The beginning of the end

Here’s my story so far ...

February 19

Shortly before noon I get an email from the head of our department: "Do you plan to come in the office today? I need to talk to you. I'm here until about 4."

You tensed up just reading that, didn't you? "I need to talk to you" — the six most dread words you can hear from a supervisor, especially when you know a big layoff is coming. Truth be told, if they ask for volunteers to take a buyout, I'm pretty sure I'll sign up. This is, after all, a newspaper. Maybe the car industry is in greater peril, then again, Congress isn't mulling billions to save this industry. Nor should it. Not only is this industry sinking fast, but this newspaper is part of a chain — McClatchy — burdened with a tremendous debt load that is sucking all available resources.

The upcoming layoffs — we've been promised that they're coming — would be the fourth in less than a year. A year ago, we had 238 newsroom employees; after this next round we're expected to have at least 100 less than that. Our news hole has shrunk dramatically (we even axed two pages of our Sunday comics!) and we've been consolidating coverage with our sister paper in Charlotte, never mind that Charlotte is a completely different market than the Triangle. It's getting increasingly difficult to do good work. At this point, a buyout would be akin to a mercy killing.

So ... do I plan to come into the office today? I believe so.

Later that day ...

Turns out my supervisor wanted to talk about problems I've been having with the photo department. When I tell her I thought she was going to lay me off, she's incredulous. "You're kidding!?" she says, jaw agape.


February 27

Once a week we have a newsroom-wide meeting in the late afternoon. It's run by the executive editor and traditionally has been about projects we're working on, changes in policy and other housekeeping stuff. For the past several months, they've been exclusively about our contraction: Cuts in news hole, new efforts to combine forces with Charlotte, layoffs. Today, we're expecting news of the impending layoffs.

The news: No news. The executive editor does, however, say that anyone interested in a voluntary buyout needs to let his or her supervisor know no later than noon Monday, March 2. He moves on to something else; I'm focused on noon Monday.

March 2

At 9:35 a.m., I send the following email to my supervisor and our department head:
"Please ask John to consider me for a voluntary buyout."

I hit the "Send" button with a little more oomph than usual.

March 5

Another weekly newsroom meeting, another report that there's no news to report. "Why do they do this? Why do they keep this hanging over us? Just let us know," our rock critic whisper-asks during the meeting.

Turns out the reason they can't say anything is because there's a law prohibiting layoffs above a certain percentage of a company's employment base within so many days of the last layoff of a certain percentage of a company's employment base.

March 9

Several other McClatchy papers announce cuts.

March 16

At 9:30 a.m. my personal cell rings. The exchange suggests it’s from the paper, but I don't answer. Moments later, the work cell rings. Same number, I answer. It's one of our assistant MEs.

"Joe, you're buyout request has been accepted. You can pick up your packet in my office."

"Thanks," I say. It's a moment that will stick. When he called, I was in the process of writing my editor an email explaining that I'll be out of the office for a week or so. My dad died in Denver over the weekend.

Later that day ...

I go into the office to pick up my packet. The first person I see, in the hallway outside our department, is my editor. "It's a blood bath," he says. All part-timers are being let go, significant in a newsroom that's become increasingly dependent on cheap, talented labor to put out a paper. And 27 fulltimers are being let go. That's in the newsroom alone.

Our rock critic walks up to join the conversation. The look in his eyes is curious. Usually, the still-employed can't help but portray a look of sympathy, a look of pity when encountering the soon-to-be-departed. That's not the look in David's eyes. I know this look. It's envy.

March 18

I often go to the Eva Perry Library in Apex to write. It’s quite, I can stay focused.

Guy behind me gets a call. "And this is about the sales job?" he inquires in a non-library voice.

"Graham?” he continues on. “I have no idea where that is. And let me just make sure this is about the sales job in Cary?

"Well, great,” he says in a lifeless monotone. “It sounds like an interesting position. I'm looking forward to meeting with you guys."

He hangs up, then makes a fluttery sound of exasperation with his lips.

