Eight years ago, this week, I walked into my publisher’s office for our regular Monday meeting, prepared to give my notice as editor of the News & Record.
It was a long walk down the stairs from the newsroom on the second floor.
The N&R had been my home since 1985, and I had been the editor there since 1999, nearly 13 years. I had worked in various editing roles for two editors, Ben Bowers and Pat Yack, and four different publishers. It had been an exciting, fulfilling and tough run, and at 58, I wasn’t ready to retire. We did some incredibly good work every single year. But I also had to lay off good journalists four times, I had to stand in front of them three times out of the last four years and tell them they weren’t getting raises, and I had to manage a smaller and smaller budget.
I was spending too much time making do with less. (Yes, the slogan to “do more with less” is bullshit.)
That summer, when I was told that the paper wasn’t giving raises once more, and I confronted a budget that was simply inadequate to properly cover the community with energy and force, I knew I was done.
I had always said to myself and my wife, Susan, that I wouldn’t quit until our daughters were out of college and employed. My younger daughter had graduated that May and started work in New York. My older daughter was working in Dallas. Both were doing well in the beginning of their professional lives.
Susan had been with me in my highs and lows, and she had seen what the last few years of the newspaper implosion had done to me. One day toward the end of summer, I asked Susan if I could quit. Without hesitation, she said yes.
When I sat down across the desk from the publisher, I wasn’t nervous, which surprised me because I get nervous when I anticipate confrontation. (Yes, I spent much of my life as a journalist working outside of my comfort zone.) We went through our normal discussion, which consisted primarily of things he wanted me to do or things he wanted to know about. When he was finished, I said:
“I have one more thing. I’m here to quit and give my notice.”
I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know he was surprised. He recovered quickly, saying, “That’s the last time I let you take a long weekend.” Which was pretty funny. And literally true.
We talked about it for 15 or 20 minutes. I explained why. He made an effort to talk me out of it, but it wasn’t passionate or pressured. I wasn’t his ideal editor, and both of us knew it. There were serious journalism topics and principles on which we didn’t see eye-to-eye. I’m sure he came close to firing me a few times. He had inherited me, and he deserved a chance to bring in his own editor.
I gave a month’s notice. He asked me to wait until the start of the year. He wanted to get the replacement process started so that the editor’s position wouldn’t be vacant for long. We settled on 10 weeks. Both of us agreed to keep it secret for the time being. He didn’t want to be bugged by people inquiring about the job; I didn’t want to be an automatic lame duck.
As we talked about what my future plans were, he reminded me that the company no longer had a retirement plan. (When the paper was put up for sale, employees were basically given their accrued retirement benefits.) I said that I had no plans to retire. I was quitting. I didn’t know what I was going to do — this was before I had the opportunity to teach at Elon University — but I knew I wasn’t finished working.
I left his office, went back to mine, shut the door and called Susan. Then went back to work.