweet.
Hi, Grif – I am enjoying my kid. That’s the silver lining in all this.
Yekdeli – I hope you stop by again.
Melissa – Thanks for your good thoughts on all fronts.
No matter what it says on your pay stub, you will always be a writer, and in that, at least, you're luckier than most. Maybe you can use this time to pursue a special dream -- writing a novel, learning to make the perfect bouillabaisse, getting a black belt in karate...Whatever it is, I say enjoy, because with your talent, I'm guessing you'll get snapped up again soon.
I know, Maria. All too well.

I remember the week of Sept. 11. I thrashed about for the headline after Sept. 11 (My favorite at the time was the one used by the San Francisco Examiner: "Bastards" above a picture of the two towers in flames.) I settled on "Wounded Nation" and I was as proud of those two words as anything I had every written. But I too have been shown the door. I too have some bitter feelings about it. But at least I have someone like you to share it with. And don't think we're done done. Not yet.
I have a feeling that when what happened to you happens to me, I'll write my version of this column.
You should be proud. You made an important contribution covering the news. I'm glad you have such fond memories of that time. Good luck in the jungle. We're rooting for you!
I have so many friends out of work and I can see the demoralizing effect it is having on them. My job (teaching art) was lost to the economy and my wife is forced now to support our family. The ripple effect has put our marriage on rough waters. I wish you only luck and a bright future as you cope with this crazy time.
DANNY BLOOM: In the future, will the daily newspaper be read in print on paper or online?

MIKE MALES: People will get their news 99% by screening.You have to understand, I pray for the complete demise of today's daily newspapers,major broadcast networks,and nearly all "Alternative media."In the area I work in,Youth issues,they are all so destructive that I no longer even follow them.We'd be better off relying on random bloggers we have to search out.

see entire interview here:
I don't get what the point is of all of us dying.
Of course you will come out of this Maria, but it must be really, really painful. My son, who published magazines lost everything and was on unemployment, but now is an editor and writing a book and is on a new path. He was so down and then a door opened, and he never expected to be happy again in his work. With your talent, I know you'll readapt and only hope it comes soon. Talent and diligence will do it, and some luck. All best.
Lost my newspaper column this spring--from Michigan. It wasn't much, but that kind of writing just gets into your blood and stays. I left MI in April. Good luck.
Hi, Laurel. Thanks for the encouragement.
Mr. Stone – I remember that day with two hearts. It was such a horrific thing, and yet it allowed us to do our jobs. I’m crossing my fingers for both of us to find satisfying paying work in the future.
Del – I hope it won’t happen to you. Not for a long while, at least.
Steve – You could dress like a cheerleader when “American Idol” puts you to work as a judge!
Lance – Good luck to you too.
Harry – I don’t know what to say.
Lea – Your words mean a lot. I am glad to hear your son is doing well – it gives me hope.
From the Midwest – I hope you are still writing a column. There's really no other job like it, is there?

And Day 2 of the yard sale is going well. We have nice weather in Michigan again!
I don't know how everyone is managing to live through all this but I do know that you have written about it very well. You deserve to be employed, dammit! Congrats on the EP recognition.
I'm so sorry you are facing this awful situation and hope good things will soon be coming your way. It's awful that good, responsible workers can be so easily tossed aside. How cruel and how impersonally brutal!
Hey there Mary Thurman. I hope all goes well with your job hunt. If you need a hand to hld, here's on for you..
"It feels so frustratingly final, like the angst-filled end of a hot-and-heavy love affair, or a death."

Damn straight. Frustratingly if you expect someone to tell you it was all a bad dream. Denial for a while!

What a smart job you did of conveying the myriad of emotions one experiences at a crossroad and the termination of a job.
My daughter is a senior in high school, just joined the school newspaper this year, and has dreams of becoming a journalist. She's aware of the troubles, knows that newspapers are going out of business, but that doesn't quash her dreams. I support and encourage her passion. How can I not? We both love to write and I'm a part-time journalist for radio. Am I doing the right thing, encouraging her to pursue her dreams in print media, which is what she wants to do?