As a department manager at a small newspaper, I’ve had a very limited roll in laying people off. A middle manager, I was both insider and outsider in the layoff process, neither decision-maker nor bystander.
I’ve seen the game companies play, the weeks of preparation to satisfy the reptilian-brained corporate demand for short-term profits to compensate for poor management decisions and inaccurate forecasting, and the cat-brained ways that corporate-demanded layoffs are implemented at the local level.
In my 23 years as a department head, I’ve directly participated in just one layoff. I didn’t choose who got the ax; that was done at levels above my head without my consultation or consent. Given that my newsroom went from 13 positions when I started in 2008 to six on the day I resigned in October 2017, all but one of those lost positions came as the result of dark positions never coming back. I was lucky that there was only one person under my management who had to endure a layoff.
Still, I’ve seen plenty of people lose their jobs in other departments and observed the three-step process that leads to letting someone competent go because someone somewhere over them was incompetent:
- The notice at the beginning of a quarter that profits were not where they needed to be.
- The announcement by the middle of the quarter that costs would be adjusted to better reflect company expectations due to soft revenue realizations.
- The notification a short time later that at best an unfilled position would go away or, at worst, someone would be let go and the HR director would be there Friday afternoon to make sure it’s done right, in a way that won’t result in a lawsuit.
“Done right” in this era of downsizing means that the targeted worker came to work that day fully unaware how bad the day would become, is called into the seldom used office of the publisher or HR director, both of whom are home-based a two-hour drive away. Without compassion or emotion, the newly former employee is notified, rights and benefits are explained, and is escorted out of the building with a promise that their things would be made available to them later.
It’s a cold-hearted, calculated system designed to avoid trouble. But I’ve seen this done to people who deserve gold watches and going away parties, not a summary dismissal and a bum’s rush out of the building.
Meanwhile, co-workers who were friends of the departed that morning whisper among themselves and try their best to act as if nothing happened, while thanking their lucky stars that it wasn’t them … not today, at least.
Newsrooms have been hard-hit over the last decade by these waves of layoffs. All the ones I know of are half their number or less since 2005, declining in size at faster rates than their declining circulations.
But journalists, most of whom will stare corruption in its face, pound out copy about layoffs at the local factory, and sift through spreadsheets looking for signs of malfeasance, join their coworkers in advertising, circulation and front office, sniffing the bones of the departed in the form of the newly emptied desks, searching for extra staplers, thumb drives and special pens (the kind the company doesn’t buy anymore) before returning to their own chairs and thanking their lucky stars it wasn’t them.
Most of these newspapers will have little or no coverage of their own layoffs, neither the one that morning nor the cumulative effect of staff cuts over the past decade. What coverage they do have will put an Orwellian spin on it, how the layoff is not a layoff but a restructuring to better position the company for growth moving forward in the digital age.
And yet, corporations that offer 401(k) plans with no company matches, that have not given out regular raises in years, that pay seven-figure bonuses to top-level corporate officers who target $20,000 and $25,000 a year employees for elimination to cut costs, expect those few who remain to be productive, happy and, yes, loyal.
As a Baby Boomer, it was my parents’ generation that last knew about companies loyal to their employees. Our parents are appalled at the way companies treat their workers today, but I’ve never known anything different. My first newspaper job paid $7 an hour and kept office paper in a locked cabinet. Two years later, I rejected a 25-cent raise and started working on my resume.
The 1990s were the Golden Age of newspaper profits, but I and my colleagues seldom benefited from it. Newspaper companies count on their college-educated journalists to be happy just to have a job.
Now, as the industry declines, corporations and investment bankers are gobbling up newspapers like vultures, trying to squeeze out the last print dollars while they figure out how to compete with Google.
GateHouse Media, the company I last worked for, built its “Center for News Design” in Austin, Texas, to churn out pages, and said it would lighten the workload in its hard-working local newsrooms so they could focus on generating local content. The copy editors and designers were gone from the local newsrooms, but not all the work they did went away, and what remained became the responsibility of an increasingly small number of survivors.
Meanwhile, in Austin, journalists churned out well-designed, error-riddled pages that required time-devouring step-by-step, page-by-page instructions from local editors about placement and priorities. My newsroom went from one deadline per day, to deadlines throughout the day to keep the designers in Austin productive.
Austin is also a content mill, pouring out unremarkable plug and play content to make up for the declining amount of local news in GateHouse newspapers.
Also in Austin are other journalists whose full-time jobs are to come up with wonderful ideas for more work to unleash on local newsrooms, including a relentless flow of spreadsheets, production metrics, systems, procedures and webinars. They cheerfully call these “best practices.”
The expectation that I continue to be loyal as all this unfolded was too much. I found a different job outside the newspaper industry, gave two-weeks notice, and submitted a memo proposing that savings resulting from my departure could be used to avoid other layoffs. It was the completion of more than eight years in that newsroom.
Because I quit and was not leaving due to a layoff, I was given a nice pot-luck party in the main conference room with a delicious company-bought cake. The room was filled with people about whom I cared very much.
Following the party, my boss and her boss, along with several other department heads and regional directors, convened a meeting with me to discuss what needed to be done as a result of my departure.
Even though it was my last day at the job, the publisher gave me an assignment. I nodded that I would do it, but it was a lie – I’d already turned in my computer and would soon be locked out of my office and email account.
The next day was supposed to be my last day, but I took it off. That night, I woke up at 2 a.m., resentment boiling over. Although leaving my job, I was not leaving town, but the company for which I had worked expected me to throw away 30 years of journalism experience and more than eight years covering the city where I lived.
To do any less would not be loyal.
Screw that. I started my own news service, covering the same city my former employer was covering, but I have an edge: my expenses are shockingly low (but so are receivables, which total zero), I have experience, connections and a good reputation in town, and there is plenty to cover now that the local paper for which I once worked has nearly abandoned local coverage in favor of advertorials and special projects with sustainable revenue models.
I don’t do this out of spite. The word “loyalty” is not alien to me. I’m a former Marine, after all. I love the paper I worked for and the people I worked with while I was there.
But corporate journalism has not earned my loyalty.
Now that there is a competing news source in town, one that is not afraid to run stories about GateHouse and the newspaper in town that it owns, perhaps GateHouse will put some resources back into its local newspaper and restore some of the local news coverage that has been cut.
There’s nothing like a little public exposure to improve one’s behavior.