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CF native, newspaper editor becomes homeless blogger after losing job

Chippewa Falls native and veteran journalist Rich Jackson finally made the pages of The New York Times.

Unfortunately for Jackson, it wasn’t exactly the scenario he had dreamed about since graduating from UW-Eau Claire with a journalism degree in 1992.

After submitting dozens of columns to the Times over the years and never receiving a reply, Jackson was featured last week as the subject of a story instead of the author. The headline: “Newspaper’s Top Editor Is Now a ‘Homeless’ Blogger.”

In a matter of a week, Jackson, 54, a 1984 graduate of Chippewa Falls McDonell High School, went from being senior executive editor of The Herald-Times, a Gannett-owned newspaper in Bloomington, Ind., to being both jobless and homeless.

The sudden double whammy occurred when a Gannett representative informed Jackson on April 24, in the parking lot outside his office, that he was laid off and also would have to vacate the apartment he occupied in the newspaper building. A few days later he was living in a Motel 6.

“It’s a good reminder of how brutal the economy can be for individuals,” Jackson told the Leader-Telegram, where he worked as a summer intern in 1989. “Even someone with a big fancy pants title of senior executive editor can be living in a Motel 6 in a couple of weeks.”

Jackson responded to the news the way he knows best: He wrote about it. His new forum: a blog he titled “The Homeless Editor.”

“It took me 20 minutes after I was alerted to decide that I needed to write this experience,” said Jackson, who figures he has written or edited hundreds of stories about homelessness before unwittingly becoming the subject of such stories. “A writer writes. You gotta keep your chops, you know.”

This week the blog surpassed 54,000 page views — a remarkable number for any blog and an unfathomable leap from the time Jackson started a blog during a temporary furlough from another Indiana newspaper during the 2009 recession. He called that blog “The Furlog,” which he thought was a clever title for a furlough blog but later realized was unrecognizable and not searched by anyone.

“I got about seven hits a day and six of them were mine, and I think the other one was my executive editor,” he said, theorizing that the surprising juxtaposition of the words “homeless” and “editor” in the title of his new blog help it attract more attention.

Jackson believes The New York Times heard about his plight in a tweet from one of the many friends he’s made in a career with 11 newspapers in five states, including early stops at the Wausau Daily Herald, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and Beaver Dam Daily Citizen in Wisconsin.

Jackson was working at The Times-News in Burlington, N.C., last year when GateHouse bought that newspaper and he was urged to move to Bloomington. A spokeswoman for Gannett told the Times the decision to lay off Jackson had to do with a 2019 merger between Gannett and the parent company of GateHouse and not the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has added to the newspaper industry’s struggles.

The attention to Jackson’s plight prompted 30 Gannett employees to write an open letter to company CEOs Paul Bascobert and Mike Reed asking them to end eviction proceedings against Jackson, apologize to employees and end staff reductions. The letter describes Gannett’s decision to leave Jackson jobless and homeless amid a global health crisis as “unconscionable.”

“This kind of brazen disregard for a person’s well-being is repugnant for any company, but particularly one whose business model depends on building trust in the local communities it serves,” the letter states. “Furthermore, it’s shocking that the company would show so little concern in the face of an indisputable truth: an unstable housing situation heightens Rich’s risk of contracting COVID-19.”

While Jackson doesn’t know if the blog will help or hurt in his quest for a new job, he said the exercise at least gives readers some insight into his work ethic.

“If nothing else, it does show my hustle,” he said. “You can stick me in a Motel 6, but I’m still going to write. I’m still going to be a journalist.”

His blogs also demonstrate he still thinks like a newspaperman, as he devotes some of his writing to exploring community issues such as food assistance and types of homelessness. He identifies four types of homeless individuals: chronic (those long-term homeless folks often seen on the street), episodic (those who live in a hotel or car between jobs), transitional (those, like him, caught in a life transition) and hidden (couch surfers without a place of their own).

Regardless of type or duration, the experience is difficult, even for someone like Jackson who remains optimistic he’ll find some kind of meaningful employment despite the suddenly brutal economic conditions.

“Being in the middle of a pandemic is not helpful,” he said, understating the challenge of what many economists are predicting could be the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Even in his current predicament, Jackson’s signature sense of humor, hopeful outlook and Wisconsin roots shine through in his blog, as demonstrated in this recent post: “The local jobs, given there’s really only one newspaper from which I was laid off, include things like technical writer and human resources generalist. In regard to the first, I can write about almost anything. The only exception would be ‘How the Chicago Bears are awesome.’ “

The experience also has reminded him of something he has always believed — that most people are generally decent.

