Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Death of a Salesman opens with musical direction: “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises.” The play follows Willy Loman, past 60, as his grasp on life crumbles amid job troubles. When, at the end of Act II, he reaches his beaten-down end, the melody soars again, this time a requiem. “Only the music of the flute,” writes Miller, “is left on the darkening stage….”
I heard this flute’s dirge throughout last summer and fall, as I made the rounds talking with downsized journalists—men and women who had gotten hooked on the profession as young, ink-stained idealists, only to find themselves cast out in mid- or later life. These veterans spoke of forced buyouts and failed job searches—of lost purpose, lost confidence, even lost homes. I had known of the decimation of my profession: I’d read the statistics, seen the news articles, watched old friends pushed from jobs as bureau chiefs, editors, senior reporters, into the free fall of freelance. But the texture of their Lomanesque despair surprised me. There were some grim moments.
Summer 2015, the West Coast: I’m chatting with a longtime friend, a great investigative reporter who was pushed out of a big-city daily. She’s managed to land a new, well-paying job—but it’s not in journalism. A mutual colleague told me that “it’s the most hated job she never wanted to do.” I insist that my friend needs to find a way back someday, because she has stunning reportorial talent. “I don’t remember that person,” she interrupts sharply.
Early fall 2015, a bar on the East Coast: An unemployed middle-aged writer whose work I’ve admired for decades agrees to meet for a drink. I buy the first round, he gets the second. In between we talk about editors and writers we know in common, about stories nailed and those that got away. Typical journo stuff. “So what do you want?” he asks finally. I explain that I’m seeking the human angle behind the news of thousands of downsized journalists. “Am I the lead to your story?” he asks, sizing me up, tensing. I feel that I’m losing him. Thus a Hail Mary: “Are you depressed?” His fast retort: “Are you trying to piss me off?” He walks out, leaving a full beer on the table.
2009 to present, somewhere in the United States: An e-mail arrives with the subject “Journalist, with inquiry about homelessness.” The sender thanks me for my 1985 book on the traveling homeless—because he’s now one of them after losing a journalism job. “I’m riding my mt. bike west, temporarily camped out in Kingman [Arizona], and I have lived under many a bush and in a few hostels along the way. I am a homeless transient without any money. Three college degrees to boot…. So here I sit, at the public library computer, typing out my stories and thinking about what to do.” We keep in touch for a while. Recent attempts to contact him end in failure.