Laying off journalists

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.

48 thoughts on “Laying off journalists

  1. Thanks for writing this. It was a real shock, but I do, and did understand. I have great memories and friends and I am proud to have worked in the news room of the News & Record, and proud to have worked for you.

  2. Thanks for writing this. Great insight into a story that, in journalism years, happened long ago but has left us a changed place. Of course, I only suspected but never knew in detail what you went through. (It took us weeks to figure out who got laid off, but as good reporters do, we finally put together a list. That was certainly a strange exercise.)

  3. Regular readers of this blog know you well for the insight you provide about where daily newspapers go from here. They also get a sense of the dedication you have for your students, and how badly you want to make them good journalists and better people.

    Now they know the best thing about you – professionally and personally: You are an incredible leader. Thoughtful, compassionate, tough … I could go on but won’t, because you hate that crap.

  4. The covenant thing is so true. The relationships are never the same, even when it happens at a smaller operation like the one where I work, maybe especially when it happens at a smaller operation.
    And we’re still not out of the woods.

    • Yes, so true. This is so similar to my layoff. We lost 50 in our building, 25 in our newsroom the day that Gannett let go of 700 in one day. Trauma, shock and anger are the things I remember the most, though I was one who was laid off. I wanted to punch my editor, but I’ve softened to him over the years. Through a recent lawsuit that made HR’s documents public, I learned that he had no say in who was cut. I was hired back in a different position six months later, but things were different. I worked hard because I’m a professional, but I also stopped caring if I got fired. Once you’ve been laid off, your whole view changes. Some people work harder in the (mistaken) view that it will keep them from getting laid off again. I gave my company exactly as much as was required and no more because I knew there was zero loyalty to me. We worked with the constant knowledge that it could happen again at any time. I stayed for a year and a half and quit to go to grad school and never looked back.

      • Hey, I’m another casualty of June 21, 2011, another one of the 700. I can’t say I was totally surprised, because I was one of the ones who took the “I’m only going to do as much for them as they’ll do for me” attitude — which I have no regrets about. I know others who stayed and continue fall over themselves trying to cling to their job and survive the neverending layoffs, and it’s almost painful to watch the desperation and denial. As far as my layoff goes, I have no ill-will to my immediate editor, who has since been let go. Actually, his layoff angered me, as he was the only leader with a brain in that outfit. But I will admit I hate the institution, and a part of me looks forward to the inevitable day it will fold. That place treated so many people poorly, its higher leaders were so horrible — both in their incompetency and coldness — which I will never forgive. I’ve got a job now that pays about $7,000 less, but I am about 7,000 times happier in it. I hope you enjoy the same coda to your journalism career as well.

  5. Trauma is also an apt way to put the impact as well. I’m getting some flashbacks to my own situations by reading your account. It’s helpful, though.

  6. John’s description of the 2007 Greensboro firings illustrates how these always-awful situations should unfold – with denial, guilt, anger and ultimately acceptance and a caring attitude and thoughts of what can I do to help, even if it’s minimal. I’ve been in the same seat as JR, and hope I fared as well in handling it. And I’ve been on the other side of the coin, in several situations, as a recipient and an observer, and know how uncaring it can be, like “oh, at least we survived; they’ll be fine.” It all comes down to the individual character of the “presenter, the executioner” – whatever you call it. HR people are not there to teach you how to be caring, but to prevent suits, bad info and get the process done. Folks like JR learned the caring part elsewhere. Thank goodness.

    • Thanks, John. I learned the caring part from my mother, or course, and from Jane Sharp, who comments elsewhere on this page.

  7. Wow JR, a painfully accurate piece that has my stomach in knots just recalling the day from Hell. I was pressed back into HR “service” to help with the meetings: the nadir of my career. The folks on the other side of the desk were such great colleagues — from every dept — who were dedicated to their N&R careers. The abruptness took my breath away. Thanks for your honesty; it’s a quality in you that has never ever waivered.

