From newspapers to a non-profit, she's lucky for now
Photo by Marcelo Alvarez, Heifer Bolivia
Donna Stokes, left, meets a baby alpaca in the hills where Heifer International animals graze near the village of Sococoni in northwestern Bolivia.
Ex-copy editor feels useful again By Donna Stokes
helping Heifer fight world hunger
Editor's note -- update:
Question: What do a dog and a plum have in common?
By Donna Stokes
Answer: They’re both purple, except for the dog.
It’s one of my all-time favorite jokes, I really have no idea why. I guess it’s silly to try to compare unlike objects, yet those of us who’ve left newspaper journalism can’t help but look for common ground in our new jobs.
For 18-plus years I was in the swing of newspaper copy editing, riding the highs and lows, from proportion wheels to pagination, working roughly 4 in the afternoon to 1 in the morning. I’d been doing the same job year after year, eating Lean Cuisines and pudding cups at the keyboard, sleeping until noon and following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic implosion and the rise and fall of Britney Spears.
Yet last year, at least for me, the newspaper journalism playground turned foreboding. My colleagues started dropping, one by one, from the jungle gyms and monkey bars of full-time employment. Lack of upper body strength aside, many found a new place to play. Some made the leap to PR, marketing, novel writing or insurance. I began to think I should do the same. Only I was afraid of change and still having fun.
The best thing about journalism, at least for me, is it’s useful for making the world a better place. Newspapers expose fraud, keep elected officials honest, educate the public about policies that can help or hurt them, provide coupons, movie times, rainfall totals and brain teasers all in one handy package.
Making the jump
Out of the pure luck of being in the right place at the right time, I found usefulness again at the nonprofit Heifer International, a group with the mission to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth. I first saw the job ad for World Ark magazine, a bimonthly, on www.heifer.org, the organization’s Web site. I already respected the place and had purchased chickens and seeds for the less fortunate in the world to send out as Christmas presents to my relatives. Then the ad showed up on journalismjobs.com. It listed a whole set of required skills, one of which was copy editing experience. I tried hard to ignore the skills they wanted that I didn’t have, like Web experience, knowledge of content management systems, familiarity with world travel and a marketing background.
I applied, considering it at least a start of looking for work outside newspapers. To my surprise, I was one of five to score an interview and the final candidate standing out of 150 worldwide who applied. My almost two decades of journalism experience paired with a relatively low salary (I have a habit of taking pay cuts and going backwards on the career ladder) worked in my favor, I believe. I still had to take another small pay cut, but I was ecstatic to try something new that also gave me a day job with weekends and holidays off for the first time in my working life. My new boss said part of what won me the job was I did the best on the copy editing test of all the finalists. I take that as a good sign that it’s sometimes OK to apply for jobs where you don’t meet all the skill requirements, as long as you excel in some of the most important areas.
It turns out my new job as one of four editors on the magazine staff has more in common than dogs and plums do after all. I’m the deadline cop and create schedules and track copy flow; I help coordinate freelance work and keep writers and photographers on schedule; I copyedit staff and freelance work; and I’ve even made a trip to Heifer projects in Bolivia to write an article for the magazine on how the organization is helping people there create better lives for themselves by supplying small farmers with alpacas, llamas and animal husbandry and agriculture training.
Will it last?
Just a few short months after I started the new job, the newspaper I had just left, the independent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, announced layoffs of nine newsroom employees. I am hopeful that my leaving saved at least one job at the paper, but I’ll never know. Another 16 were laid off just weeks ago, including co-workers and friends I sat beside every night.
But don’t hate me yet for falling into a dream job with as little effort as sending in one resume. It’s been a battle to hang in there. First, the human resources background check turned up a woman with the same name as mine (but luckily a different Social Security number) with a felony assault conviction. Yes, this is a true story. They called to ask why I failed to state this felony charge on my application and blessedly gave me the opportunity to say it was a mixup—though isn’t that what they all say? Thanks to my new boss’s efforts to push the investigation farther, they cleared my name and let me come on board.
The biggest challenge yet is coming for me in the next few weeks. The grim economy is also extremely damaging to nonprofits. In order to keep its mission sustainable and to continue all of its current commitments to development projects in 50 countries, Heifer plans to lay off as many as 68 people by the end of the fiscal year at the end of June.
Photo by Marcelo Alvarez, Heifer Bolivia
Donna Stokes waits for the photographer to finish up after an interview with a family in the village of Akae in south-central Bolivia. (She's wearing translation headphones, not listening to her MP3 player.)