Tag Archives: layoffs

Why journalism keeps breaking my heart

The news this week that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had left the industry for a job that could better pay the bills certainly caught my attention, although the path Rob Kuznia made from The Daily Breeze in southern California to the public relations field is a very familiar one.

So I didn’t think much more about it; this has happened so many times and will continue, to many people I know. Even by going into non-profit PR for a Holocaust-related organization in higher education Kuznia boosted his income by 25 percent over his newspaper salary.

What brought me to gut-wrenching tears by the end of the week was all the piling on in many of the same news media corners that have been shedding staff for years. That, too, shows no signs of letting down, although there aren’t many more people to cut.

This in The Washington Post illustrates the journalism-to-PR ratio that has become alarming, and the concentration of journalists in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles.

While those are sobering numbers, Felix Salmon of Fusion was just maddening, as he likes to be, in declaring there likely will be no such thing as a digital journalism career. His usual dismissiveness really angered me when he cranked out this paragraph, clearly designed for his site’s millennial audience:

When you see a company like Vox Media investing millions of dollars in Vox.com, the youth of the founders is a feature, not a bug. When you see companies like Gawker Media or BuzzFeed building newsrooms of young people, that’s partly because young people are cheaper and hungrier, but it’s also because they’re better at doing these very new things than their more experienced colleagues might be.

Permission to commit age discrimination is how I interpreted the end of that remark, which is categorically untrue. Salmon later touts “old fashioned specific expertise” as being necessary for success in journalism in the future.

You know, what those cranky old farts being tossed out into the street were pretty good at, but that is increasingly being devalued in the digital age. The kind of expertise that millennials are not being taught, at least not as stringently as my generation was.

It’s not their fault; it’s the environment they’re in, in which mentoring and cultivating things like sources, news judgment and craft are seen as luxuries, not essentials of the profession.

Kuznia, 38, appears to be an exception, but he’s had to leave what he loved behind, as so many of us have, either by force of layoffs or by the reality of a grim future if they stayed.

On Friday, I almost lost it at work when I read this post from former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson about 2007 layoffs he had to impose. After the ugly business had been done, there was this:

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.

The following year, I took a buyout from my former newspaper, and last year, I was laid off from a job editing a community news site. Two dislocations in less than seven years have taken a toll, but I still can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.

In addition to occasional sports freelancing, I’m also contract web producer at a public radio station, work that I enjoy and that keeps me in the business.

It’s a business that grows ever more fragile, and I may have to face the same crossroads as Kuznia. It’s the kind of decision I’ve desperately tried to avoid having to make. But at 54, I realize I’ve beaten the odds a lot longer than some of my peers.

What’s been more agonizing than the loss of jobs — which has been bad enough —  has been to watch a decent way of life virtually disappear before your eyes.

Covering school boards, zoning cases, high school football games, chamber of commerce luncheons and community theatre wasn’t work that was ever going to make anyone but publishers and high-ranking editors rich.

But the work was never boring, and most days being a journalist never felt like having a job. It was so much more than that, despite the low pay, long hours and ultimately for those of my age, rotten prospects to retire in relative comfort and security.

I remain bullish on the creative possibilities of digital journalism, but the financial component remains elusive. Journalists of my generation probably cannot afford to hold out for a new “golden age” to realize itself.

But while I don’t want to have to step away from something that’s been in my blood since I was a high school freshman, I have to admit I have been thinking long and hard lately about making a clean break. And not for the first time.

This week’s events rekindled that reality with a sledgehammer.

Is it ever too late to reinvent a career?

A late 50-something executive with an MBA, regarded as a leading figure in his field, gets laid off with a nice (nearly $200k) severance payment and is having extreme difficulty getting a job.

Michael Blattman, with a long career in the student loan business, has sent out 600 job applications in the last 18 months, and has had only three interviews. Imagine the rapid downward spiral that has him on the ropes emotionally, if not financially just let. Let him tell you how he feels:

“Here’s the reality. I used to be somebody, I had a job. Not anymore. Everything ground to a halt. No sense of purpose. No self-esteem.”

There’s nothing in this personally revealing piece that indicates whether Blattman has contemplated switching fields or using some of his severance to start a business, or at least do some self-employed consulting work while job-hunting. At his age none of these options is easy, and the way the job market works now — especially in this economy — is a cold shock to those who haven’t had to look in decades. It must be an absolutely overwhelming feeling of paralysis and the fear of change.

But do I know someone his age whose position was eliminated after four decades with one company. He also got a nice severance, though probably not close to Blattman’s sum. After months of grueling consultations with a career counselor, accountants, lawyers and small business owners, he’s launching his own company. It’s a difficult grind, and several times a week the long days are extended by evenings at networking and business association meetings.

What is even more daunting than jumping in the deep end is passively sending out tons of job applications. This tactic simply isn’t going to cut it in this economy. I haven’t sent out nearly as many as Blattman, but I know this firsthand. I just got a reply today from a job application I sent out more than a month ago: “We are unable to further your candidacy for this specific position . . . ”

Can’t you just feel the human warmth exuding from those words? At least there was the courtesy of a response; I’ve not heard from from at least a half dozen black holes for jobs whose qualifications I meet or exceed.

I realize that some displaced workers can’t, or won’t, be able to cut it striking out on their own. I know several people who keep sending them out constantly, landing an interview here or there, but little more than that. They’ve never thought of anything else but going back into the workaday world, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

But as it appears that any economic recovery will likely be a jobless one, plenty of professionals of all age groups are trying to create something for themselves. As I wrote about last week, many are mid-career or older, having the same fruitless experience looking for a job, competing with workers who could be their children. No surprise whom employers are going to choose for the jobs they do have.

