I work for a newspaper. In two and a half weeks, I will no longer work for a newspaper. I have been laid off. I began keeping this log when I first received my severance package, but held off on the blog until I received confirmation that I would be laid off. So, here are the past two weeks. The remaining entries will be live.
The first time the manila envelopes were passed out, back in May, a section editor sitting nearby let out an unearthly yowl when the boss handed her one. There weren't so many that time – it felt personal
This time, when every FTE in the room received a packet, there were jolly “Thank yous!” all around. I took mine as if it were the annual report – whoop-de-do. I asked my boss for my husband's, since he works outside the office. She hesitated a moment, not sure it was proper. But heck, who didn't have one? Just two part-timers in the room.
I've been looking forward to the packet. It's tough living in a household supported by two journalists. I have applied for other jobs – one of which I really wanted to do. Every day we didn't know when they would announce more cuts or whether they would provide any severance.
The package has a two options, with varying levels of insurance and pay or a non-insurance option. My husband and I briefly discussed the options, planning to talk more later.
But later, we fell fast asleep. Then he kept sleeping while I got up and read and crocheted and thought about the future. We have plans.
But the packages come with a twist-tie: If you opt to take the buyout, management might elect not to let you go. Hard to make too many plans that way.
I was up until 3, and took longer to fall asleep.
This is the fullest day of the week – pushing lots of copy through just a few people, including a temporary worker who just started this week. In the midst of going down, we are switching to a new publishing system, and our main desk person will be working fulltime on learning the system well enough to train the full staff.
At 2, the department had to go to a training meeting, for a new AP delivery system. I'm thinking “People, I won't BE here! I don't need this!”
Nobody is saying much about staying or going. Holding their cards close.
I don't think any of my copy desk peers will accept the package.
This afternoon, a photographer asked me: “You throw away that brown envelope yet?” No, no yet.
Joe and I don't fight. We just don't. We don't even fuss. But we had a hard time this evening. A slightly late unpaid bill was the catalyst. Some second-tier family issues had been simmering as well, so our resources were stretched a bit thin. The thought of stepping into the future with just a bit of a safety net casts a new light on everything from the phone bill to the cost of food coloring (almost five dollars! what's that about?) to the possibility of a weekend getaway. Any late bill, to my mind, didn't have any place in that mix. We worked through it, but it was not our usual way of communicating. Despite the fundamental good of our plans, stepping away from a regular paycheck is a stressful thing.
Also today: A talented longtime section editor who was let go in the last round of buyouts (let go – is that the right term – more about the concept of voluntary separation later) was asked to come back on contract to coordinate a special section. We weren't going to do the section, but advertising decided, rather late in the game, that we should. Nobody else could have put it together so quickly. And there simply aren't enough section editors left to do it (full disclosure: We put out 11, make that 10, sections. The last round of layoffs left us with one section editor. If you are holding a features section from our paper, it is something of a miracle.) Truth be told, she was so adept at this job that nobody else could have done it in that time frame. She agreed to return on contract and do the section. Today she left again.
If anybody else is considering the buyout package, they're not saying so. I have been working for the paper for 10 years, which brings me nearly to the max buyout that the paper is providing (up to 26 weeks; one option gives me 22 weeks). The package won't get better.
Today I cleared out one drawer and two boxes, in between editing copy and sorting books.
I have a lot of boxes. Last year, I became the book editor, as a result of an attempt to reduce staff by irritating them to the point that they would leave voluntarily. In short: They made the book editor the “ideas editor” (we still don't know what this is). Our readers, prompted in part by an email campaign by the books editor, rose up. They needed a book editor and I was willing and able. However, I still kept my other two jobs: copy editor and crafts columnist (which was never really recognized as a job, but more as a hobby that I did outside of work hours). And over the past year, the workload for the copy desk has increased fourfold. We do section editor jobs, we route stories, we book sections – and, oh yes, we edit and proof copy.
My job is so enormous that many days I am paralyzed.
My husband and I have some ventures we'd like to get underway. But neither of us have time to develop them. We have talked about freeing me up so I can pursue them fulltime. Last week, during our enforced vacation time, we explored the potential of our ventures. And our consultants were very encouraging.
Now is the time.
I have made leaps before in my life. I leapt into graduate school. Twice.
I leapt out of teaching and back into journalism, when I long swore I wouldn't work for newspapers. But I couldn't afford to teach.
I took a leap out of my first marriage.
I leapt into an unexpected book contract.
I took a running leap off Jockey's Ridge, strapped to a big wing.
Joe and I married on Leap Day.
I'll take this leap, then put all my energy into making our ventures work.
