When I hear the word “layoff,” the same image always comes to mind.
Before I turned 28, I thought of layoffs in the abstract: the things you’d read on a Wall Street earnings report attached to a news release or what we would write about in news articles as companies issuing “pink slips.”
I wrote about layoffs a fair amount.
When I was in Texas during the 1980s, it was petroleum workers hitting the streets during the oil slump. In the Rust Belt in the 1990s, it was factory workers being shown the door in the wake of the farm crisis.
“Pink slips.” “Hitting the streets.” “Shown the door.” See how adeptly reporters write about firings?
For me, and most of my colleagues, layoffs were just a problem faced by blue-collar fellas. We’d gone to college. We didn’t have to worry about such things, did we?
In those days, newspapers were known for their low pay and high job security. Back then, newspapers were turning profits that would be the envy of most businesses.
Today, not so much.
In 1993 when I was a reporter for an Iowa newspaper, I was returning to the newsroom from an assignment, and I encountered a group of co-workers weeping.
Then I nearly bumped into the newsroom artist who had retrieved everything she owned from her desk, clutched it close to her chest and tried to make her way to the elevator as tears streamed down her face.
For the decades since, that image, for me, is synonymous with layoffs. I never wrote about a “downsizing” the same way again.
Later, the rest of us were called into the newspaper’s conference room. I sat next to an older reporter, a Vietnam veteran and a colonel in the U.S. Army reserves. He was quivering.
A newspaper executive came out with a poster adorned with a caricature of an elephant on its hind legs. The executive spoke and looked into the faces of the survivors.
“We did this,” he said, “to make the elephant dance.”
I know—it didn’t make much sense 26 years ago, either.
A reporter asked for the names of those laid off. The human resources director read them aloud in a formal tone as if we were at a high school graduation: Patricia, Joseph, Gary, Jill, Laura …
That night, we survivors sat stone faced in a downtown bar and talked. As I sipped my Diet Coke and my friends downed their beers, we bemoaned the state of the newspaper industry.
I was all of 28 and had never witnessed something like this.
“Why did they pick those people?” I asked no one in particular.
A mid-level editor sitting next to me replied.
“Well, Scott, you determine just how valuable your own job is.”
I wondered if she remembered those words when she, too, was fired 20 years later.
As bad as that layoff was in 1993, I don’t recall anyone saying, “How on earth will we be able to put out a paper now?” or wonder “Will people still want to buy what we write?”
We knew, of course, the newspaper was a business. But, we also viewed it as something like a public utility: a permanent presence in every community.
We know that’s no longer the case. Newspapers are vanishing from cities across the U.S. Worse still, many are functioning with so few reporters and editors that producing a daily report is a struggle.
A study conducted this year by the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois found that corruption increases in communities after a newspaper closes its doors. Even the cost for municipalities to borrow money goes up when elected officials are no longer monitored.
A businessman was quoted as calling a round of newspaper layoffs “immaterial.” But they are material—and not just to the workers who headed home to their families with tears on their faces and an uncertain future. They are material to the communities they serve.
Newspapers aren’t just watchdogs against corruption; they are a fabric that unifies a community. Where else will you read about the births, deaths, arrests, accomplishments and challenges of your neighbors?
I know, I’m sounding a bit like George Bailey sharing the virtues of his building and loan, while decrying the greed of “Old Man Potter.”
I understand the financial pressures faced by the industry, and I recognize that sometimes staff reductions are necessary.
That said, I fear for any community without a viable, vibrant newspaper.
Thomas Jefferson had these wise words.
“A government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.