I was laid off almost exactly four weeks ago. No one who follows the media industry would have been terribly surprised by the news, particularly no one who followed my company’s progress. Unfortunately, I was in it, not following it, so the crash took me a bit by surprise.
The thing is, my colleagues and I, what we did was provide content, and in the lingo of 21st century media, content is where it’s at. We don’t write articles so much as package words in such a way as to make them palatable to audiences “across different platforms” — that is, for us at least, in print or online. We liked to think we produced original content, worthwhile content, and some days we did, for sure. We figured as long as we produced the content that our company wanted to sell to clients, we were safe. You don’t shoot the person who writes the messages, right?
Apparently you do. Who knew? So one week half the people in my office were laid off — some writers, some copy editors, and some people, like me, who did both. Six senior editors stayed on, along with national writers. Two weeks later, the newspapers that the company owns laid off even more people and a couple announced they were going to stop publishing on Sunday, and another was taking Mondays off as well. And they were setting up a central editing hub. A week after that, the six senior editors who survived the first round of layoffs were told they could take jobs in a city six hours away, or take a buyout. Almost all have wives here with good jobs, and small children. Not much of a choice. They felt horrible for us four weeks ago, now we feel horrible for them.
More importantly, I feel horrible for my industry as a whole. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been fully engaged — by my job, or by the news itself — for my entire career but even though I didn’t feel completely fulfilled by the job I did, I believed and believe it must be done. I believe it more than my former employer, or the companies that now own my previous employer. I believe once you turn news into a commodity — which is actually what my most recent employer calls what we did, “commodity news” and pretends that there’s no need for it any more — making the way you go about producing it, and compensating those who produce it, and the very content of the content produced, answerable only to the bottom line, you’ve erased a division that’s every bit as important as the one between church and state.
I’m not naive, I know news has always been a business, and news outlets have always relied on peoples’ willingness to buy the product — and then advertisers’ willingness to buy ad space — for success. And news that doesn’t turn a profit ceases to exist — there are more former newspapers than current ones, after all. But media conglomeration, I would argue, and I’m not alone, puts the owners of the means of production at a much further remove from the fruits of it than they have ever been, and the further the distance between the two the more the bottom line is strained to bridge the gap, and the less willing the owners are to fight to keep the product — and the producers — around. The current owner of my former employer had no idea what I did in that office every day. Had no idea what my office was for, didn’t know how hard we worked, producing more and more and more and more with fewer and fewer resources, and moreover didn’t care. The brain trust couldn’t sell all that content. No profit, no people. Makes me sad and makes me furious at all that wasted talent. And sick to know that all those talented people are hitting the job market at the same time as I am — a time when no one seems to quite appreciate what we do.
So welcome to my layoff. I plan to use this as an opportunity to try something new, to become re-engaged by my employment. I’m going to try not to go bankrupt. Fingers crossed!