Today, a Saturday, Joe worked. Since the hiring freeze last year, as people left and weren't replaced, the newspaper required Features writers to join in the weekend news rotation. Initially, it was to be two or three times a year. It has necessarily become more frequent. So Joe is working news today, covering the aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Hanna.
I was at home with a 10-year-old and two middle-schoolers. And it was a lovely day. With my stress lifting already, we worked together to prepare dinner, then put it in the fridge and went to the store. In between, we all read and played and were just together. My mind filled with the possibility of doing this more – spending more time with the kids without the worry of when I would sneak in to the office to do enough work to get the week off on a good foot. I do plan to go in tomorrow evening. But knowing that I will apply for the buyout – and feeling pretty good about them accepting it – has eased my mind quite a bit.
It's good to think that you're irreplaceable. But in fact, all the work I do can be absorbed. The previous book editor would (gleefully) resume that job. The crafts column will evaporate. The copy editing – the job that has both kept me in place and limited my ability to do my other two jobs – will be absorbed by the temporary full-time copy editor they just hired.
I am replaceable. And I'm happy about that.
I will take my crafts on the road and see what I can do with them outside the newspaper.
(I do not know what will happen with the late-night habits. Maybe doing the work I usually do at night during the day will relieve that. I am, though, drawn to the night.)
Tonight I worked into the late hours trying to gather up some book copy for Sunday. Reduction in budget has me leaning hard on the wires for reviews. Monday promises to be busy on the desk, with our primary copy editor out of pocket learning to use the new publishing system. In the afternoon, Joe and I will go to an information session on the buyouts. Those two things together are quite puzzling.
At work, I ran into the same person I saw last Sunday in the wee hours. A woman in sports who, on Sunday, has three jobs: News editor, overseeing the movement of all copy of the Monday edition; slot, doing final edit on all stories, and rim, helping edit stories along with the part-timers who work Sunday evening. Then she gets a boost on compiling copy in a weekly task that takes 10 hours to accomplish but is not built into her workweek.
Again, I say, that pile of paper that smacks onto your driveway every morning is a daily miracle.
(Also: I took two naps today. I think that the first week I'm off, I will sleep all week long.)
Here's a little something my sweetie wrote for his humor column:
As the American workforce continues to shrink — another 84,000 jobs were lost in August — corporate America continues to find new ways to say “see ya.”
At IBM, for instance, it's not a layoff, it's a “resource action." Usage: “You're part of a resource action that's going to add a thousand new jobs in India.”
On Wall Street it's called a “head count reduction,” “reduction in force” and “redundancies.”
downsize, rightsize, smartsize, workforce reduction or workforce optimization, simplification. Down at the factory you're simply “let go.”
So what do they call it at your place of employment when the grim reaper from HR pays a visit? Is the euphemism fairly clear? Or are you like the IBMer who doesn't fully understand what a resource action is until a couple of fellas from security come to escort you out the door.
Another term somebody shared today: Proactive attrition.
Here at the ranch we call it “Voluntary separation.' I went to the HR meeting today that detailed our options and answered questions geared toward optimizing the options. I found that I could do the more attractive options.
When we leave, we'll be given a letter explaining the circumstances under which we left. They make it sound like a choice, this voluntary separation – and indeed it's better than a poke in the eye and two weeks' pay. But on the letter, it's coded as a layoff.
So in the end, a layoff is a layoff.
So here's a thing that's hard to do: Plan ahead. A reviewer will ask to review a book and I have to think 1. Will I be here? and 2. If I am not here, will my successor honor this review? He will, of course, but he will also be easing back to his way of doing things. So I can' t really launch anything, like the romance column. I can set up a few weeks' worth of basics, to give him a jump start. I like what I did with the Books pages, but I'm not terribly invested in them. It will be OK if they change, because it's not about me – it's about the readers.
I have developed ADD. I do my job, but i am constantly jotting down ideas for things to do starting – soon! My brain seems to be taking the bit of space where I know I 'm leaving and filling it up with the future. I already have a huge list of tasks to do, even beyond the plans Joe & I already have. And they're all fun tasks! I'm very excited to get moving on things.
Around the office, folks give one another sideways glances – like “Are you going? Are you staying?” Or maybe it's just me, knowing that I'll be handing in my form next week.
My leaving will cause some ripples. I'm no longer one of the behind-the-scenes people. Part of my job – books – will ripple.There will be some sort of public response to it. My columnists will miss me – I'm not sure what will happen with them.
Sunday Reader – the poetry and fiction column that I have edited from acquisition to page for the past nine years – will likely be lost.
The loss of the crafts column will cause ripples as well. I haven't been able to devote much time to the crafts column since taking over books – so I'm not sure what the response will be. Something.
The copy editing should be a smooth transition. Our new person is very adept and will be able to absorb that work.
