A year ago today, I was fired as the adviser of the student newspaper
at Florida Atlantic University. Since then, it’s worked out wonderfully
for everyone. Except for the people who actually fired me.
That’s because I get fired more often than FAU administrators do the firing. So I’m better at it than they are.
When you work in the media, getting fired is as common as a Creative Suite update. Do it right, and it becomes a badge of honor instead of a scarlet letter…
1. Getting fired for a noble cause can be good for your career.
Many media firings have nothing to do with your work ethic – and everything to do with your personal ethics. If you plagiarize, make up quotes, or libel a nun, you deserve what you get.
And if your boss is an unethical asshole, he deserves what you get, too.
In 2008, I was fired as an editor at an international music magazine. (You’ve never heard of it – it covers jazz.) I was in charge of the review section. When the economy tanked, the publisher stopped paying freelancers their $40 per review.
I insisted we at least tell them their checks would be delayed. The publisher said no. And he ordered me not to say anything to writers who asked about their money – which, of course, was all of them.
While $40 doesn’t sound like much, after a couple months, we owed some writers nearly $200. When the publisher bragged about taking an expensive vacation with his new girlfriend, I had enough.
“If we don’t pay the writers what they’re owed for the past two months,” I told him, “I’m not going to turn in the reviews for this month.”
Since the review section filled a dozen pages in an 80-page book, this was a serious threat. So the writers finally got paid. But I didn’t.
I went to pick up my paycheck, and the controller said there wasn’t one. The publisher wouldn’t return my calls. It was like that scene from the cubicle cult classic Office Space: “So he won’t be receiving a paycheck anymore, so it’ll just work itself out naturally.”
I lost my job but gained the loyalty of a couple dozen professional writers, plus a reputation as an ethical editor. (Word spreads fast among writers, especially when it comes to money.)
That may not sound like a good trade – a well-paying contract job for some respect? – but an editor who brings with him quality writers is a hot commodity. I believe I’ve made more money since getting fired because I got fired. For the right reason.
2. Getting fired is sometimes better than staying hired.
The other employees at the jazz magazine thought I was crazy. “Why fall on your sword for a bunch of freelancers?” one of them asked me.
Because I knew this much: A publisher who doesn’t pay his lowliest writers never stops there.
After I was fired, the remaining employees reverted to screwing over the reviewers and eventually did the same to nearly all their freelance writers and photographers – although they didn’t feel good about it. They just wanted to keep their jobs and get paid themselves. And they did. For three months.
That’s when the publisher shut down the office with no warning, laid off half the staff, and went from a monthly to a quarterly. The staff who survived took massive pay cuts.
So we all lost. But I lost less than everyone else did.
3. Better to be fired for a good reason than laid off for no reason.
Ten years ago this month, I fired an editor, got fired myself, then got fired again. All within 48 hours. All in the same place.
I was content manager for a national website that covered extreme sports, punk music, and computer gaming while trying to sell skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, and gaming products. (Right there, you can see why we failed. All that’s left is this YouTube video.)
I oversaw two editors. In May 2001, the “content department” was shut down and one editor was fired, while the other was sent to another department.
I learned this one morning when the CFO summoned me to his office. “Shut the door,” he said. That’s never a good sign. In 20 years in media, I’ve never heard, “Shut the door” followed by, “You’re getting a big fat raise!” or “You just won a puppy!”
The CFO told me which editor was going and which was moving – and then ordered me back to my section to share the bad news. That’s the worst task in middle management: Delivering unpleasant decisions you had nothing to do with.
I asked how he chose which editor to fire. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “There were a number of metrics we used.” Like? He said it was too complicated to get into. Obviously, his metric was a coin flip or eenie-meenie-miney-moe.
(Here’s the tragic part: The fired editor wanted to know why. What did she do wrong? Was it because she didn’t edit well enough or fast enough? Or because she didn’t say good morning to the CEO the other day when he walked through her section? I felt like I was breaking off a yearlong romance: “It’s not you, it’s me. Things have changed since we met. You can do better…”)
Of course, I was fired, too. But the CFO kept me on as “technical writer.” My new job was to document every other job in the place – so those folks could be fired and lower-salaried workers could replace them. I said that’s not why I became a writer. So I was fired again.
Within two months, the entire company shut down. I found out when the non-fired former editor called me from outside the front door, where a note was taped: “Out of business.”
“What do I do now?” he asked.
“You get another job,” I said. “Quickly.”
Thankfully, I had already found one – at the jazz magazine I mentioned above. When the publisher asked me why I was leaving my previous job, I had a damn good reason and a damn good story to tell him. It took seven years before he fired me, too.
Many media employers – at least the ones who hire and fire me – seem more impressed with editors who have been fired for a noble cause than editors who have been laid off in bulk. I have yet to parse the reasons for this. But I have a couple of theories. Here’s how I imagine the employer’s internal dialogue…
1. “An editor who gets laid off isn’t smart enough to recognize a sinking ship when he’s standing on the deck, choking on seawater. An employee isn’t expected to recognize the signs, but a manager? Do I really want to trust this guy with my budget and my staff?”
