She’d begun her career as a crime reporter for a small newspaper in South Carolina, an outlet with high staff turnover and frequent furloughs. After two years there, she was offered a job as a digital producer at the Elkhart Truth in Indiana, so packed her ancient Buick Century and moved 900 miles northeast to begin working at a 125-year-old family-owned newspaper. Within two years, Christnovich had risen to the position of assistant manager editor. All good — until the paper was sold to Paxton Media Group, a privately owned newspaper conglomerate with a recent history of making deep cuts to keep papers alive. Anticipating layoffs, Christnovich accepted a job offer from the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah.
But endings are also beginnings, right? That was the mindset as Christnovich loaded her new Honda Accord —the Oldsmobile had literally fallen apart — and headed some 1,500 miles west for Ogden, where she led a newsroom of 25-30 people and spearheaded ambitious enterprise projects. Following the Parkland shootings, she helped guide a series examining the state’s firearms laws. Next she led a project investigating Utah inmate deaths which resulted in corrective legislation.
Then in May of 2018, the Standard-Examiner was sold and she was laid off.
Christnovich found herself buffeted by industry winds that showed no signs of abating. “Disruption has been kind of constant throughout my career,” she said. The loss of the Utah job felt like one heartbreak too many: “No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I wanted to keep working in journalism, I knew instinctively that my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
Then a friend and former journalist offered Christnovich a communications job at the Sightline Institute — an environmental think tank in Seattle, Washington. She sold the Honda and called her parents for some transportation back-up. They loaded some boxes, the dog and the three-legged cat in the family car, and drove 800 miles to the Pacific Northwest. Once in Seattle, Christnovich \spent the remainder of her savings to secure a 580-square-foot studio apartment and began her first non-journalism job.
Having leapfrogged the continent, and settled into her fourth locale in seven years, Christnovich said she was determined to leave her newspaper career and dreams behind, “forcing myself to shed ‘journalist’ as the most prominent and important part of my identity.”
But as it turned out, that wasn’t the end of the story. We’ll let her tell the rest about where is now and what she learned along the way.
What surprised you the most during your multiple pivots?
That I failed.
Let me set that up a little bit: While I worked at Sightline, I wrote newsletters, edited some copy, did some social media and PR-type work and generally found that all my journalism skills transferred pretty well. Plus, it provided good benefits, great causes to work for, a fantastic work-life balance, and I liked and respected my coworkers. It was also about 1,000% less stress and responsibility than managing a newsroom.
There was life after journalism. And it was good. But adjusting to a slower pace was rough. I felt like a feral cat being brought in out of the wild. I was used to reporters bantering, loud phone conversations with readers, vending machine lunches, late nights, cussing, stale coffee and a nonstop competitive environment. My new office was quiet, polite, routine, health-conscious and generally calm. A big pendulum swing for me.
Then, out of the blue, a recruiter messaged me on LinkedIn about an audience engagement job in the newsroom at Crosscut, a nonprofit, member-supported local news site that’s part of Cascade Public Media. It was about 10 days between getting that call and getting an offer. It surprised me how quickly I had another change of heart. I leapt at the chance.
So I failed to shed the journalist identity, but I will say it’s a much smaller part of me now, and everything feels different this time around. I care just as deeply about the work, but it’s less of who I am. Jumping tracks out of the business for a while let me experience a version of a healthy, normal, everyday job for the first time in my life and it helped me bring boundaries and perspective to my new newsroom role. I try not to ever put the job above my well-being and I don’t let taking time off or acknowledging the occasional need to step away be a source of guilt. The work is incredibly important, but in the scope of life, it’s still just a job.
What elements of your journalistic craft and values have you held onto, and which did you find you could let go of?
I’ve held onto my reverence for the craft and the power of storytelling. I still think this job is one of the most interesting — and important — a person can have. I love the newsroom environment and the critical thinking challenges that come with it. And I just generally like being around other journalists — they’re witty, smart, interesting, strong people.
I’ve let go of my defensiveness for the industry and I try to avoid the ego that often comes with working in a newsroom. I’m more willing to interrogate the industry traditions and I’m better able to listen when our “standard practices” get challenged or criticized. A great example: I was in the process of interviewing for Crosscut about the time Northwestern’s student newspaper decided to apologize to racial justice demonstrators about an aspect of coverage. I respected many of the arguments flying around, but I was horrified by the number of utterly dismissive journalists who didn’t seem to think twice about accusing students of betraying some pretty antiquated rules. It’s a screaming double-standard to apply so much scrutiny to other powerful institutions, but not to frequently and aggressively question our own.
Who or what helped you most during the transition?
Being outdoors, away from my computer and deleting social media apps from my phone for a while helped a lot. When I worked outside of journalism for those 18 months, I tried to walk to and from work as often as I possibly could, two miles each way and, because it’s Seattle, uphill both directions. I worked on moving slowly, just to break that newspaper lifestyle of go-go-go from one edition to the next.
I also had a great network of journos and former journos I could talk to about making the leap out of the newsroom, and then leaping back in. It took me outside my comfort zone to talk about my doubts, my exhaustion and my heartbreak, but I thankfully found comfort or company in the people I turned to.
Leaving the industry used to mean you could never go back, but I think that’s changing. And now that I’ve done it, I would encourage others who are feeling burned out or lost to consider it. (My support network gave that advice, and they weren’t wrong!) I learned an enormous amount at the think tank and I got to look at the news from the other side, which was insightful. I feel like I’m a better journalist now.
What plans or priorities do you have going forward?
I’d like to do what I can to improve the industry and make it a better place for young and future journalists. The media landscape overall has a problem with racism, representation, pay, gender discrimination — ugh. It’s a long list. But what journalists do is so dang important and so essential to society, we can’t keep neglecting the responsibility to improve representation and equality. I feel pretty lucky to work at a nonprofit newsroom these days because I think it’s generally a better business model than what so many news organizations are working with, and we have the space to set good examples.
Julia Shipley is a freelance writer and frequent Storyboard contributor.