So there's me, working up to the end, getting stuff out. A few times a day, I have to make decisions that go beyond my release date. This is difficult, as I'm not sure what kind of commitment I can give. I need to provide some work for beyond my departure, so some decisions are possible.
So my mission is to stay on task for three more weeks. There's actually a clause in the separation packet that stipulates that they can renege on the agreement if you don't do your job in the transition period. That's some motivation.
09.11.08 / 09.12.08
These two days blurred together, bridged by some oddness.
Both days, I was very focused at work, getting the job done. Thursday, I multitasked, shifting from assigning books and editing book reviews to booking Home & Garden to working with page designers to proofing to copy editing. That night, I sat to do some craft blogs (which i do after hours), then my mind began spinning out ideas faster than i could capture them. I was ready to move right along into my future work – craft ideas, sales ideas, Web ideas. I wrote them all down. By the time I settled down some, it was 3:30 in the morning. At about 3:45, Joe got up to write his story. We passed in the night – he to work, I to bed.
Friday, my mind was too weary to do anything but copy edit. Which is what I did.
I'm a copy editor, you know. That's my official job title: Copy Editor II. The books editing and crafts writing and occasional other feature writing – not my job.
No wonder I'm weary. It's a futile sort of work, like building sand castles at the beach as the tide comes in. When it made a difference – and it sometimes does – it was worth the work. Now, it just wears me out. I'm ready to put my energy into something that can make a difference.
Two things today.
One: Joe & I went to Winston-Salem to have lunch with my parents & my brother and his girlfriend, who had flown in from LA. After lunch, we went to an outdoors store. Someone called out my name. It was Trish, who had left the newspaper in May, for reasons not directly related to the demise of the paper. She looked great! She is very happy and relaxed. She was never that happy at the newspaper. We had a good time catching up.
Two: Some friends at the paper had a pig pickin'. This is a cultural event peculiar to North Carolina (which I've curiously never attended despite living here nearly my whole life) that involves cooking a whole hog on the grill and chopping it up. It was a practice run for two friends who are competing in a barbecue contest. The hosts both work in features, but she used to work in News. So they had invited just about everyone at the paper. And just about everyone came. Easily 125 people filled their lawn, with kids on slip & slides and people talking “out of school.” It was great to be out in the world with these people we see in work clothes every day. The managing editor was there, but no other big-wigs. The talk was easy and fell occasionally to the buyouts. If anyone else is considering it, nobody's talking. But we talked about Plan Bs with a lot of folks. Some had looked for jobs when the first wave of buyouts came. But many are looking to stay the course, it seems.
What was palpable though was the sense of camaraderie, with everyone together for the purpose of just being there and relaxing. It was a good time.
We also talked with a former section editor who took the last buyout. She has more work than she really even wants right now – and it's all interesting work.
There are lots of options out there. And it's a happier place.
I'm looking forward to being there.
I have just made the little check mark that requests voluntary separation, option one. There's a lot of talk behind that check mark. We have thought this through and really believe that we can make a go of it. Still, when I was photocopying it for my records, I had a jump in my tummy. It's a leap
Today, when we were reading the paper, Joe discovered that the designer/copyeditor/whoever, had neglected to put in the substantial factbox that was to go with his story. Since I was in the room when it was being produced, I was able to explain how it might have happened, given that a designer was out sick and another was out on computer training and another was just learning the system. Essentially one designer put out six sections in three days. We read more of the paper. Then Joe said, “What if we both left?”
My look made him laugh out loud.
But, really, it could be either or both of us. This voluntary buyout is a luxury, really. We can choose to get a jump start on the future. One of us can strike out. It makes sense for it to be me because my job is unworkable. I have just returned from another late Sunday night of trying to get ahead. Joe, meanwhile, has a solid audience, both in print and online. They can decide that they don't want to cover health, fitness and the outdoors, but if they want to keep that there is nobody else who can do it. And Joe's online audience is valuable to this evolving newspaper business.
I, however, am replaceable. They will lose some crafts coverage, but they have another writer who covers crafters in a different way. They have someone to step into books. I have an online following, but it isn't strong because I can't reliably and predictably provide posts. I hope that I can nurture the following I have after I leave the paper. I recognize that I won't have the newspaper behind me; that makes a difference.
But if we were both cut, there would be an urgent desperation to our venture that might well kill it. We need some creative space. The severance should allow the time to nurture that as well.
It was a scary moment. I know Joe is just as eager as I am to get out of the newspaper and onto our future, and I felt a bit of it in that moment. Crazy how it seems selfish to be laid off. But this is all good. We talked about it. We've made plans. It's all in that little check mark.