    • Jane, you were my rock through all of this. I should probably go back and change that line about being alone. I really wasn’t alone; you were there. Thank you.

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  9. My god, what an awful position to be in. Thanks, John, for sharing your feelings about going through this process. I’m glad you’ve found another place where you can enjoy sharing your knowledge and skills.

  10. As JLR hints, perhaps the worst part of doing something like this is the way you are hamstrung by HR and corporate cover-your-ass-against-possible-litigation rules (I’m talking UK here). It makes it impossible to treat friends and colleagues in a humane and decent way. They ask perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions and all you are allowed to give them is the same empty formulaic company line.You want to behave like a human being but instead have to behave like an automaton parrotting a sterile script. I felt some of the people I’ve had to fire would have been fully entitled to hit me and I’m damned sure I wanted to hit my boss.

    • Yep, same thing here, Terry. It was inhumane and made the rest of the employees think of the company as cold and you as a prick.

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  12. You were and always will be the best boss I ever worked for. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you believing in me. That’s a fact. Although I do miss our talks and your mentoring, I’m glad to see you happier now. The best part for me was earning your friendship. You left an indelible mark on this newspaper. In a great way. And on me. I think I speak for most people who worked for you when I say I hope we continue to make you proud of your newspaper.

  13. the best laid plans of…however, for one’s SELF respect (without which NOTHING means ANYthing…just sociobiology thus pointless) all of this means, I believe that for life to have any real (worthy)relevance, one must rmphasize the word in what ever language of CARING for all others in whatever degree we can, and also while first duty to one’s wedded (old-timey?) wife and children, and provide at least basics, ready andwilling, even eager, for personal sacrifice for others, as many as we can reach, and ever ever finding time for the great duty also to as Steven Weinberg, astro-physics, nobel prize( tho often tainted too, to as Weinberg states it:
    also ‘ Ask (pursue assiduously) the Big Questions, for that even (ultmately) the ONLY way to lift ourselves above the level of FARCE and achieve some of the grace of tragedy.” “First Three Minutes–Theory of the Big Bang,” last three pages of that book. Read also E>O Wilson, ant expert, on socio-biology. Ah the great philosophers of all time, especially the ancient Greeks) emphasizing CARING (“selfishless”love for everybody. But beware of whatever huscster that may be in my also ion the Darwinian kingdom). Nad also my haviving been born in the culture of the Old South, but realizing our species MUST strive to work as unselflesly as we can, forothers, not ourselves, though in one sense THAT implies sameness, too. Forgive this ramble of Mel Brooks’ 2000 year old man, but CARE as widely as your dna wil allow though as Weinberg concldes, everything may be only random nothingness–darinian. sigh.

  14. This is painful to read – and really focuses attention on the human cost of corporate layoffs. (I worked at a company where the HR people congratulated themselves on how awesome they were to those they laid off. Not pretty at all.)

    News media has not yet figured out how to monetize its services – it’s an incredible problem for a nation that requires the “fourth estate” to provide news and attention to what key figures are doing.

  15. John, I was your HR partner that day. I remember it clearly as you described. It has been one of the toughest days of my HR career and at the N&R. It was very personal. I’ve had many more days of eliminating jobs since then. Despite what others may think, it hasn’t gotten easier. I’ve just learned to cope differently.

    Thanks for finally sharing.

  16. I was reluctant to read the post, because I knew how it would make me feel, with all the sad memories of that fateful day flooding back. I stuck around seven years after that, and like you, figure it was a few too many. I never could have envisioned that the long ending would play out the way it did, with Landmark gone and never-ending uncertainty about the future of the paper and the people who toiled to make it good. But it’s also nice to be reminded of the times, under your leadership John, that made going to work every day a pleasure. You have moved on, and that’s what I need to do.

  17. You and others should have seen this coming.

    Newspapers have been making stupid decisions for decades. As long as people in newsrooms were dumb enough to believe they could market a product requiring reading to non-readers, the battle was lost.

