Our Interview With Rich Jackson, “The Homeless Editor”

What was your first reaction when you learned you were being laid off?
Shock. I’m not an angry person, and the news was broken to me by a dear friend whom I’ve known for 20 years. He made the trip to come tell me in person, so it wasn’t some faceless phone call.

Did you see it coming?
If you look at the Poynter story (about the Gannett layoffs), you see a lot of top editors from across the country were let go. While I didn’t see it coming, there’s certainly a pattern.

When did you learn that you were also going to be homeless?
In the discussion about the separation, I was told I needed to be out of the (company) apartment in a week. So I knew right away, but within 20 minutes, I had to get back to work and put the newspaper together for the weekend.

What’s your greatest need right now?
Dozens and dozens of folks have reached out to help, and I had someone offer me free housing. My next greatest need is to save money and to make whatever savings I have last as long as I can. I’d saved up some money over the last 10 months, so I’m not cash-poor. I just need to find a way to stretch it out.

The blog you started five days ago to chronicle your layoff, “The Homeless Editor,” has racked up nearly 39,000 views. A reporter with The New York Times wrote a story about you earlier this week. What’s that attention been like?
I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d be sitting at 39,000 page views. I kept a blog when I was on furlough at the Gary Post-Tribune in 2009 during the economic crisis, which I called “Furlog.” And it got seven hits a day. I never imagined in my wildest dreams—ever ever ever—that I would be profiled in The New York Times when my blog was two days old. It’s just unbelievable.

How did you come up with the name?
That phrase “Homeless Editor” is odd because those aren’t typically words you see together. It’s a startling juxtaposition. Everyone thinks that because I have a fancy title of senior executive editor, I’m probably wealthy, or at least well off. But as a person who’s been divorced for 15 years, I’m always scraping by.

What are some misconceptions about homelessness?
To most people, the word “homeless” means the person sitting on the street corner with a cardboard sign. But “homeless” is a much broader term and just means someone who doesn’t have a permanent address. It’s not necessarily connected to poverty. You don’t think about students who are kicked out of their homes because they can’t get along with their parents; you don’t think about someone with a fancy title suddenly being cast into the streets, although my situation is obviously a bit better. It’s not about laziness, it’s not even about money, necessarily—it’s about the brittleness of the economy.

It’s incredible how many people are willing to give to utter, complete strangers.

What are some of the problems that come with not having a permanent address that people might not think about?
Mail. Getting a P.O. box is not as simple as paying $20 per month. You have to be able to prove residency. Well, how do you prove residency when you’re living at the Motel 6? My daughter is sending me a COVID mask, and she had to mail it to the newspaper. Hopefully I can get someone there to call me when it’s in.

How can the country better help the more than half a million people who are homeless?
As a journalist, I’m good at getting information. But not everyone is. Imagine if I were a bricklayer or a CVS clerk. They’re not going to have my capabilities of knowing whom to contact or what questions to ask. So we need better programs for people in transition, and there needs to be a better system of getting information out there.

Why was it so important to you to share your story publicly?
My story is unique—you don’t often hear of executive editors becoming homeless—but it’s also not in that we live in an economy that can change quickly. I was hoping to convey that if it’s happening to me, it can happen to a lot of folks.

What do you hope to accomplish with your blog?
First, in journalism, I’ve always tried to follow three E’s: to educate, to edify, and to entertain. You teach a little something, you clarify something, and I have a sense of humor, so I try to fuse that into the blog. Second, it’s important for me to keep my writing chops. I liken the craft of writing to throwing clay or making pots; you’re only going to get better if you practice at it. And third—man, I need something to do. Being a small-town daily newspaper editor is like racing at 200 mph. But then, without warning, I came to a dead stop.

How does time feel different now?
What’s odd is it’s only been four days since I’ve been out of a job and had to move out of the apartment. But I’ve been insanely busy.

How so?
Now that the blog has national attention, I feel I need to respect those who are reaching out by responding to them. So I look for jobs, respond to people on social media, and go for walks. Because now that I actually have time to walk, I probably ought to.

What have you learned from your two previous layoffs that’s helping you get through this one?
To quote Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “What brave new world with such beauteous people in it.” It’s incredible how many people are willing to give to utter, complete strangers.

What advice would you give to journalists in similar situations?
Just keep moving forward. Looking back doesn’t help a damn bit. Look at opportunities within and outside the industry, talk to friends and family, and seek out some laughs. When I initially announced I was being laid off, my friends were writing terribly nice things on social media, like “He’s the best writer I’ve ever worked with,” and “He’s the best journalist, and a better human being.” But it was all very obituary-like. Thankfully, my daughter is studying Comedic Arts at Emerson College, and she buoys my spirits daily.

Your blog definitely has moments of levity. How are you keeping your spirits up?
I’ve always used humor as a means of coping. On the day I was notified that I was going to be laid off, I made a joke about it in the newsroom Gmail chat and no one responded. And I said, “Folks, if I can laugh about it, you can, too.”

You’ve said you want to stay in journalism. Do you think you’ll be able to?
Honestly, I just want to write. If I can find a position where I get paid to write, I’m going to be the luckiest man on this side of Lou Gehrig.

What’s the best way that people can help journalists right now?
Buy a damn newspaper.