In 2007, I told 17 fulltime and a dozen part-time News & Record journalists they were laid off. A student asked me to talk about it for a class project she was working on. It’s taken this long for me to have both the courage and the distance to write about it.
I should have known that layoffs were on the horizon. Our revenues were sinking, and we had been slashing costs and content. But neither my head nor my heart would hear of it. After all, our corporate parent, Landmark Communications, had made it clear that it did not approve of layoffs at its properties. “Layoffs are a reflection of poor management,” the CEO would tell us at annual managers’ meetings. “The employee did nothing wrong; management did.”
We got the message: Lay off people and risk your own job. The innocent people wouldn’t be punished; the decision makers would. That philosophy was one of the reasons I loved our company.
But layoffs came down the tracks like the freight train that doesn’t even pause when a car is in the way. We had to “align expenses with revenues,” and revenues were in the crapper. The philosophy that had served us well through the years stopped at the bottom line.
I was given a number to cut: I can’t remember whether it was a number of people or a total salary figure. Whichever it was, my first reaction was a simple “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I can’t do this.”
A variation of Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief set in. Denial was the longest stage. the leadership of the company avoided it for months. We cut costs mercilessly, while singing an optimistic tune. Trips were eliminated, positions not filled and raises were slowed.
Then, once the decision to cut people was made, I was furious. I thought the company’s leadership — including myself — had avoided the reality and worked on the wrong things when we could have been positioning ourselves for the future. We had seemed incapable of preparing or of thinking beyond the next monthly numbers. (One pressman — a pressman! — said after the announcement that laying off so many in the newsroom was short-sighted and wrong-headed: “It’s cutting our seed corn,” he said.)
I spent little time in Kubler-Ross’ arguing or depression stages. I had lost the battle, and I try to move forward every day without worrying much about what I had lost. Besides, who could I talk with? As you might imagine, everything about this was highly classified. The company’s leaders could talk with no one except each other.
I suppose I hit acceptance, the fifth stage, about the time I actually started planning which positions to cut. I say positions because we were instructed to think about cutting jobs, not people. We were eliminating the position from the organization, therefore the person in the position was no longer needed. It was business, not personal.
It is exactly as you would think: a cold-hearted, ruthless process.
But in reality, it was personal.
I wrote every position in the newsroom — more than 100 — on Post-Its, creating a massive org chart. I moved the Post-Its around, taking some off the board and putting some back. The first seven or eight positions to take off weren’t difficult. We had a few standing vacancies, and some jobs were clearly luxuries, left over from the golden days of 25 percent margins. One position I eliminated had been filled a few weeks earlier, and the person hadn’t yet reported to work. I let her come in and laid her off. She was angry that I hadn’t told her before her first day. (By reporting to work, she became an employee and would get a decent severance.)
The next fulltimers10 were brutal. Not only were they filled with journalists who wanted the job and likely loved the work. They had families. They were people I cared about and who trusted me to look out for their interests. I was wracked with the realization that I had failed them…and by all the consequences that failure meant to their lives.
Eventually, I had to purposely forget the person filling the position, which was as hard as it sounds. We were going to lose some outstanding journalists, and it made my heart sink every time I thought about it.
I felt so guilty. And alone.
As I stared at the flip chart covered with now-eliminated Post-Its, I realized that the mission of the newspaper would need to change. We couldn’t cover the news the way we had for years. Too many beats were going to go uncovered. And once the word got out to the community that we were cutting 15 percent or so of our news staff, our credibility would be in trouble.
While I knew deep down that would provide an opportunity to reinvent the paper for the 21st century community, I wasn’t ready to deal with that yet. I couldn’t plan that without help. That had to wait.
On a companywide scale, planning the layoff announcements was like planning a secret military strike. We were given a rough script for our conversations with the departing employees. Our comments were to be concise and brief. It wasn’t a difficult spiel, but it was sterile and unfeeling, as if we weren’t supposed to acknowledge that we had hired these folks and worked with them, in some cases, closely. We weren’t supposed to express remorse or regret, a rule that I think every department head broke.
We were all assigned representatives of our human resources department and the two of us would meet with each individual separately. They would get the news, get information about benefits and severance, and then a security guard would escort them from the building.
Of course, the night before the day of layoffs I got little sleep. That morning, I likely looked as hollow as I felt. I was focused. I knew what had to happen, and I knew the effect it would have. I just needed to get it done with as much grace and compassion as I could.
I was only moderately successful on the last part.
