Friday, November 22, 2013

Another day at the office


July 2013: The Stanley Cup visits the newsroom, but the news watch never stops.

Hey. Got a second? When the boss sends email like this, I grab pen and notebook: Whatever's on his mind is rarely brief. But it doesn't take long to get laid off.

Two vice presidents give me the news. There's not much to say: It's not performance, just the newspaper business. Details slide across the conference table at 11 a.m. in a navy blue folder from Staples – outplacement flier in the left pocket, severance agreement on the right, business card from human resources wedged in place. A reorganization memo circulates simultaneously.

At this point you might expect me to denigrate, disparage, damage the reputation or otherwise convey an unfavorable impression of a longtime employer. Language in the blue folder anticipates as much. But then why would I stick around around so long? A business with a First Amendment charter needs no legislation or consultants to spell out its ethical responsibilities. It's a righteous place to work.

Still, anyone reading a newspaper knows its long-term prospects are sketchy. I've spent 16 years in print at one newspaper and 16 years online at another. One short conference, a handshake and the next 16 years are in front of me. I phone my wife. Whatever happens at work, if I have a job when I call it's a good day. We've talked about prospects for a bad day. It's still not a good call.

After years quietly desk bound, I'm going out chatting. I head upstairs to talk to my team. The social-media producer flashes the blue folder, a secret sign. I continue across the newsroom, gathering condolences and business cards. An editor offers a freelance contract for my folder.

I find my supervisor, now thrown into another restructuring. We get coffee and tea. I walk her through the folder's contents, and remind her that she survived the last shakeup with grace. I make it my last assignment to deliver similar messages to ex-bosses who must summon that grace again, and say goodbye to friends whose jobs just got tougher.

I haunt at least a half-dozen floors, still carrying the Blue Folder of Death, retracing my dotted lines on the org chart. I compare notes and half-baked theories with reporters; the extent of a layoff is rarely clear when the night shift has more to come. I look for familiar faces in other departments. I wonder who's still here.

One last mid-afternoon trip to the break room: I summon the nerve to read the separation agreement, then head to Human Resources. The advisor has been wondering when I would show up. We have a long talk about the severance package, the outplacement consultant, the Toastmasters club, the human-resources team.

Cleaning out my desk will wait till the next day. My night-shift counterpart is gone, her desk cleared of family photos. My personal items fill a small backpack. I leave a Tony Fitzpatrick show poster pinned to the cubicle wall and two employee awards in the corner, a Day of the Dead altar.

My supervisor has kept some direct reports and inherited others, and is meeting them one by one. She returns long enough for me to leave my entry pass and locker key, and as she walks me out she starts clapping. City desk editors join in, then reporters and producers. We swing past the studio and the app developers are all standing. I'm getting an ovation. It's a newsroom ritual by now: When we hear applause we ask who's leaving. Now it's my turn.

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