I tried telling myself I was just being paranoid. There were any number of reasons I could’ve been called down to my publisher’s office at Southern R.I. Newspapers’ Wakefield headquarters at 9:30 a.m. on a March Friday morning.
It could’ve involved some major changes at the East Greenwich Pendulum, the weekly newspaper for which I had served as the main news reporter since June 2010. Maybe it was a promotion, or a reassignment within SRIN’s family of papers. Perhaps the Pendulum won a Rhode Island Newspaper Association award, and our publisher, Nanci Batson, wanted to let me know in person.
But having been laid off twice before during a 28-year career in the newspaper business, it wasn’t paranoia. It was experience and wisdom smacking me mercilessly upside the head. When I walked into Nanci’s office and saw a document on the table, I didn’t have to read the fine print. The big right uppercut to the liver felt familiar, though.
She said all the polite and apologetic things. I’m not into bridge burning (I still freelance for the Pendulum). But she could’ve at least offered me a blindfold and a cigarette.
During my sleepless night while waiting for that fateful Friday morning meeting, I recalled the recent carnage at our sister daily papers, the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times. Just a week earlier, during my pre-show schmoozing at the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, I learned from several of my former Call colleagues about another round of buyouts and layoffs (the second since I left in 2004) at the two papers, which are being smooshed together in all but name, to the point where longtime reporters of each paper were being shipped to the other at least once a week. Kind of like the Boston Red Sox putting Daniel Bard on the bus down I-95 when the PawSox need a second starting pitcher for a doubleheader.
And one month before, South County Newspapers, publisher of our main print competition, the North-East Independent, announced layoffs, with the casualties including its East Greenwich reporter. Competitively, good news for my team, right? In any other business, perhaps.
It nagged me that my company had a chance to solidify its hold on a market through our competition’s pullback. Instead, it became just another convenient opportunity to hack at bone (four other heads in SRIN rolled along with mine) thanks to South County’s decision. I am not an MBA (just the son of one), but is that sound business practice?
The irony really hit home at a recent Greenwich Odeum restoration planning meeting, while talking a little shop with Odeum board chairman Frank Prosnitz, a former Providence Journal copy editor and Providence Business News editor who has since entered the public relations field.
“When you came to town,” he said, “I figured the changes in the business meant we were at least getting some experienced reporters coming to community newspapers.”
If only such things mattered, Frank.
So much for the job I hoped would launch me back close to where I had been, as a copy editor at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, before I was laid off in February 2009. All I will say about my salary at the Pendulum was that, as a veteran journalist, my weekly paycheck was smaller than the weekly unemployment check I received from the state of Massachusetts (which, at 50 percent, is a lower portion of salary than R.I. unemployment compensation).
My first layoff, though, was in 1995. I returned to work from vacation only to be called into the office of then-managing editor Karen Bordeleau (now the Journal’s deputy executive editor) and informed that Bob Jelenic, the legendary CEO of The Call, had decreed a smaller newsroom. More precisely, a smaller copy desk, on which I was low man in seniority after seven years at the paper and four full-time on the desk.
Three months later, in November, I interviewed for an irregular extra job on the Journal copy desk (variable amount of work each week, no benefits), made the cut, surrendered some hair for the drug test and was slated to start in January. But in early December, The Call called me back (ironically, for an opening created after Karen was fired, a decision perhaps even more outrageous and ill-advised than my layoff. If you ever want to set a former JRC employee’s head afire and hear some of George Carlin’s favorite words, just say “Jelenic”).
I went back. As an unmarried guy at the time, I needed the health care.
Eventually, I found a copy desk opening at the Telegram & Gazette, where I spent 4½ years of feeling I had finally made it into a well-paying job in this business. Then its owner, The New York Times Co. (yes, the same organization you hear denounced on talk radio and by politicians as this flaming liberal monolith), decided it was time to do some hacking, through layoffs and buyouts. Falling just short of making the seniority cut, I had to take the buyout, and was able to at least walk away with some cash and free health care for a year. A few more colleagues laid off six months later didn’t have the buyout option. That $15 million golden handshake Times CEO Janet Robinson received at her retirement? She owes us more than one drink.
To the people who dismiss mainstream media as controlled by liberals (like those who complain that Charlie Bakst and Bob Kerr have dictated the Journal’s agenda): take a look at the people who are making the really important decisions. Who gets hired and who gets fired, what people get paid, how financial resources are committed. How many liberals are making those decisions?
And to those who whine about the Internet ruining the newspaper business: Please. While all types of other businesses, from Microsoft to McDonald’s, focus on improving the product if profits or market share slip, mine cuts people and resources, weakening the product further. Customers vote with their feet, turning away from it. And how does mine respond? More layoffs. And the self-fulfilling prophecy continues.
The most painful part of being an unemployed journalist is listening to people close to me question my choice of profession. My answer: for all the alleged security in accounting, my father had two significant stints of unemployment during my college days, when companies were bought and merged out from under him. That’s what he did, and this is what I do. The occasional pity party breaks out, and I look for the door.
Yes, my profession and its travails have cost me plenty in recent years, both financially and personally. Maybe I could’ve jumped the train safely earlier in life.
But it’s given me friends, memories, the satisfaction of knowing I’m skilled, versatile and respected in the field I’ve chosen, and some opportunities I look forward to pursuing – makes me a pretty lucky guy.
Being a journalist in 2012 means you get knocked down (or are likely to). But you also get up again. And so have, and will, I.