I told the top editors and left them in shock. I can’t remember if I told them which employees were out, but I’m sure I did. They had the same operational questions I did — why this was happening, how would this work, what would we give up. I said we would need to figure all that out, but that we definitely needed to stop doing some things. My message was clear: We would not respond by doing more or working harder — an embarrassingly stupid thing some people say. I wasn’t going to say that the products we produced weren’t going to be affected — another embarrassingly stupid thing some people say. We had to narrow our focus to the important things.
At 1 p.m. the HR rep and I were to begin the meetings in a room in the HR department. As instructed, I had set up a schedule to meet with each affected employee — every 20 minutes, I think — and had my assistant to tell each employee to meet me in HR at the specified time. That, in essence, let everyone know something bad was happening. We had had discussion after discussion on the best way to handle it, but as it turned out, there was no best way.
It went FUBAR pretty quickly. Employees came early for their meetings and backed up. By 2 p.m. there was a line outside the door. Everyone knew what was happening and they awaited the guillotine. A few were weeping.
The responses inside the meeting room varied. Some understood and were stoic. Some were kind. One swept the files from the table onto the floor and stormed from the room 30 seconds into my remarks, shouting some choice words about my character. I’m surprised that that didn’t bother me; I understood it.
The day ground on. In the end, I had to meet with several part-timers at once, just to get them all completed. The impersonalness of that was particularly galling to me; some of them – editorial assistants who worked random nights — I didn’t even know.
Update: One of the journalists not laid off reminded me that while I was laying people off, word of what was happening leaked into the newsroom from a reporter in Winston-Salem. None of the editors who knew would confirm or deny, which put them in the most awkward position.
When those meeting were over, I went upstairs to address the remaining newsroom staff.
They were waiting. A few were angry, but most were sad about the layoffs of their friends and worried about their own future. It’s a testament to the newsroom that they seemed to respect the process even as they hated it.
I remember clearly how I started: “I just met with a few dozen outstanding journalists and told them that they didn’t have jobs here anymore, and it sucked.” I told them what happened, how I felt and what I thought it would mean. I was as honest and as direct as I could be. I declined to name names — we had been instructed not to out of respect for the laid off employees — one of many HR curiosities that seemed to defy common sense.
I answered every question I could. I’m sure I was more stoic than I should have been. It’s pretty much my way, and I was already emotionally drained.
Several employees came to my office to ask questions they weren’t comfortable asking in public. A few asked about me, which was kind and meaningful to me.
I went through my exit routine, stopping briefly at the various editing circles and checking on the front page for the next day. I wanted to be seen and to give folks another chance to talk. I spent the most time with the night copy desk folks because they were a feisty group and I liked them. I wanted them to have a separate crack at me.
When I left, I went straight to a reception for one of my daughters’ soccer teams. I could have skipped it, but I wanted to be around people and I knew there was beer there. I told the host how I’d spent the day. He briefly commiserated, then put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’ve been on the other side. Your people had it much tougher today than you.”
He was right, of course. I still had a job.
I wept when I got home. Wept from guilt, from regret, from stress. Wept because I knew this was the beginning of the end for me and the paper.
In the ensuing days, it was clear that a bond between the company and the employee was broken. The deal had been this:
They would work hard, do good work, miss family dinners, have coworkers critique their work, hear from readers that they were stupid and biased and worse.
We would give them a place to do what they loved, a paycheck and job security. We could no longer provide the security.
After that day, that covenant wasn’t ever fully restored.
Last month, I told a student who interviewed me for a school project that that day had traumatized me.
I had fired too many good people who had done absolutely nothing to deserve it, except come to work for the wrong company at the wrong time. With it came the eventual realization that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the journalistic mission I had set for myself and for the paper.
I stayed on, but in the five years before I finally quit, we had three more layoffs, although not nearly as large as the first. After each, we caught our breath, thought we were out of the woods and even got to hire a few people. (I went back to the people we had laid off to see if they wanted to return. Some did and are still working at the paper.)
But we never were out of the woods. We really never created a survival strategy that went beyond cutting.
In retrospect, I believe I stayed three years too long. Not because I lost my love for journalism or for newspapering. I lost my will to keep battling the alligators in a company that had a different vision than I. (The newspaper has new owners and, in the past three years, virtually all of the top leaders from my time are gone.)
Do not misread this: I’m still optimistic for the future of journalism and new ways of telling stories and nourishing democracy. There are so many smart, innovative people working on solutions based on people and community and service — rather than on protecting the way we do things — that journalism will flourish. I’m fortunate to teach some of them.