In the End, It’s Just Bird Cage Liner

It’s a challenging time to be a freelance journalist. Last month, BuzzFeed announced it was closing its news division and laying off close to 200 people. And this is no anomaly: Magazines and newspapers have been suffering a slow death for years. One day in the near future, I fear we’ll all be getting our news from the same gigantic, soulless website that only exists to draw the maximum number of eyeballs to its content.

I wonder what my mom would say if she were around today. She was a wonderful journalist who could dribble out pages of elegant prose with seemingly little effort. In college, she was a staff writer for her university’s newspaper, eventually serving as its editor-in-chief. Later, she worked as a reporter for her community newspaper, bringing the stories of her quiet hometown to life through “Man on the Street” interviews and feature articles. Sometimes she would cover parades and festivals, occasionally with me in tow. And when I was a toddler, I was photographed for an article my mother wrote about unsafe storage of household chemicals (my parents then nicknamed me the “Poison Child.”)

In the last decade of her life, my mom became the publisher of our community newspaper. Young writers seemed drawn to her and the way she approached both simple and complicated matters with humor, kindness, and grace. She was always ready to counsel a discouraged journalist over lunch or coffee, and I’m sure she would do the same today. Of course, she would not discount the thrill and pride that comes with seeing your published words out there in the world — and nor would I. I’ll admit I still get that dopamine hit when an editor says “yes,” or when an article I invested hours in writing is finally published.

A page from my mother’s clip book with her work in the Marquette Tribune, circa 1970
But here’s the banal truth that my mother understood: Even the most dazzling stories are forgotten when something newer and more exciting emerges — and there is always something newer and more exciting. This was the case even back in the dark ages before digital media existed. The news was printed on real paper and story layout involved a light table, a sharp knife, and actual cutting and pasting, but in the end, a writer’s moment in the spotlight was fleeting. To quote my mother, “In the end, it’s just bird cage liner.”

One of the reasons I think my mom was successful as a journalist was that she didn’t take herself too seriously. She believed in her work yet never let it dictate her worth. If you have a story to tell and find yourself disheartened by rejections, I hope you won’t give up. But I also hope you’ll remember this: You are much more than the sum of your bylines.

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