That has been apparent from the outpouring of help he has been offered. Acts of kindness have included folks dropping off beer from his favorite local brew pub at his motel, a professor at a local university he’d met once sending him $100 in restaurant gift cards, a GoFundMe account started on his behalf raising nearly $2,500 as of Friday morning and the Motel 6 owners giving him a free week of lodging and providing a microwave and refrigerator.

“It’s so heartwarming, I can’t even tell you,” said Jackson, who moved his belongings into a friend’s garage this week.

But the kindest gesture of all came from a complete stranger — a local attorney who offered Jackson use of guest cottage through the summer if needed. Jackson plans to take him up on it beginning Monday.

No word yet — considering the temporary nature of the arrangement — on if he plans to change the name of his blog as he continues his search for a job and a place of his own.

The only sure thing in Jackson’s future? He’ll keep writing.

Thirty-six questions

I click on the article “Want to Fall in Love with Your Partner Again? Science Says to Ask Them These 36 Questions” for the same reason I’m wearing pajama pants at noon on a Tuesday: I’m abiding by safer-at-home.

For much of his career, social psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron’s research focused on the science of love. His 1993 study “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness” explored whether intimacy could be developed between two strangers. One group of participants simply made small talk with a partner; the other group asked each other 36 questions that became increasingly more personal. For what in your life do you feel most grateful? If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? Share an embarrassing moment.

Finally, these partners spent their last four minutes together silently looking into one another’s eyes. Aron reported, “When I came in towards the end of each set of questions, there were people crying and talking so openly.” You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out which group felt more bonded with one another after just 45 minutes. The results were used to better understand prejudice and to improve relationships between police officers and community members.

Only recently has the study been applied to igniting or rekindling romance. In 2015, Mandy Len Catron’ s New York Times story went viral after her new love affair was inspired by Aron’s 36 questions. She wrote, “Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend … But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.”

Until COVID-19. One recent Saturday night, my husband and I sit at our counter with drinks and ask each other some of Aron’s 36 questions. When shared with a romantic partner, these become part Cosmopolitan quiz, part pre-marital inventory. What do you value in a friendship? What is your most treasured or terrible memory? How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

Bruce reads aloud, “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?” He smiles: “I know what I’d want ... for you.”

“Like you’d live to see it,” I tease back. I can’t help but think we’re in our own private “The Newlywed Game” though less cringe-worthy because it’s just the two of us.

I read, “Tell your partner what you like about them.”

Bruce answers, “You’re nice and so competent.” I groan. Is this a Yelp review of his favorite dental hygienist?

“Wow,” I say sarcastically. “That’s something.”

“It is,” he says. “You’re nice to everyone.” He adds, “And anyone who knows you knows a little bit about the good things you do, but I know them all.”

I tell him: “You always say the right thing to me or to your kids or even to strangers.” I tear up. “You know how to make anyone feel better.”

Next I ask, “Anyone living or dead you’d invite for dinner?”

“Besides you?” he responds. We’re pathetic.

“I’d have my parents over,” I say. I wipe my eyes as I describe seeing them one more time. “My mom is probably less critical now that she’s dead.” I laugh. Bruce didn’t know her; he has no idea how funny this is. Still, he chuckles.

Crises — like the recent pandemic — create waves of vulnerability that sometimes speed up the usual trajectory of our lives. Consider all of the instant and intense romances during wartime or the slew of children conceived within days of watching the Twin Towers fall.

One year from now we could easily count another baby boom or even an uptick in divorces. But as social distancing throws us together in ways we didn’t expect, what’s immeasurable is the evolution of not just romantic bonds but deeper connections among family and friends. Dr. Aron reminds us, “Relationship quality is the biggest predictor of human happiness, more than wealth or success.”

Not without risks, of course. Brené Brown, whose TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has been viewed over 47 million times, explores the leap of faith it is to care intensely about someone. Instead of considering the risks (rejection, heartache), she recommends instead thinking, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

We all have moments when we believe we’re unlikable and downright unlovable. Fart like a raging vegetarian? Cackle when you’re tipsy? And that’s just me. Brown points out, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness ... it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

The scholarship of caring could easily be wrapped up by an old Eagle’s song: “You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.” More appropriate these days may be Camus’s line from The Plague: “A happiness that forgets nothing.”

