Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Harsh Realities

There was an interesting article in the NY Times yesterday on a recent lay-off at the Westchester (NY) Journal News.

As with just about every other newspaper on the face of, in not the earth, then certainly the United States, The Journal News has been experiencing a decrease in advertising - all those help wanted ads, all those car ads, all those local department store ads, most gone bye-bye.

The news action in Westchester, like the ads, is moving on 'net, and The Journal News is focusing more of its efforts on its LoHud - that's Lower Hudson, by the way -  online site (a site which I visit occasionally to see what they're saying on their Yankees blog).

So The Journal News had to let 70 of their staff of 288 newspeople and advertising folks go. In absolute terms, not a huge lay-off, but this lay-off represents a 25% whack - harsh, indeed, for those who work there.  And some news groups took an ultra-harsh - and what does this bode for the future of local business reporting - cut. The entire business news and editorial staff was kaputted.

Well, journalist lay-offs are nothing new, and there are going to be more and more of them before one of two things happens:  publications figures out how to make money while providing decent news coverage; or we slip into the slough of news despond and have to rely purely on amateurs with iPhone cameras, high dudgeon, limited writing and analytical skills, and quasi-respect for and understanding of the truth. But with the ability to do "it" fast and upload with ease. If the latter happens, we can expect to see even more Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, and less Hamid Karzai and Ben Bernanke. Wheeee.....

The Journal News did take an interesting twist to their lay-off.

For the last three weeks, employees at The Journal News have lived in a netherworld in which they were asked to justify their existence in a changing, shrinking world. After filling out an application on Sharepoint, a corporate Web site, that asked them about their new-media skills, among other things, and then being interviewed by corporate human resources executives pulled in by Gannett, they were called up to the third floor of the offices in Westchester last Thursday and given an offer letter in a thin white envelope — “Thank you for your participation in the restructuring of the Information Center department at The Journal News. I am pleased to extend you an offer. ...” — or a much thicker manila envelope explaining their departure and severance.

I am no stranger to the long drawn out process. In a couple of the companies I worked for - Genuity and Wang - lay-offs were generally announced well in advance, giving everyone a couple of months worth of paranoia, restless nights, speculating, and posturing.

And I'm no stranger to unsubtle ways of announcing to someone that they're being let go. At one friend's company, everyone was called to a company meeting. At the door, they were given pink slips or blue slips. Pinks to the room on the left (and out the door), blues to the right (you're alright). At Wang, where most people worked in cubicles, someone would come and tap the lay-off-ee on the shoulder and escort them back to a closed office to get riffed. One Russian colleague likened it to the KGB coming for him.

There's no getting around the fact that - even when handled brilliantly, gently, smoothly - lay-offs aren't fun, especially if you're in a field where there aren't a lot of new opportunities opening up.

And three weeks of hell is three weeks of hell.

Needless to say, those on The Journal News staff who were weighed and found wanting are ticked off:

One longtime worker who received a manila envelope, but still asked to remain anonymous — “This is not a great time for me to make waves” — was bitter about the process.

“How is the fact that I don’t have a  Twitter or Facebook account relevant to what I do?” he said. “After many years of great work here, I have to go into some office and tell a person who I have never met why I deserve to work at The Journal. I probably didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my disgust.”

Now, I understand why this fellow - who, I'm guessing, is around my age - is bitter and angry. There is no denying that it is disappointing, disheartening, and depressing to find that a job that you really, really enjoyed, and were really, really good at no longer exists in the perfect state it once did.

But what rock has he been hiding under for the last few years that he didn't see the encroachment of "new media" and do something about it. Not at least acknowledging the new is akin to hanging on to typewriters, or the hand-set press. Time to move along.

As for 'bitter and anonymous in the Lower Hudson': I'm sure that the powers what am really don't care if you Twitter. But I bet they'd have smiled more kindly  on you - and maybe even have given you a thin white envie, rather than the doomsday thick manila -  if you'd had something thoughtful to say about social media. Maybe you'd still have a job if you told them why you thought Second Life never really took off, why blogs have a place but won't replace traditional news sources, why Twitter really only makes sense in limited circumstances - and, hey, it's probably peaked because the young folk aren't embracing it, why you have concerns (but are excited by the immediacy of micro sites and real-time news). Whatever.

Sorry. It's hard to feel 100% sorry for someone who's holding on for dear life to a life that, however very dear it has been, has changed.

I know plenty of people my age who've faded away from marketing careers because they didn't get - or refused to listen to - the message that the world is different.

Most of what I do professionally - research, strategy, writing for B2B technology companies - doesn't have all that much to do with new age marketing. I live more on the product marketing side of the house, where I'm still using my old age (and well-aged) skills. But I can and certainly do advise my clients on the use of social media, have kept up at least at the macro level with what's happening with search marketing, and I've figured out how to adapt my writing to the constraints of e-mail blasts and searchable web pages - when and where I have to.

In many professions, the harsh reality of employment these days is change or die.

Maybe our friend at The Journal News didn't get the word. Must have been written on LoHud.


Valerie said...

An older friend of mine got his career start in a cube at a Hartford CT big insurance company in the 60's, where the tradition for layoff was pretty simple. If you came back to your cube and your chair was gone, you knew to head down to personnel (the hr of the 60s) -- no muss, no fuss.

When Bruce got back to his chairless desk, he simply took his cubemate's who later walked in, saw the emptiness where his chair had been, and took the trip down to personnel. Rather than admit a mistake, personnel let the cubemate go and Bruce go on to get his COBOL coding chops for years to come.

Maureen Rogers said...

Now that's a good story.

It reminds me of the brother-in-law of a friend. He moved with his wife to Washington DC to start law school at Catholic University, only to be told that there'd been a mistake - he hadn't been accepted.

But he pushed back - he'd quit his job, uprooted his life - so they let him in, and he's had a long and successful career in law.

Mike Marn said...


I certainly agree with you that awareness of the new tools and media so critical to your business is a legitimate requirement if you expect to keep a job these days.

But we started out talking about the WAY people were let go. And all the savvy in the world about new media, etc., doesn't make up for a little forethought and human decency in handling the layoff. If there is no longer room or time for THAT any longer, I don't WANT to keep my job. But just in case, I'm bring a new chair to work with me every day from now on! :)

Mike Marn said...

I hope proofreading your own writing isn't another requisite. I preach it, but guess I don't DO it!

Maureen Rogers said...

Mike - I was about to write that "there's no good way to do lay-offs", but there's a company called Jabil that is laying people off locally (Massachusetts), and they're going to extraordinary lengths trying to help their people find work. I'll be posting on them next week.

With respect to the "Harsh Realities" post, I should have called out that handing someone an envelope is pretty harsh. I hope that it was at least accompanied by a look in the eye and a handshake (or hand on the shoulder).

As for typos - I always see them once I hit the "post" button. At least with a blog, you can go and correct. For us commenters, however...