Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sitting in limbo

Around this time of year, people like to examine their lives and make New Year's resolutions in an attempt to better themselves and their situation. I've long since dropped the habit of making resolutions, but I do think it's an opportune time to reassess where I am and where I want to go from here. Of course, it's a bit difficult to make decisions on where to go when the people on whom you rely for clarity are loathe to share even the tiniest shred of information.

Using "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" in the title instead of Jimmy Cliff would've made sense, but 1) it's cliched and 2) my situation isn't quite as binary as that. I do have the option to stay, but even if I want to go, I still have to stay. Does that make sense? Of course not.

A year ago, I was out of a job after doing the thing I most wanted to do at that point -- get the hell away from the China Daily. There were quite a few factors behind that, but suffice to say it was a bad situation for me and a step backward journalistically. I ended up leaving in early December -- six months into a one-year contract -- flying from Beijing to Jakarta via Guangzhou on China Southern Airlines. (Pro tip: If you ever have a chance to fly China Southern, pass. It wasn't a great experience, and despite the Asian Games passing through Guangzhou, that airport is nothing to write home about, either.) My initial plan was just to stay in Jakarta for a few days and see some friends before visiting prospective schools in New Zealand and eventually flying back to Nebraska.

Obviously, that didn't happen. The night I got into town, I dropped by the office and had a chat with one of the higher-ups. In short, they desperately needed someone help keep tabs on the business desk and asked me to step in, saying they'd eventually bring in someone with more of a business background and then have me "float" around the newsroom. I don't exactly remember why I accepted -- probably some combination of not having anything better to do and feeling uneasy about walking away from journalism -- but I did. After a brief stint seeing The China Story up close and personal, I was back in the Big Durian.

Fast-forward a year, and again I'm in a limbo of sorts. I still have a gig here, although my contract expired on December 7 and I've still yet to even hear a solid offer of a new one. The process of renewing said contract has been shrouded in secrecy -- no terms have been discussed or even mentioned, and only weeks after the fact did I learn that the Human Resources People (who are neither human nor resourceful) offered a deal. I have not been told the terms of said contract, but as I've been assured that there are Very Important People "going to bat" for me, I can only assume that the offer was not I'd likely accept. Otherwise, there wouldn't be a need to go to bat, would there?

Apparently the Human Resources People have some actuarial table or matrix that tells them what each staff member should be paid depending on any number of variables. Despite serving two years as sports editor in my first go-around and operating as a sports editor, international news guy and senior copy editor for the last 12 months, I'm still considered an entry-level copy editor and paid as such. The new contract reportedly will include an official promotion to senior copy editor, but as has been demonstrated, that doesn't mean my situation will improve all that much. While I've been told that management wants me to stay and considers me a valuable part of the staff, they have a funny way of showing it.

The reason for all this prologue is demonstrate how a normally simple decision -- whether to stay or not -- has been unnecessarily complicated by a lack of communication from all parties involved. I don't know whether there's some grand conspiracy to deny me the information necessary to make my decision, but I've made it clear that my patience is finite and my willingness to stay wanes with each passing day. These, as best I can gather, are my options at the moment.

1) Take the deal (a.k.a. the Adam Schiff approach). The simplest move. While Jakarta has little to recommend it, where I work is actually a pretty decent place.
Pros: The lingering uncertainty goes away, even if it's just another one-year deal. I get to keep working in my chosen field (a luxury afforded to an increasingly smaller number of people) with people whose company I largely enjoy and in a location that rarely lacks for news. This place is comparatively stable for a newspaper, and this is not an economy in which one should blithely walk away from steady employment.
Cons: While there is something to be said for stability, there's also the question of whether I'm continuing to grow as a journalist. I'm at my best when I have the chance to write, but since we're so wafer-thin on the copy desk that one person getting sick throws the whole system out of whack, the few opportunities I have only come on days off. I worked six- and seven-day weeks for the first year I was here, but I don't love this place that much anymore. There's also the question of compensation -- why should I keep doing the work of two or three senior editors for the pay of one entry-level staffer? I know I'm not going to get rich in newspapers, but I'd at least like to be paid commensurate to the level and amount of work I do. Then there's the issue of whether I want to stay in newspapers, but more on that later.

2) Reject the deal, enroll at Victoria University of Wellington. I won't lie: I really got to like Wellington during my recent trip to New Zealand. It's been called "the coolest little capital in the world," and that's hard to argue after what I saw. The city has about 400,000 people or so; it's compact, pedestrian-friendly and has plenty of public transportation; and the whole place seems to have a welcoming, laid-back vibe.
Pros: I'm not going to be able to retire while working in newspapers, here or anywhere else. (The question of whether I'll be able to retire at all is for another post.) I'll have to change careers at some point, so why not make the move while I have more productive years ahead of me? Taking online courses in drips and drabs doesn't seem feasible -- better to jump back in full-time and get it done quicker. New Zealand is an attractive option because its cost of living is affordable, its exchange rate is fairly friendly, it's welcoming of older undergrads and -- here's a key point -- its Bachelor's degrees only take three years to complete. It doesn't have the liberal arts/gen ed requirements of the US university system; rather, you jump straight into courses for your major. I like that, especially as the degree structure lends itself more to a double major, which I'll need if I pursue Asian Studies. VUW has good programs, and there should be ample opportunities for part-time and post-graduation work in such a city.
Cons: Cost. Studying for a BA at VUW costs about NZ$21,000 per year ($16,500) in tuition, and students are advised to budget between NZ$15,000 and NZ$20,000 ($11,700 and $15,500) a year for living expenses. A non-catered, one-person dorm room runs about NZ$4,300 ($3,300) per trimester, though the hall I looked at had electricity and Internet included in the cost. As my family won't be contributing funds, paying for this lifestyle change has to happen through my savings (I have a bit, but not much), part-time work (you can work 20 hours per week during the academic year on a student visa, and New Zealand's minimum wage is NZ$13 ($10) per hour) and loans. Grants and scholarships for international undergrads are almost non-existent, and as most of my coursework so far has been gen ed, odds are that won't transfer over and lighten the load. Is getting a Bachelor's degree while living outside the US worth $50,000 in student debt after graduation?

