Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Newspaper Layoffs and "The Disposable American"

IN 2007, a mean-spirited robber baron bought an important american media company with money that wasnt his, in a deal that no responsible anti-trust division would have permitted. over the next two years, hundreds of journalists were laid off from the LA Times and other newspapers. in october, i became one of them. departing with me were the deeply talented writer lynell george, the best editor i've ever worked with (maria russo) and many others.

i was given a few hours to clear out my stuff and get out of the building. i was offered a measly two months severance pay and -- thanks! -- free career counseling at the onset of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

earlier this year, after the company declared bankruptcy, another wave of layoffs hit, taking my other favorite LA Times editor, craig fisher, with it. today is yet another wave, which has already felled the talented reporter tina daunt. (the LAT now has less than half the staff it did when i was hired in '02. let me point out too that the tribune executives who sold the chain and let the paper fall behind walked away with golden parachutes in the tens of millions.)

one of the most salient explanations i found to this madness was contained in louis uchitelle's "the disposable american: layoffs and their consequences." this excellent 2006 book, by the veteran new york times economics and labor reporter, looked at the phenomenon in historical terms. what he finds it that the huge wave of american layoffs is not inevitable -- a natural way of responding to the up-and-down cycle of prosperity -- but rather the result of years of legislation favoring big business. if the laws are written for the corporations, they will see the people who work for them as disposable. (and they have.)

some of the layoffs in LA and elsewhere, of course, have to do with the slumping economy and the collapse of newspaper's income source. even the new york times, as was announced yesterday, may be doing some serious laying off. gourmet magazine just closed.

for now, i'm praying, in my agnostic way, for my friends and former colleagues.


Milton said...

Makes me think of a guy who once suggested that the workers should control the means of production ...

Pete Bilderback said...

My Mom was up this weekend and was absolutely devastated by the loss of Gourmet, a publication she had subscribed to since 1967.

Clearly it is a difficult time to be employed in the publishing industry. If it is any consolation (and I know it is not) my friends in the music industry are not doing any better.

Scott Timberg said...

peter: indeed, there has been so much of this that it's hard to take it personally. a very smart friend lost his job when gourmet went down.

milton: an appealing idea, on paper, of course, but in many of the countries where "the workers" have owned the newspapers there has not been anything resembling a free press. i'd rather be a starving freelancer than contribute to a mendacious rag like pravda.

Pete Bilderback said...

There are times when it is more obvious than others that we are caught up in forces beyond our control, and this is one of those times. Your situation is definitely not a reflection on you or your skills.

Aside from the obvious--internet related--issues, I think you are right to point to corporate consolidation and lack of anti-trust regulation as part of the problem.

Gourmet is a good example. Gourmet retained a very high subscription rate and probably could have remained a profitable publication. No doubt advertising revenue was down significantly, but it may have been able to recover provided the magazine made sufficient changes to keep it valid in a changing market. Unfortunately, Gourmet was owned by Conde Nast, a huge corporation that also happens to publish the magazine's primary "competition," Bon Appetit.

So with this downturn Conde Nast CEO Charles Townsend made the simple calculation that Conde Nast could make more money with just one high-end food publication rather than two.

It's hard not to imagine that both publications would have been better off--and perhaps better publications that were more responsive to their readership--if they actually had to compete against each other in the marketplace rather than having their mission and fate determined by by the CEO of a company that also publishes magazines dedicated to bridezillas, fashion, travel, technology, golf, etc., etc.

Personally, I am of the view that Capitalism, despite its deficiencies and cruelties, can work. But in order for it to work for more than just a handful of people at the top, we need tough and aggressive government regulation and oversight, something that has been out of fashion for the past thirty years.

Scott Timberg said...

on that last post, could not have said it better myself.

for capitalism to work properly, there's got to be competition. in our current state the economy (esp the media economy) is dominated by multinational corporations that have monopolies and virtual trusts.

we dont need a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a fair-minded, competitive market and responsible ownership. and because a business/industry is never going to regulate itself (despite bush admin policy) this has to come from state oversight.

linda said...

You say Pravda etc. are beastly because "the workers" own the means of production. But Milton suggested the workers owning the means of p, not "the workers." In other words, it didn't fail if you didn't actually try it. There are some employee-owned businesses and co-ops doing quite well, but they're not part of our capitalist game.

Scott Timberg said...

i'm all in favor of worker-owned businesses, co-ops, etc, and even western european style welfare states. but my allergy to soviet and stalinist models motivated my previous comment.

when a "ministry of information" is established, no matter who it's in the name of, it doesnt tend to end well. i'm a skeptic of unregulated capitalism, for sure, but information/media is a case where state ownership has not exactly borne fruit. give me the over-quoted jeffersonian vision of a free state.