If I could suggest a few things to Blattman, it would be these: Expand your network beyond people who are also unemployed; spend some of the time writing a second novel to outline a business plan; and use professional and personal contacts not just to get a full-time job, but to help find clients. The “chaotic and rude” experience sending applications via e-mail is something we’ve all come to know. Shrug it off. This is the way of the job-hunting world.

Remaining stagnant is not an option. Blattman does come to understand this:

“I’ve got to the point — no one’s going to do that for me. It’s all about me making it happen. I can’t rely on the old world to take me back.”

Another farewell column, but not the last chapter

Longtime Village Voice fixture, fierce civil libertarian and noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff admits that perusing reader comments about his involuntary separation has amounted to “hearing my obituaries while I’m still here.”

He’s been laid off, but at 83 still continues to write as a syndicated columnist and for the Washington Times and other publications, and will have two books coming out this year.

Hentoff penned his final piece for the weekly on Tuesday, and it’s a sterling one, brimming with fond memories and laced with the hard-nosed perspective of a social observer who came along in the wake of McCarthyism, when the urge to break out of social and journalistic conventions was high:

“I came here in 1958 because I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about. There was no pay at first, but the Voice turned out to be a hell of a resounding forum. My wife, Margot—later an editor here and a columnist far more controversial than I’ve been—called what this paper was creating aa community of consciousness.’ Though a small Village ‘alternative’ newspaper, we were reaching many around the country who were turned off by almost any establishment you could think of.”

His views are complicated and controversial, and he refuses to mince words, especially as a pro-life advocate. Hentoff is an anomaly in our glittering, preening media age. To read through the eclectic range of his ideas and his interests is to be delighted and maddened in alternate doses.

Clyde Haberman sums him up well in the New York Times.

New York Times
A classic journalist's office / NYT

Hentoff is a contrarian not for sake of being one, but because the process of independent, critical thought — which he believed impossible without a healthy Bill of Rights and a vigilant press — often led him to iconoclastic conclusions.

And he approaches his journalism in a similar clear-eyed fashion:

” I was in my twenties when I learned my most important lesson from Izzy Stone: ‘If you’re in this business because you want to change the world, get another day job. If you are able to make a difference, it will come incrementally, and you might not even know about it. You have to get the story and keep on it because it has to be told.‘ “

Feeling fortunate in times of trouble

A Wall Street investment banker laid off and already in a substantial period of transition into what she hopes will be a new career in non-profits is welcoming the change as an opportunity to shift gears, refreshed. She writes in The New York Times on Sunday:

“The process has not been linear, but after months of being jobless, I am focused on keeping up a discipline day by day: extending my network of contacts, investigating organizations and jobs online, carefully tracking my appointments, following up on leads and meeting recruiters who specialize in this field.

“My outplacement counselor says that finding a job is a numbers game and that it will take time, as I am not a traditional candidate for many nonprofit jobs. The job won’t find me, and I have to make the case for how I could make a contribution. Renewed by rest, my confidence bolstered by the generosity of people I meet, I feel energized, eager to start a new career, and open to possibility.”

I recognize how fortunate she and those of us who’ve taken generous newspaper buyouts are as the economy nosedives further into what already may be a recession. In the same Sunday Times business section is a harrowing account of newly laid-off workers at a General Motors SUV assembly plant in a small Wisconsin town. The whole plant, now employing the remaining 1,200 of a workforce that once was 5,000, is to be shut down.

Smashing prosperity, this was, with no inkling that it could all be gone in a flash, as fuel prices skyrocketed and heavy, gas-guzzling vehicles were rendered virtually worthless. GM executives and workers alike expressed shock. They didn’t see any of this coming.

This is heartbreaking stuff, to see so many folks suffering at the shortsightedness of a major company (and its workers) who thought the good times would never end. The same mindset prevailed in the banking and home mortgage industries, triggering a potential calamity that has already plunged the global economy into chaos and . . . well, you know the rest.

Yes, I am fortunate, as I write this in an early stage of a lengthy buyout period, preparing for a journalism retraining workshop and working with a career coach for some one-on-one help in marketing my future.

Right now the short-term future, at least, doesn’t look so promising for many, many people thrown out of work, voluntarily or otherwise. In my former industry, the picture is getting bleaker.

Newspaper circulation declines haven’t just dropped: they’re on the verge of cratering, and are getting worse. My former paper had the biggest decrease in daily circulation among the top 25 American papers. On Sundays, not so much.

The august New York Times, which is still able to do the kind of national and international journalism that metro dailies are abandoning, last week announced a 51 percent drop in third quarter earnings.

Newspaper job cuts this year have thrust into five figures, at nearly 13,000 and counting. Add to that an estimated 40 percent of the newsroom staff at the Newark Star-Ledger, or about 150 more journalists before the end of the year. Happy Holidays.

But again, please keep all this in perspective. Since mid-September, nearly 20,000 tech workers have gotten the boot, with very few buyouts. And thousands more likely will lose their jobs as 2008 comes to a close. The high-profile CEO of one Silicon Valley startup pens a gut-wrenching memo to his peers on the best way to do layoffs humanely. And he let go of just eight people.

As bad as matters are for newspapers — and 2009 may be even gloomier — they could be a whole lot worse for journalists. A whole lot.