March 27

Today, I get this email from my very wonderful editor at The Mountaineers, who helped shepherd my “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” into print:

“Dear Joe,

“I wanted to let you know that today is my last day at the Mountaineers. Due
to the difficult economy, my position has been eliminated. As you can
imagine, this news has been hard to take. It was a pleasure working with you! ... I hope our paths cross again.”

And there was this memo from the front office, sent from the publisher:

“The McClatchy Company has issued a cell phone policy for use by all its papers to take effect this year. At The N&O, company-paid cell phones will be phased out, and employees who use personal cell phones for company business will be eligible for a set monthly reimbursement. The majority of N&O contracts for company-owned cell phones expire on May 31, 2009. The new policy takes effect June 1, 2009.

“N&O reimbursement rates will be $20 a month for regular cell phones and $30 a month for BlackBerry-type devices. The use of BlackBerry-type phones must be preapproved by the department VP. Only BlackBerry, iPhone or Treo brand devices will be eligible for reimbursement.

“Each month, employees eligible for reimbursement will complete a Cell Phone Reimbursement Form and provide a copy of their bill showing the total due. Both forms will be submitted through the T&E system.”

On it goes.

April 2

Today was another Plan B seminar — as in, if this doesn’t work out, what next? — at work. It was put together by one of the reporters who is staying, not management.

There were four panelists all of whom had to pursue a Plan B: A former lawyer now working in corporate development for Kerr Drug who is starting up a business on the side (Food Tours of the Carolinas); another former lawyer who has "reinvented" himself four, five times; a woman who opened a children's clothing store in Cameron Village; and Greg Hatem, the anti-developer who started saving and renovating old downtown properties as a hobby and now has an Empire — Empire Properties.

Their message was encouraging: If you have an idea you're passionate about and you work hard and smart at it, you can make it happen. Also: you people, you reporters, have such a vast and varied set of skills you should have no trouble finding something challenging and rewarding, even in this economy.

The reporters weren't buying.

One, a very adept and savvy reporter was baffled by this whole "networking" thing. How does it work? The panelists looked baffled: You're ... reporters. That's what your whole survival is about — about networking, about finding the perfect person, the perfect source, about finding the perfect person for the information you need.

Greg told a cautionary tale about a recent MBA who he had just hired for a three-month assignment. If that went well, there well could be a full-time position. What would that salary be, for the full-time position? the MBA wanted to know. Because it'll have to be more than you're paying me for this contract. Greg was baffled and irritated, in part because this fellow was a failed lawyer and hadn't been too successful at the other things he'd tried. "Look," he told the MBA, "you haven't done a thing for me yet. I have no idea how good you are. Show me what you can do, then we'll talk." The message completely eluded a business reporter, who grilled Greg on how much he was paying the MBA and how much the MBA wanted.

Later, after the panel had discussed the sacrifice required of going out on your own, the same business reporter complained, "But I've already sacrificed. I feel like I've been sacrificing for the last 20 years."

April 3

I keep getting ahead on work in hopes of carving out time to work on takeitoutsidenc.com. When I do manage to clear space, it seems that more work pours in. And I end up doing it because ... well, because that’s what I’ve always done, I reckon.

April 11

Sign of the times: Typically, people leaving the newsroom get a page made in their honor (see April 16). With 31 people leaving — and with not a whole lot more than that staying — it didn’t seem likely that that tradition would continue. So one of our top outgoing editors suggested we do our own page, all submissions welcome. My contribution was the next three email memos that we won’t get to read (ala the cell phone memo of March 27):

Subject line: Office upgrades
If you're feeling cramped in your workspace, we are now offering various workspace upgrades, ranging from taking over your departed neighbor's space to corner window offices — doh! Sorry, those are all still occupied by top management. Reasonable rates, payroll deduction available.

Subject line: Earn extra cash in your spare time
Got a few minutes between interviews? Suffering from writer's block and need a break? Earn extra cash by replacing light bulbs, cleaning restrooms, emptying trash bins. See your supervisor for details.

Subject: Training on new system
Training on our newest system, Selectric, will begin next week. Sessions should take about 15 minutes. Staff members over 55 are exempt. Bring your own typing paper.