After another drink, Bruce and I take these 36 questions to a new level: we choose one and answer how we think the other might. I describe what Bruce would say about his “perfect” day. He responds, “That sounds a lot like many of our days.”

Bruce tells me what he imagines I would want to be famous for. He’s absolutely right. I tell him what I know he’d want: “You’re at a small jazz club and someone in the band calls you up on stage from the audience. You sing the crap out of a song, and the crowd goes wild.”

He says, “I got no secrets.”

As the night goes on, Bruce asks, “Shouldn’t there be questions on what annoys you about a partner? Or at least something you’d like to change?”

“We’ll add our own next time,” I say. We have only time and each other on our hands.

Some Wisconsin counties rescinding stay-at-home after legal warnings

MADISON — Local health officials across Wisconsin began rescinding their stay-at-home orders Friday after attorneys warned the mandates could be vulnerable to legal challenges after the state Supreme Court wiped out Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide order.

Eau Claire County health officials said Friday that language in the county’s order is legal and enforceable, though they noted that education, not enforcement, is the order’s purpose.

The Wisconsin Counties Association posted a message on its website after the court ruled Wednesday saying it’s unclear whether local orders mimicking the statewide mandate would stand up in court. Health officials in Kenosha County withdrew their stay-at-home order Thursday night in light of the WCA warning. Brown and Manitowoc counties as well as the cities of Cudahy and Appleton dropped their orders Friday afternoon.

“While the WCA and outside legal counsel did not opine that counties were outright prohibited from taking such actions, they did indicate that overall, the legal basis to do so is likely weak,” Brown County’s attorney, David Hemery, said in a letter Friday to the county’s health officer, Anna Destree.

Evers issued a statewide order in March banning nonessential travel and ordering nonessential businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order was supposed to expire in late April but state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm extended it to May 26 at Evers’ direction.

Republican legislators frustrated with the order’s economic fallout asked the state Supreme Court to strike the order down. The court ruled 4-3 on Wednesday to erase the order. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said the order amounted to an administrative rule that was subject to legislative approval and that Palm lacked the authority to issue it unilaterally.

The ruling led bars, restaurants, hair salons and other businesses to open immediately or begin making plans to re-open. Fearing that infections might spike as people begin moving around again, about a dozen counties have issued their own stay-at-home orders.

State law allows local health officers to “do what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease.” They can issue edicts without going through the rule-making process that the high court said state officials must use.

But the WCA’s attorney, Andrew Phillips, said it’s unclear just how far officers can go under that statute. Even though rule-making doesn’t come into play on the county level, he added, Roggensack wrote that Palm’s order confining everyone to their homes exceeded her authority as state health secretary on its face. That could become precedent that could decide local stay-at-home lawsuits, he said.

Attorneys for the state Department of Justice, which is run by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, believe the court’s opinion doesn’t extend to local authority. Health officials in Dane County, a liberal stronghold, said they believe their stay-at-home order is legal because state law allows local officials to issue any order to suppress a communicable disease.

“(The Supreme Court ruling) has nothing to do with local health authorities,” said Lester Pines, an attorney who has represented Evers in the past. “If someone wants to litigate that in the context of this pandemic, they are free to do so. But that is not what the Supreme Court said.”

Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, said someone could argue that if Palm can’t issue a stay-at-home order, then locals lack the power as well.

“Simply cutting and pasting a statewide order is going to be looked at with a great deal of suspicion,” Esenberg said. “You have to do something that is more directly targeted and narrowly tailored. (But) you won’t know for sure until you’ve got a court decision.”

Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baladauff, blamed the Supreme Court for creating confusion.

“We said all along there would be chaos if the Supreme Court tossed the governor’s plan and didn’t provide any clear direction and that’s exactly what we have,” she said.

Adding to the uncertainty Friday was Republican state Sen. Steve Nass, who demanded Evers withdraw his outline for a new emergency rule to manage the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin.

Nass serves as co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint rules committee, which has to approve any rule before it can take effect. He said Evers’ scope statement indicates he wants to restore elements of the statewide stay-at-home order. Nass’ stance underscores how difficult it will be for Evers, a Democrat, to get any coronavirus rules through GOP lawmakers.

Baldauff didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up email seeking comment on Nass’ position.

As of Friday, Wisconsin had seen 11,685 cases of COVID-19 and 445 deaths, according to the DHS.