2. “An editor who gets fired for sticking up for his writers is sexy, and I look like a titan of publishing if I embrace him. Of course, he might mess me up the same way, but I’ll never go broke like that other asshole he worked for.” (This reminds me of my college pals who dated drug addicts, thinking they’d fare better than past boyfriends and girlfriends: “They won’t steal from me, because I’m too smart and adorable.”)
4. Get fired but don’t get screwed.
When the jazz magazine refused to cut my last paycheck, I wasn’t surprised. I was prepared. I had a corporate-owned, fully loaded Mac laptop that cost $2,200 – more than I was owed. The day I delivered my ultimatum to the publisher, I took it home with me.
Sure enough, a woman in the business department called me for that laptop. I said sure – once I’m paid. I never was. So I’m typing this sentence on my trusty 5-year-old 12-inch Powerbook. It’s old and dented and underpowered, but it has intense sentimental value.
In September 1997, I was fired from an alternative weekly owned by a Top 50 Tribune newspaper. The reason was twisted: To protect the publisher from a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Before I was hired, my boss allegedly had a crush on one of the newspaper’s writers. So he hired her to freelance so he could get in her pants (not uncommon in the media world). She did her stories, but she didn’t do him (also not uncommon, amusingly enough).
She was a terrible writer, and when I arrived, I fired her. When she later accused the publisher of molesting her, she listed two demands: thousands of dollars and my own firing.
(If you’re really interested/bored, here’s a cover story about it in the local Village Voice-owned weekly – yeah, one alt-weekly wrote about a scandal at another alt-weekly.)
I didn’t know any of this when one of the newspaper’s vice presidents called me to his office and asked me to shut the door. (“Puppy!”) And he didn’t mention it. But journalists can’t keep secrets.
When I found out, I hired a lawyer – not to sue the newspaper, but to cooperate with the woman who hated me.
Then I called my former boss and regaled him with my plans.
“What the hell!?” he yelled into the phone. “And you pride yourself on being ethical…”
“I’m ethical with my sources, my readers, and my writers,” I replied. “I’m a calculating son of a bitch when it comes to evil shit like this.”
“What do you want?” he asked. “You want your job back?”
“Hell, no!” I said. “Why would I want to go back there? Talk about hostile work conditions.”
We met the next morning at an IHOP and hammered out a settlement approved by the VP: I was paid $500 a week for the rest of the year to write a column that took me two hours tops, and I was reimbursed for attorney’s fees.
That gave me enough money and time to launch a freelance career – and land a part-time job advising FAU’s student newspaper. I did that for 12 years, until I was fired one year ago today.
5. No one fires you truthfully. But being fired teaches you truth about yourself.
Let’s end this tale of endings back where it began.
I was fired from FAU after years of warnings. The student journalists had, with my permission and encouragement, forced an embezzling student body president to resign, snuck into the dorms to highlight lax security, proved hazing still happened on campus, and covered a student death despite a campus lockdown, among other stories that irked administrators.
For three years in a row, our budget was slashed even as the campus TV and radio stations – which don’t practice journalism – got our money and then some more. When that didn’t stop us, I was fired with three days’ notice.
The official reason was “to move student media forward” – I was a part-timer, and FAU now wanted a full-timer. The full-time job description was written in such a way that I wasn’t qualified. But it didn’t matter. The job was never posted.
I was so moved I offered to volunteer as adviser until the full-timer was hired – if the students wanted me.
They did. Administrators didn’t.
They threatened the editor if she met with me – even off campus. When the staff asked if I’d be arrested for trespassing if I ventured on campus, one administrator refused to answer. “I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” he replied.
(Despite my prayers and dreams, they never arrested me. What a cool holding-cell conversation that would’ve been: “What are you in for, kid?” “Advising a newspaper for free.”)
Even without frisking and cuffing, I’ve never had more fun being fired.
First of all, it was just a part-time job. (Tangent: As more employers take advantage of the recession by hiring freelancers and part-timers instead of full-timers, they also lose an advantage. They can no longer rule by fear – you’re not paying me enough to put up with the same shit I’d endure for 40 hours and full benefits.)
Second, administrators were lying so big and so badly, the story spread off campus and around the country. One local paper – the same one that fired me 12 years earlier – ran a half-page story with a WAR ENDS-size headline. Another local paper editorialized, “It didn’t make FAU look good.”
The Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center both sent letters supporting the editor. And for reasons I can’t quite figure, the story made it as far north as the Canada Free Press and as far west as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The woman who fired me then changed her tune and posted this comment on one of those newspapers’ sites: “Mr. Koretzky teaches students the National Enquirer method of journalism and FAU has put up with it for 12 years.”
So good, in fact, that the editor who was threatened won a national SPJ award this month for her column-writing – partly for covering this twisted tale. And even the community college next door won a national SPJ award for editorializing about it.
So I’m still volunteering at FAU because, not surprisingly, there’s still no adviser – full-time or otherwise. Administrators want to gut the paper by intimidating young students, but they can’t do that with an obnoxious adult standing between them and the staff.
I’m also volunteering because I’ve learned something in the past few months that I failed to in the previous 12 years: I enjoy advising so much, I really will do it for free. And not just for a few months because it’s fun to confuse and infuriate censorious administrators.
Screw hobbies. Screw TiVO. Screw Words With Friends. This is what I want to do with my free time and my life. And I wouldn’t have figured it out if I hadn’t been fired. Thank you, FAU.