    The belief that a newspaper could design its way to success while downplaying editing is one of the more amazingly stupid product decisions in U.S. history. Yet many newspapers ran with that belief.

    Take blame. It’s yours if you didn’t try to fix that philosophy.

    Also, Romenesko worshipers are sheep. Baaaa.

  18. I left newspaper reporting in 1999 after nearly 20 years, just before the layoffs and cut-backs began to take hold. But when they happened I remember, like the commentator above, how routinely reporter covered layoffs – really firings – by corporations, forgetting about the human toll in their reporting. In my first internship, I reported on the call-backs at the Detroit car companies in the mid-1980s after what was then true temporary layoffs. I reported on the how those workers had suffered in the months of not being fully employed. Reporters stopped doing that in the ’90s and allowed corporations to reduce their firings to numbers and jobs and not to firing people. So when it finally began to happen in the newspaper industry, I can only say that at least reporters and editors finally got to know how it feels to be reduced to a number and a position and not treated as a human being. Hopefully, it is a lasting lesson in how journalists should never forget the humans behind their stories.

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  20. John:
    Heart wrenching story but I have to tell you that from my standpoint you should have been prepared for this. As a senior executive of a 58,000 circulation daily the signs should have been obvious to you as early as 2005 that things were beginning to change in our industry. Having over 100 staffers in your news room was something a paper your size could not afford in 2005 or 2006 let alone by 2007. All the signals were pretty clear. The 63,000 daily that I oversaw went through its’ first reduction in force in early 2006 and by 2007 we were down to three in sports, a five person copy desk and half the body count in the rest of the news room that we had enjoyed at the beginning of the century.
    I’m sorry you had to have those rose colored glasses ripped off so violently, but you should have seen it coming.

  21. While I understand this was written about your experience, laying off journalist should have been how to kill we killed an industry. All journalist continue to think it was only about you and your articles. You failed to understand that what allowed you, in the first place, to freely spend your way to conferences and lunches wherever was the sales of ad space. The dowfall began with MBO’s. Today’s papers have just plain forgotten how to sell print because the industry taking over news reporting is way too easy. Nobody believes much of anything read on-line, due to photo shop as well as political motives. Print while politcally motivated was understood and wanted by readers just as it is today with our generation. Yes I was in sales and yes print could be sold today. Current sales management have just joined the what’s in it for me until I can retire. They have forgotten what the reader of news wants in their hand.

  22. I used to work for a Landmark paper (Roanoke) back in the day of big profits and when it had the feel of a family. And when Frank Batten Jr. was a reporter there. When I heard about Landmark layoffs years later (and other layoffs in general), the one item that struck me as particularly humiliating, though, I assume, necessary, was being marched out the door by a security guard. Ugly. Although I was laid off once upon a time by UPI, I knew it was coming and it was done long distance, so there was no security guard.

  23. Having been on the receiving end of both a buyout and layoff elsewhere, I really do appreciate this. The hardest part, however, isn’t just losing a job, but facing the prospects of having to something else when doing the news was all you desired. It wasn’t a career; it was a way of life. Seven years after my first dislocation, the experience still seems so raw and jarring.

  24. I’m not trying to be rude, but reading this, “….nourishing democracy,” told me that you still don’t understand the demise of American newspapers.

    Long live the Republic.

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  27. You’re brave to write this. It’s easy to forget the trauma inflicted on those unwillingly inflicting trauma. I can’t imagine how hard that day was for you.

  28. I can understand what you went though, However, not first hand.
    I can see that you struggled and dealt with it with compassion and Understanding.
    And wish you well in your future endeavors.

  29. Thanks for sharing John. As one who got the word from you, I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled but also couldn’t hide from the fact that my position was a luxury.
    It was a challenging time afterward for a bit, but I moved on and have gone to bigger things in this industry. Couldn’t have done it without everything I learned from all the good people at the N&R. When I look back my time there, I think about all the good experiences and people. Those were some fun days and nights going after stories.

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