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The Day They Came for Him

September 9th, 2011 · 4 Comments · Abu Dhabi, Baseball, Hong Kong, Journalism, Newspapers, Sports Journalism, The National, UAE

The guy who laid me off 3.5 years ago had his own moment with the sharp end of the “consolidation” side of print journalism last week. That is to say, he’s out of newspapers and apparently is unemployed.

Here is the typically code-riddled e-mail to the people who worked for him:

“It is with mixed feelings that I announce I will be leaving the company, effective Sept. 9, to venture out on my own. I appreciate the opportunities and support the company and all of you have given me the past 10 years. These newspapers have been and will remain a big part of my life. A succession plan will be forthcoming.”

Let’s do the usual parsing of “what actually is being said” in the paragraph above.

“Mixed feelings” means the choice to leave newspaper wasn’t his. If he’s going on to something better or even different, he wouldn’t have to describe his emotional state.

“Venture out on my own” is telling, too. This is not the best time in the history of American business to go out and start your own endeavor. Credit is hard to come by. Start-ups are failing at a high rate. Unless he has some grand idea for an IT firm and some Chinese bankers as sugar daddies …

At its extreme, “venture out on my own” brings to mind a guy wandering Skid Row and frequenting soup kitchens. Selling blood plasma. But at least he didn’t trot out the hackneyed and presumably never accurate pledge of a preference “to spend more time with my family.”

“A succession plan” is a little jarring. We usually mention “succession” when referring to royals. A poor choice of words, because it gives us a bit more insight into how he viewed his relationship versus the commoners who toiled for him, and suggests he was in charge of a room longer than was healthy for him.

My biggest problem with this guy, during the meltdown of print journalism and, specifically, the newspaper group for which he worked, was that he apparently had no real problem laying off people. Because if he did, he wouldn’t have overseen round after round after round of layoffs.

The business has shown us more than a few managers (Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times comes to mind) who refused to make cuts and were fired or who chose to quit before overseeing the destruction of their staffs and their newspapers. Those people are journalism heroes.

My former employer was not one of them. My rule of thumb, as outlined on this blog a few years ago, was that every manager gets one round of layoffs. Maybe two. But to stick around for three, four, five rounds of cuts, well, you’re pretty much just a career executioner, aren’t you?

Honestly, though, I take no pleasure in his apparent journalism demise. Like many of us, he is of an age and has the sort of income history that will make it very difficult for him to find a job in print for something resembling his salary, as of last week. Newspapers are trying to shed guys in their 50s, not add them. In any capacity.

Whatever else could be said about this individual, I never doubted that he cared deeply about newspapers. If he were 20 years older, he would have missed the mess we’re now in.

However, he probably never should have been a manager (I’d like to talk to the guy who first thought promoting him was a good idea …). But he loved the concept of print journalism, and I believe he got the sort of rush out of it that those of us who have given our lives to it can recognize and appreciate.

Even as an editor and later, a publisher, he persisted (far as I can tell; I’ve been out of touch a long while now) in writing a weekly op-ed column and getting involved in local politics. I’m guessing he was one of those guys who began reading newspapers to follow sports teams, and dreamed of being a sports writer … and eventually was excited to be in a newsroom, and then to get paid for it, and promoted for it …

Yes, he was a print guy. He believed it mattered, he talked a lot about the First Amendment and probably even believed in a newspaper’s duties in this regard.  He wanted to make a difference, even though his ability to make that happen eroded markedly over the past five years.

I still believe he took some pleasure in making me “venture out on my own.” My relationship with the guy had deteriorated in the previous year; he was prickly and capricious, as many managers are, and I concede I thought I would outlast him as I had outlasted every editor before him. He probably read that in me and was annoyed by my, yes, arrogance.

But with hindsight, I choose to believe now that I was laid off at the time I was … because my salary was just too conspicuous. Given a choice between firing a couple of newbies and the old guy who questioned managers and made too much money, it was an easy choice, and arguably the intelligent course for him.

As it turns out, he did me a favor, kicking me loose in March of 2008. Not that he intended that …

I got out into the market just ahead of the surge of really sweeping layoffs, which were coming hot and heavy in the following 18 months or so. This turned out to be an advantage.

That gave me a shot at stringing for the New York Times before they were snowed by applicants … it allowed me to work four months in Hong Kong with the International Herald Tribune while they were still bringing in outsiders to do temp work on the desk … and the time in Hong Kong established my news editing bona fides sufficiently to be hired for a news editing job in Abu Dhabi.

I have been at The National in the UAE for nearly two years now, and I love and never discount how lucky I am to remain in the profession I know and love. I have seen parts of the world and covered people and events I never would have been around, had this man not booted me out the door.

At the end, then, I don’t fault him for firing me. My problem is with the 40 or 50 or 100 people, however many it was, whom he fired after me, and the publications whose steep declines he oversaw … before they came to get him, too.


4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Dilbeck // Sep 11, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    You’re a bigger man than me. Of course, I never actually met this man who overruled my editor and said to lay me off. Still, all things considered, you were pretty even-handed in your appraisal. I hate that I love this business so.

  • 2 David // Sep 11, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    Like Steve, I have to give you credit for being pretty fair. My own executioner had his turn on the chopping block recently and I couldn’t manage a bit of sympathy.

    But this touches on something I’ve believed for a long time: One of the reasons newspapers are in the fix they’re in (although certainly not the primary one) is that it does such a lousy job of developing managers. They’re either up-through-the-ranks writers and editors whose skill set is poorly matched to their new positions, or MBAs who don’t really appreciate that running the Daily Planet isn’t exactly the same as overseeing Universal Widget.

  • 3 Lee Calkins // Sep 13, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    Steve announced in a staff meeting “you all (reporters and photographers) will be obsolete in five years”. That was eight years ago. I just had a deep feeling that “King Steven” really despised us at the Daily Facts. Many very poor decisions on his part had a negative result on our ability to produce anything meaningful.

  • 4 Emily // Sep 13, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    THANK YOU for writing this, Paul. So well stated and so very classy. I can’t say I’m surprised he’s out – yet I’m shocked. I thought he had wedged himself permanently behind the guns. As it turns out, they were on swivels.
    I feel a sweet sense that karma has finally arrived. Like you, Paul, I am grateful that I was ousted when I, too, could still turn my own ship around. I have created a completely new resume of skills, experiences, and jobs since the day 5 years ago that he smugly sat there and told me they were done “putting up with” me. Looks like they were done with him, too. Shame that “executioning” isn’t a marketable and transferable skill.

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