3) Reject the deal, enroll at the University of Otago. Dunedin was the pleasant surprise of the New Zealand trip. It came highly recommended by a Kiwi friend of mine, but I still wasn't sure what to expect. The trip from the Dunedin airport to the city itself was about 30 kilometers, and the countryside reminded me of what I saw around Bozeman, Montana, when I went there for a family reunion. It's more rural and spacious on the South Island, but Dunedin still has about 130,000 people or so and students make up a large part of the community.
Pros: See the preamble above. The tuition and cost of living would be lower in Dunedin than Wellington -- BA tuition is about NZ$20,000 a year and Otago suggests budgeting about NZ$17,000 for living expenses. Like Wellington, though, Dunedin is fairly compact at its center and most everything necessary for student life is within a walkable distance (the airport notwithstanding), reducing the need to drive. The local newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, is apparently an independent outfit, which means its staffing isn't as subject to the whims of stockholders. I would also have a connection to the area through said Kiwi friend, which can't hurt.
Cons: Like VUW, Otago doesn't provide much in the way of scholarships to international undergrads, so loans will still be necessary. I also wonder what kind of part-time work will be available in a smaller, more remote city compared to Wellington. Getting to and from Dunedin might be an issue -- it'll be necessary to connect in Sydney and Auckland or Wellington since it's so out of the way.

4) Reject the offer and enroll at Temple University's campus in Tokyo. If the plan is to major in Asian Studies, why not actually be in Asia rather than near it in New Zealand or back in the bubble of the US? After all, they say full immersion is the best way to learn about a language and a culture.
Pros: I've always wanted to live in Japan, and I already know plenty of folks there. There certainly wouldn't be a shortage of part-time work, either in freelancing or teaching English. There are the educational benefits, too, as living there would do my study of Japanese no end of good. Plus, unlike the New Zealand schools, TUJ offers undergrad scholarships (most of its student body is international, after all) and my community college credits will transfer.
Cons: Living in New Zealand looks bargain basement compared to Tokyo. The yen's exchange rate has shrunk from 100 to the dollar when I first visited in 2008 to about 77 now, and TUJ's tuition and fees are all denominated in yen. It's 1.6 million yen ($20,800) for the first semester of tuition, fees and housing and 760,000 yen ($9,900) per semester after that without housing (TUJ only puts international students up for one semester -- after that, you're on your own). Financial aid aside, three years at TUJ will cost about $80,000 plus living expenses. Uff-da jeg.

To head off a few questions: Negotiating a better deal with the paper is highly unlikely; I really don't want to go back to living in the US, if I'm being honest; and I looked at Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and other schools in Japan -- none of which wanted older undergrads -- and Australia is out because the exchange rate is bad and getting worse while those schools soak international students for every penny they can (it's their main source of income). Oh, and even if I turn down the offer of a new contract, I've been asked to stay on until sufficient replacements arrive that the paper can continue functioning in my absence. How long will that take? Answers on a postcard -- your guess will be as good as any I've heard so far.

As I've said before, I know the day is coming when newspapers and I will part ways; it's just a matter of when and on whose terms. Walking away now, getting a degree and finding a new line of work would seem to make plenty of sense ... and yet, it's not that simple. Ever since junior high, all I've wanted to do is work in newspapers, and I can't shake the nagging doubt in my mind that I'm voluntarily walking away from a (somewhat) steady job to -- what, exactly? Plus, the newsroom is one of those rare places where I actually feel like I fit in. I'm among my people -- intelligent, well-read people with sharp senses of humor and dirty minds. Where else do you get that kind of dynamic? Where else can you entertain and inform while openly mocking the absurdities of that day's news cycle? Certainly not in any of the "real jobs" I've had so far.

Sure, it's rough here at times. Like any other newspaper, we're being asked to do more and more with an increasingly thin (not to mention inexperienced) staff. We're getting more ad revenue, but we're getting the extra ads because we take every opportunity to hike up our skirt and show a little more leg -- we give you positive coverage, you advertise with us; quid pro quo. I'm not a fan of the New Normal, but it's like Gus Haynes said: Where would you rather be, huh, kids?

I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs and I don't have sex. For the most part, this work -- this business -- is what keeps me going. The prospect of walking away from that career and everything it entails scares me, and the knowledge that doing so is in my long-term best interest doesn't make it any less frightening.

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