April 14

Today, most of the 31 of us who are leaving were marched to the roof of The News & Observer, taken to the edge of the building, and — had our “class” picture taken just above the “The News & Observer” sign. Lots of waves goodbye, not a bird to be seen (in the official photo, at least) and no one jumped. Pretty successful outing.

April 16

We have a tradition when someone leaves the Features Department that we do a pot luck at noon, say some things about the person leaving, eat a lot of good food and give them a “page.” The going-away page is a tradition at newspapers. It’s usually a mock-up of the cover of the paper (or the section you work for), with incriminating pictures (Michael Phelps is not alone) and stories about the outgoing that are generally irreverent, occasionally over-the-top. Writers who crank out a lede story in 15 minutes will spend days agonizing over just the right phrasing for a sentence in a going-away page. Staffers will check out laptops so they can work on a going-away page late into the night. People who moved on years ago and hear about an old colleague leaving will audition for the opportunity to appear on that person’s going-away page. Going-away pages are some of the best work a paper puts out. There should be a Pulitzer category.

But when you have 31 people leaving at once putting together such a work is a challenge. I knew of only one produced for the Class of April 2009, and that was because the person insisted on it. (She may have even passed on her severance in exchange for a page.)

A year ago in the industry, we did pages. Today, we do books.

April 21

Last day. I went into the office early afternoon. “Weird day,” my editor observed. Indeed, by my estimation roughly one in five people you passed in the newsroom would be gone by day’s end. Like seeing ghosts passing through the halls. Or chalk outlines, like at a crime scene. It was, surprisingly, business as usual, with a couple of exceptions. Late in the afternoon, when people were leaving, they hugged. Even people who didn’t seem to have gotten along over the years hugged.

The other anomaly: Departure emails. It’s tradition, too, that people leaving the newsroom send a farewell email. Here’s a sampling of today’s:

From an editor who started at the paper in the 1980s
Subject line: Heading for the exit
Text: “When I heard about the layoff last month, I figured the next five weeks would be the slowest slog of my life. Instead, the time passed too quickly. Thanks for all of the supportive comments and good wishes.
“I've always been proud to work at The News & Observer, and you should continue to be, too.
“Write on! Fight on!”

From a woman in newsroom support (the people who keep the place running)
Subject line: One last thing ...
Text: “Well at this point all of my ‘co-exiters’ have just about said it all. This place has been so much to me. As have all of you. It has truly been an honor. ... This is my hometown paper and people like you make it what it is.”

From a top-level editor
Subject line: see ya
Text: Stay in touch. Keep the faith.

From another top-level editor
Subject line: adios
Text: “It’s been a great run.”

From a long-time night editor
Subject line: Keep in touch
Text: “Everything’s been said. I will miss you.”

From the biotech and pharmaceuticals business reporter
Subject line: Farewell
Text: “Should you feel lonely, you can reach me at (her personal phone, email). If it involves biotech, pharma or health care, you're on your own.
“Good luck to all of us, laid-off or not.”

From a photographer
Subject line: departing
Text: “Over the last 20 years I have read so many different departure notes & when my time came I thought I would really have this grand speech honed. Well, I don't & I'll just leave you with a sincere thanks for 20 years of working with wonderful talented people.”

From a graphic designer working the lonesome late shift
Subject line: Graphics will depart the premises at 11 p.m.
Text: “And will not return.”

That evening a top-level editor and his wife, a copy editor, who were both laid off, had a pot luck for the departing. No bitterness. No anger. No tears. We were the most upbeat people in the newsroom, perhaps because we could now see a future.

April 22

Day One: I got up and went for a long bike ride.

April 23

Day Two: I got up and went for a long bike ride ...


spydersmom said...

I'm hopeful for your bright new future, Joe, but will terribly miss your columns in the N&O. They were always the bright spot in the "news" for me. Look forward to seeing you on the trails.

Joe Miller said...

Thanks, Tammy. And worry not — you'll be seeing more of me on the trails.