Young journalists' survival skill: Shrug off the layoff

Part of the outrage associated with the numbingly constant announcements of layoffs in the field of journalism is the public spin offered by the perpetrating executives. You know, “reallocating resources” or “repositioning for the future” or (insert your own example here). This may have reached a new level of insult last week when the CEO of GateHouse Media’s parent company described layoffs at at least 60 of the chain’s 157 newsrooms as “immaterial.”  He meant that the number, which the company has not disclosed, is only a small fraction of the GateHouse workforce. But try telling that to someone who suddenly has no job.

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 The comment was a moment of insight into how GateHouse, MediaNews Group and other corporations that buy and slash newspapers view the value of their journalists. GateHouse, faced with revenue and stock price declines, has already had a previous round of at least 60 layoffs in 2019. It’s playing a numbers game with every disappointing quarterly financial report, apparently. A different executive said the company this time was targeting editors because they are not content producers, and that it will hire some new reporters. This has been a favored practice among retreating organizations. Its consequences are always underestimated, and more importantly, GateHouse’s moves will produce a large net loss of newsroom personnel.

 It was remarkable also that the CEO initially attempted to claim that actual layoffs (as opposed to reassignments) would amount to only 10. Did he think no one would find out? Using public posts on social media, plus emails and texts, it took one journalist only a couple of days to peg the number of GateHouse layoffs at at least 160. There are reasons that newsroom layoffs take place in the online public square. It helps, of course, to get a morale boost from social media friends at a tough moment, and it’s an immediate head start on the next job opportunity. But equally significant is the journalists’ desire to make sure the whole world understands the damage being done to journalistic quality, product worthiness and public knowledge.

 The GateHouse layoffs, disappointingly, affected The Tuscaloosa News. Two excellent sports writers who cover UA athletics were dismissed, including one who was a standout sports journalism student of mine. That’s the thing about further reducing staff when the newsroom has already shrunk: The only choices left are talented people who do necessary jobs .

 Occasionally I talk to my students about the realities of job security in the field. I always ask them: “If you got laid off, could you deal with it?” Almost invariably, remarkably, their answer is yes. Maybe it’s their idealism, or their self-confidence, or their life flexibility at that age. They might not attach a stigma to it (and considering the number of good, undeserving people to whom this has happened, I think they’re correct). It’s much harder for veterans who have given pieces of their heart to a company and to a mission and whose work has come to define a big part of their identity. I’m glad my students have that attitude, because this is a sad, continuing drumbeat in an industry that is still trying to figure out a plan to survive.