And, can I say, I look forward to posting this all so you can read it – I could use some voices. So far, I'm typing this daily to capture the daily dips and rises. I don't want to go live with it until I know I am laid off. I look forward to hearing your response to this and your own tales of being laid off.
First thing today -- two days before the deadline -- I dropped my form off at HR. The VP was very nice, asking me if this was a good thing. Yes, very good. She told me they would likely let me know before Friday for sure.
Then I went of and did my job(s) for a while.
Midafternoon, an IM popped up on my screen, from the features editor: “Wanna go for a walk?”
It's hard to know the right way of doing these things. Is there Layoff Etiquette? To me and Joe, it made sense to keep quiet until the moment of turning in the form. The Boss was a little put out that I didn't talk with her – I told her, frankly, it's hard to know how to do these things, not having done them before. She agreed. But she was still stunned. How will she fill the gaps? I gave her some ideas.
I'm not sure how information travels. I suspect it went from HR to upper management, then down to middle management. My boss didn't hear it from HR. Newspapers have a curiously viral form of communication, not at all direct. I am hoping for some time between when I get actual confirmation and the time I tell people to get some ducks in a row.
It was a good walk & a good talk. I felt fine through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. But as soon as I got home, all energy drained from me. I was done.
This was a most remarkable day.
Early in the day, someone passed me in the hall and said, “I understand you're a short-timer.” I followed her down the hall to see how information had gotten to her. She said she couldn't remember who told her. Hello! We're in the business of remembering sources – but not revealing them.
Then I saw the executive editor in the hall. He said, “I heard you're leaving.” We talked about it for a few minutes. One the way down the stairs to talk with HR about why so many people knew, I passed a friend who said, “We need to talk.”
I have textbook blood pressure. In my former job – teaching at a university, 10 years ago, before coming into the business I said I'd never go into – my peers used to send me to faculty meetings as emissary because I didn't get rattled by tenure-track faculty dissing the adjuncts. But I could feel the blood rushing a bit in my ears. I told the HR VP that I'd been approached by four people who knew about my signing The Form. She apologized and said she'd remind upper management that personnel matters are confidential.
I know well how news travels virally in a newspaper. But this was apparently a fell-swoop deal: My decision – and that of a few other people – was a matter for discussion at a meeting Monday afternoon. And that information rapidly traveled beyond the meeting.
I was trying to play by the rules – wait until confirmation by HR telling anyone. Turns out there are no rules anymore.
So when I returned to my desk and got an email from a friend asking if I had something to tell, I got about the business of planning the transition for my departure. There were questions – why are you jumping? what are you going to do? And there were nods of understanding -- of course, we can't have our household relying upon the income of two people working for a sinking industry.
I somehow got the bare bones of my job done in between talking with people.
Then at 4:46, an email was sent from our publisher. I say it that way, in the passive voice that I despise, because our publisher was no longer on the property, as it turns out.
The gist of the email was that the newspaper had to cut 60-70 people. This number is one that I had heard a couple of times over the past week, but everybody claimed that there was no number. But, this email said, if 60-70 people did not step forward, involuntary separations would be announced Sept 22.
The executive editor hastily called a stand-up meeting for 5:30, at which he said that if people were thinking about taking the buyout, they should take it.
Suddenly, my decision, which had seemed a bit rash to some people earlier in the day seemed a smart thing.
It's funny how the tables turn like that, in the space of just a few hours. My brief drama dissolved in the larger drama that people weighing their mortgage against the possibility of involuntary separation. Is there really a choice?
They were shaking the tree hard, trying to get people to fall before the deadline. It could happen. But not the number that they are looking for.
And if they do get to that number, how will they produce even a crappy paper every day?
It was a roller coaster of a day. But it wasn't over.
When I picked up my daughter, I told her that I would be leaving my job. Even though she has complained about the fact that I work all the time and we don't get to do things together, she was stunned. She cried. She said, “I'm worried that we won't have enough money.” Here, I'll let her tell you:
When my mom first told me about her getting laid off my heart sank, and I felt as if someone had just laid a bunch of bricks on my shoulders, I felt horrible. Then, once she started telling me about all of the different things she would be able to do, and how much stuff would be better than when she worked, I felt like someone took the bricks off my shoulders, and replaced them with warm, soothing hands, gently massaging my shoulders. I became very enthusiastic about the ideas that she had.
She's 10. She's good.
I haven't yet told my son. He's a worrier. I will tell him tomorrow.
I have to say that my writing here is not my finest. It's stark and bare. But then, that is how it all feels right now.
My husband and I talked later about work – he works from home, so he missed the office drama – and about the future. He feels very strongly about it. He can envision the future quite clearly and it is good. I trust him, because he envisioned our future when we first fell in love and it was good. And all that good future has come to be the present. And it will again.