Yvonne Leow
Posted on April 3, 2014 by Yvonne on Journalism, Thoughts

Beyond Project Thunderdome

Yesterday reminded me of where I was two weeks ago. Burrowed into the corner of my window seat on a cross-country flight watching “You’ve Got Mail.” Yes. The Nora Ephron nineties rom-com starring Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and AOL dial-up. I was particularly sappy that week so I couldn’t resist. As I was watching the film for the third or fourth time, this scene felt especially poignant.

For those who haven’t seen it (why?!), here’s some context. Mega bookstore owner Joe Fox explains, and partially apologizes, to Kathleen Kelly for putting her family-owned bookstore out of business by saying “it wasn’t personal.” 

We’ve all heard that expression before. It’s synonymous with the realities of doing business. Buyouts, bankruptcies, takeovers, mergers, acquisitions, firings, layoffs, all of it can be absolved in one phrase. But this is Kelly’s response:

“What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?…Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

Who knew in-flight entertainment could be so profound.

the hilarious interactives team.

What a good-lookin’ interactives team.

Yesterday, everyone learned Project Thunderdome, John Paton’s Digital First initiative, was imploding. Yes, it’s all over.  As I listened to our CEO explain the strategic decision to shutter our 50-person newsroom, I have every reason to believe that Thunderdome’s demise was driven by economics. A company’s survival depends on the bottom line, and leaders have to make tough calls to preserve it. I get it and I agree, the decision wasn’t personal.

winning Thunderdome's first team bonding activity was by far a career highlight.

Winning Thunderdome’s all-staff scavenger hunt was a career highlight. I will be trash talking for years.

But standing in the meeting, exchanging glances of empathy with my peers, seeing tears well up in some of their eyes, I realized that’s not entirely true. Most if not all of us joined Thunderdome because we believed in it. Wholeheartedly. It was a job, sure, but we spent nearly two years aspiring to accomplish something greater. And in that time we got to know each other’s story. Where we grew up, our loved ones, our favorite beers, our quirky Internet obsessions, I mean, I know every editors’ leadership-personality traits for crying out loud. We did not all bond with one another the same way, but at Thunderdome it always felt more than just a newsroom, it felt like a team.

there's only one way to peel a potato.

While filming Kitchen Pop, David informed us that “There is only one way to peel a potato,” and without missing a beat, Courtney replied “You’re full of shit.” Yea, that’s my team.

Looking back, I’m glad I struck up a conversation with Robyn Tomlin at the 2012 UNITY convention. I’m thankful she introduced me to Jim Brady, who vetted me for the role. I’m grateful Mandy Jenkins invited me to come along for the ride. Thunderdome rekindled my love for journalism, and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to work with everyone at DFM. (A special thanks to Tim Rasmussen and my scrappy video team, David Freid and Courtney Wells, for also reminding me why we do what we do, especially when I needed to hear it most.)

My last day at DFM is April 17. While being unemployed is far from ideal, I’m excited to see what’s next and I’m allowing myself to be open to the possibilities. Every city is up for grabs. Every opportunity is another journey. Every newsroom a potential second home. Despite the circumstances, I’m happy to be a journalist right now. The level of empathy and support from the broader community is astounding. Visual storytelling combined with data journalism has never been more innovative. And I can’t even count the number of companies launching digital initiatives and experimenting with new business models.

Our industry is alive, messy and evolving. There’s no better time to be a bullish optimist. So here we are. My newsroom “imploded,” but we’re all walking away from the rubble far more experienced at building a digital newsroom from scratch, wiser for having tried and more resilient for having survived. And I’m confident we will. Because it’s not just the story of Project Thunderdome that strived to accomplish something greater. It’s the spirit of journalism.

my how far we've come.

Project Thunderdome circa 2012. My how far we’ve come.

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